A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

June 2013 


      The concept of a vehicle that you could drive on the streets and highways, then take off and fly above it all has captured our imagination for years.  In fact the first attempt at building such a project dates back to before 1920.  From all accounts, it was a failure.  But the idea was there and could the reality be too far from science fiction?  

       All these years later, it turns out that although there has been some success, the dreams and the reality may never come together.  There have been road vehicles that could fly, but serious problems always grounded those projects forever.  And all the experimenting was not done by individual “wing nuts”.  In fact in the 1950’s, Ford Motor Company did some serious studies about a flying car.  They concluded that such a product was technically feasible, could be built for a reasonable cost, and had significant realistic markets.  Then the government got in the way.  The FAA basically threw up all kinds of roadblocks, and Ford scuttled the idea.  

       Among non-pilots, the dream of simply lifting off from a freeway that is jammed with traffic and flying over all of it seems like a good, simplistic idea.  But all pilots know the realities of aerodynamics, the physics of flight, regulations, and the piloting skills needed to get a vehicle into the air safely.  It’s just not that simple.  And because of the practical considerations and government regulations, not to mention the cost, this is an idea that is better forgotten.  Time and resources would be better spent building a better car, and / or a better airplane.  

        Still, there are those who would disagree, and they soldier on with development, using investors money, on projects such as the Terrafugia Transition and a rotor wing-type machine called the PAL-V.  These are perhaps the most widely advertised and promoted of literally dozens of designs out there.  The PAL-V from Holland, has extendable rotor blades and a pusher prop.  It is essentially a gyrocopter, but it transforms into a motorcycle-type road vehicle.  Terrafugia on the other hand, is a 2-place, side-by-side car with wings that fold up, but stay on while the craft is driven around on the ground.  A bit bulky and certainly noticeable, it nonetheless appears to operate quite well.  However, the company has run into weight problems because of the road-safety requirements.  And it will still cost more than a Lamborghini, if and when you can buy it.

          So we know that in the foreseeable future this idea will never become reality, if the reality is to have a flying car in everyones garage and everyone will be able to operate safely on the road and in the air.   Still, it would be nice to somehow get the airplane home after a flight, have it in the garage and not need to pay for hangar space.  That is possible of course, with several aircraft featuring foldable wings and a way to tow them.  

           I’ve been wondering why automobile manufacturers don’t look to aviation for ideas.  How about installing dual controls in vehicles such as we find in airplanes.   It makes perfect sense apart from the space the second steering wheel would consume.  But suppose you could remove the wheel on the right side, then quickly connect it again when you’d like the person in the right seat to take over the driving.  Quite often I find the need to check a map (yes I still use maps, along with my GPS), program the GPS, look up an address, use my cell phone, or just take a quick nap.  If I’m driving, particularly on a long trip, and don’t have the time or place to stop, it would be perfect if the person with me could simply take over for a few miles or minutes.  Even for a longer period.  I know of no regulations against driving from the right seat.  

              Reading the speedometer and other instruments from the right seat is easily solved by what’s already being done in some cars.  The instrument panel is installed in the middle of the dash, usually just below eye level.  I drove a vehicle with this configuration for a while, and found it was easy to adapt to.  Another advantage was I never had to take my eyes off the road entirely while looking at the panel. It’s much like the “heads-up” display used on many jet aircraft.  

               The airplane as a vehicle, is better left alone.  Further development and improvements should be limited to making it a better airplane.  Forget driving it on the road.  We need to build better engines, ones that will run on available and cheap fuels.  Electric motors may well be in the future of flying.  Battery powered flying machines are more viable at this time than working out the endless details of making a car fly.  The dreams and fantasies will always drive those with wild imaginations.  And that’s how it should be.  But in the short term, it’s more realistic to improve on what we already have. 

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