It is quite possible that the idea of a flying car has been around since Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built his fardier à vapeur (steam dray) in 1770. Powered flight as we know it today did not exist for another 140 years, so it is no surprise that the first flying car did not appear until Glenn Curtiss, a pioneer in flight, built a prototype in 1917. There have been many attempts to build a viable flying car for mass production since Curtiss’s early prototype (there are 80 patents listed in the U.S. alone), but none have gone into full production. That may be about to change. A Slovakian company, AeroMobil, has created three working prototypes and plans to offer its flying car for sale to the general public, well those with enough money, for the 2017 model year. With such a venture on the horizon, why not look at the history of the flying car, then take a more in-depth look at the Aeromobil.
The flying car has been approached from several angles. A fixed wing aircraft has been the most common, but folding wings and a helicopter contraption have been used as well. As mentioned above, Glenn Curtiss build the first known prototype of a flying car in 1917. A contemporary of the Wright Brothers, Curtiss had his own plane designs, so he affixed the tri-wings from his Model L trainer aircraft to custom car body that look very much like a Ford Model T of the day. The Curtiss Autoplane was powered by a Curtiss OXX engine attached to a rear-facing propeller. The Autoplane had several flaws. It was never able to achieve sustained flight, simply hopping short distances before coming back down and it was not road-worthy since the wings could not be removed.
The AutoGiro Company of America approached a flying car from a helicopter perspective in 1935. The American Bureau of Air Commerce (now defunct) requested that Pitcairn Autogiro Company build a roadable autogyro. Pitcairn formed the Autogiro Company of America to design and build the aircraft. The result was the AC-35. The AC-35 took to the air in 1936, landing in Washington D.C for final approval and certification. Despite being certified and approved, funds were never made available for production. The only prototype is owned by the Smithsonian Institution and is occasionally displayed.
As the AutoGiro was designing its vehicle, Waldo Waterman was building his Arrowbile. The Arrowbile was a fixed-wing two-seater that had removable wings for road trips The Arrowbile was powered by a Studebaker engine. Studebaker was interested in assisting during the production process if Waterman could find enough interested buyers. After early flight tests were very successful, Waterman built five Arrowbiles, sending three to Studebaker. Mainstream interest in the aircraft never materialized, so production was limited to the five built for testing. The main obstacle could very well have been the time and manpower needed to attach or remove the wings.
The Fulton FA-2 Airphibian
The Airphibian was a unique approach to a flying car in that it adapted a plane to the road, the opposite of the approach used by previous designers. Robert Fulton, a distant relative of the steam engine pioneer, built the Airphibian in 1946. The wings were affixed to the rear fuselage, so when the Airphibian was to be driven on-road, the rear fuselage was detached and the propeller stored in it. It took a mere five minutes to detach the fuselage and drive away. The Airphibian was able to fly at 120 mph, could drive at 50 mph, and was approved by the CAA (early version of the FAA). Fulton could not find the financial backing to build his flying car, but there is a surviving aircraft on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and can be seen in the header image of this post.
The flying car that has come the closest to mass production so far may have been the Aerocar. Designed by Moulton Taylor in 1949, the Aerocar featured folding wings so that a single person could stow or deploy the wings in a matter of minutes. The Aerocar could drive at 60 mph, fly at 110 mph, and was able to secure financial backing for mass production. The only proviso to the backing was that Taylor and Aerocar International needed to have 500 pre-orders in hand. Only able to secure 250 orders, the Aerocar did not move to production. Of the six units built for testing, model N102D, shown above, is still flown today.
Currently, there are several companies trying to bring a flying car to market. The only one that is poised to do so is AeroMobil. Their craft, the Aeromobil, is on its third incarnation and has been approved for flight and road-worthiness by European agencies. The Aeromobil is similar to the Taylor Aerocar in that it uses a folding wing design; however, it features variable-angle wings that allow for shorter take-off distances. The Aeromobile can lift-off with just 750 feet of runway. The runway does not have to be paved, a mostly level surface is all that is needed. The short runway makes it very viable for commercial or private use. The craft is able to drive at 99 mph and can fly at 125 mph, with a range of 428 miles. It is equipped with autopilot and parachutes for safety.
In addition to the short take-off distance, the Aeromobil is designed for low-altitude flight. That means it will not interfere with commercial flights. With some changes to regulations, the low flying aircraft may not need to file flight plans, allowing it to fit into AeroMobil’s vision of its use as an air taxi service. The CEO of AeroMobil, Juraj Vaculik, has said:
”We believe that by 2017 we’ll be able to launch this to market…If something like a flying Uber and flying Lyft will be on the market, I think many users will find this a very efficient way to move.”
One glitch, though. Current regulations limit where the Aeromobil can take-off and land. The company is working with official, hoping to change those regulations.
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