A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car

taylor aerocar  A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car(Image: Ciar, cc-sa-3.0)

If you thought flying cars were the domain of sci fi movies or the reality-stretching James Bond films – you’d be surprised. The concept has been around since the early days of motoring, when intrepid aviators and auto pioneers envisioned a time when cars ruled the sky as they did the road. The fact that in 2011 we don’t have a mass produced flying car is testament to the ill-fated efforts of some of those early innovators – but there is hope, thanks to twenty first century advances.

Early History

curtiss autoplane  A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car(Image: Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, via Ars Electronica, cc-nc-nd-3.0)

The first flying car – or roadable aircraft – came in 1917 via Wright Brothers rival Glenn Curtiss who – having been beaten into the air – designed the three-wing Curtiss Autoplane. The vehicle could only hop, but spawned an engineering race that, despite modern successes, has yet to come of age.

ford flivver  A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car(Image: FlugKerl2, cc-sa-3.0)

In 1926, Henry Ford unveiled the Sky Flivver, which wasn’t really a flying car but captured the public imagination due to a clever campaign billing it “the Model T of the Air”. Ford hoped the Flivver would become the first mass produced and affordable plane that could be maintained just like a car. The idea was abandoned when it crashed during a distance-record attempt, killing the pilot.

waterman aerobile arrowbile1  A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car(Image: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives, public domain; inset: Mark Pellegrini, cc-sa-3.0)

Next came an effort by Waldo Waterman, designer of the first tailless monoplane (precursor to the flying wing) and modern tricycle landing gear. Waterman’s 1937 creation, the Arrowbile (or Aerobile – a development of his earlier design the Whatsit), was the first flying car to actually fly. With a wingspan of 38 feet, the Arrowbile could reach 112 mph in flight and 56 mph on the road.

Later Efforts

AVE Mizar  A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car(Image: YouTube screenshot, Galpin Motors, California, and Bert Boeckmann)

Fresh from the success of World War Two, anything seemed possible in 1950s America. One of those things was the flying car, which came in increasingly modern designs and found ever more disasterous ways of crashing. One notable example, the AVE Mizar, mated the rear end of a Cessna Skymaster with a Ford Pinto. It disintegrated during testing, killing the pilot and designer Henry Smolinski.

taylor aerocar 2  A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car(Image: Lotzman Katzman, cc-3.0)

Despite the setbacks and lack of commercial success, not all flying cars were a disaster. The Convair Model 118 flew successfully, while one 1949 Taylor Aerocar is still flying today. Ford tried again in the 1950s, concluding that flying cars could be made and manufactured economically. Markets identified were the military, emergency services and luxury travel – now served, at far greater cost according to Ford, by light helicopters.

(Image: creative location, cc-sa-3.0)

Determined to make his vision a reality, Ford sounded out the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Their main concerns were lack of adequate air traffic control to handle hundreds of airborne vehicles, and problems such as intoxicated pilots and flying without a license. The international community would also have to agree on universal standards, the translation of air miles to nautical miles, and so on.

terrafuga transition  A Brief Historical Introduction to the Flying Car(Image: Observe the Banana, cc-nc-3.0)

Above all, the FAA feared the impact of flying cars on urban areas, as shoddily built machines and drunk pilots crashed into houses and shops, wrecking property and killing pedestrians.

The Twenty First Century Flying Car

Fortunately for the FAA, engineers never got that far, but modern flying car concepts like the Terrafugia Transition (above) are showing remarkable promise – stay tuned for Part Two.

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