Cars that Fly; Aircraft on the Road

CNN recently ran a release titled An Airplane in Your Garage? which brought back some memories of airplanes that could/might/were intended to be driven on a street (one with cars and trucks and people and dogs and babies, etc.) in between times in the air then would be parked beside the house. I think I encountered the first of these when I was around 10 years old or so. My father and his friends–all air force fighter pilots and most with engineering background–made fun of the idea. Well, the idea is still around and it’s more laughable today than it was back in the 1940s. Above is a Ford Flying Flivver, circa 1925, (photo used courtesy of Flugker/Z). Henry Ford thought the Flying Flivver would be a great idea; it wasn’t. The wings didn’t fold which meant the little bird was really not a car, though it was quite small and could be landed on a road. Charles Lindbergh took the stick of one of the tiny beasts: he called it “probably the worst airplane I ever flew.” After three or so prototypes were developed, the Flying Flivver was grounded for good of all concerned. Nonetheless, the idea of a car that flies or an airplane that is capable of being driven on a highway didn’t go away.

The latest iteration of the airplane in the garage has folding wings that retract into the body so driving down the street isn’t a real burden due to those ungainly lengths of metal sticking out the sides. There’s no word on how reliable the folding wings might be nor how much their activating mechanism might add to the vehicle’s weight. CNN’s reporter suggests that an FAA Light-Sport-Pilot certificate would be ideal for new pilot/drivers of these splendid vehicles. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I quote one of the opening paragraphs of the story: Personal aviation, where pilots operate small private aircraft, offers an alternative with the potential to get you where you need to be quickly, safely and on your own schedule, but it, too, comes with limitations. Ah, yes. Limitations.

Let’s examine the line about small private aircraft offering an alternative with the potential to get you where you need to be quickly, safely and on your own schedule. That’s Jess Dixon in his flying automobile to your right. He’s quickly, safely going somewhere on his own schedule. (Image courtesy of Kobel Feature Photos, Frankfort, IN) I’m not too sure how safe ol’ Jess is but I don’t even understand why his fedora hasn’t blown off unless it’s glued to his head. I angered more than one fellow flight instructor when I referred to NTSB statistics indicating private aircraft safety is on a par with skydiving and motorcycling. (Yeah, I’m screwed: I fly small planes, skydive and ride motorcycles.) Then there’s the quickly and on your own schedule. Most owners of small aircraft accept that flying is a great idea IF you have some leeway in your schedule…and IF you have the money to stay in a motel for a few days and you have enough sense to do so instead of departing into the teeth of that storm front you just know you can dodge around or scud run under and you don’t really have a choice because you don’t have enough spare cash/credit for lodging and food expenses.

Small planes have a significant number of limitations, including an inability of getting overtop of weather disturbances. Little planes crawl their way up to 13K, 14K, pilot is sucking oxy through a cannula…and the storm towers 25K higher in the sky. Bad times, dude: don’t do it. Landing in whippy crosswinds can also be somewhat challenging, even for a larger airplane. Then there’s the mountains. If you want to fly in the mountains, that’s an entire new set of skills you must master, even if your plane has the capability of performing at higher altitudes. Then, too, there are the communications/navigational aids you need to ensure you don’t go places you shouldn’t. It’s not legally required to have a radio but not being able to receive communications really limits your flying and the navaids are important because there is plenty of restricted airspace around that you really, really don’t want to intrude on. But before we worry about speed, landing capability, fuel endurance, weight limitations and such niggling concerns, let’s take a glance at the pilot requirements. The CNN article mentions specifically that an LSA certificate can be earned in weeks, a definite advantage compared to the months or even years that pass accumulating instrument, commercial, multi-engine, airline transport ratings with the associated time and experience.

In the case of an LSA certificate, what limitations might we be referring to once the piece of plastic is in the pilot’s pocket? Without going into the arcane details of what sort of aircraft qualify under the LSA rules and what their specific maintenance requirements are, here are a few rules that apply to the pilot’s certificate:

  • Requires either a 3rd class FAA medical certificate or a current and valid U.S. driver’s license as evidence of medical eligibility (provided the individual’s most recent application for an FAA medical certificate was not denied, revoked, suspended or withdrawn).
  • Does not allow carrying passengers for compensation or hire
  • Does not allow flights in furtherance of business
  • Allows sharing (“pro-rata”) operating expenses with another pilot.
  • Allows daytime flight only.
  • Allow sport pilots to fly vintage and production aircraft (standard airworthiness certificate) that meet the definition of a light-sport aircraft.

No instrument flying. That’s a not unwise limitation, as in a couple of weeks training, the pilot knows how to take off, land, and do basic navigation. Even in a suitably equipped small airplane–and I include a variety of twin-engined airplanes in this category–instrument flight is quite demanding. Big planes, you know, like the ones the guys at the big airport fly with lots of people sitting in the back: they require a crew. That’s two pilots to split the job; little planes usually have just one guy at the stick. No flights in furtherance of business. No nighttime flying–better leave work early so you’re not up there at night when you shouldn’t be. By the way, night flight has its own inherent set of problems and if you’re not trained to fly in the dark and your aircraft isn’t properly lighted, you shouldn’t be there anyway. No instrument, so there’s a problem entering the Class B around the cities. (That’s a Wagner Aerocar in the image to the left. Great idea, bet I’ll see one down the street soon…)

We didn’t go into the weight limitations of a light sport aircraft, which is around 1300 lbs gross. That’s craft, pilot, passenger, fuel, baggage and the dog. Hmmm. Say 325 lbs for pilot and passenger, 120 lbs for 20 gallons of gas, dog weighs 20 lbs, toss in two bags, 10 lbs each…I think we’re gonna have a problem. Folding wings, they’re gonna have to have some sort of activation system and that has to weight a few pounds. All that, the engine, the fuselage…adds up rather quickly. It’s why most pilots who own four seat aircraft consider them practical for only two people and a bit of baggage. My Mooney M20C was a good example. Two people, couple of bags, 50 gallons of fuel, we were up near the 2575 lb. weight limit. Remember, the M20C is a real airplane. Cut the weight in half–but don’t reduce the pilot/passenger load. I don’t think so…

We’re ignoring where the auto/plane will take off. Street traffic makes reaching rotation speed somewhat onerous, particularly considering the wings need to be spread. Ever whack a bicycle with a wing at, oh, say 30 or 35 mph? Or maybe clip a bush or a pole? Landing entails some of the same problems. Two of the photos above show a VTOL, vertical take off and landing device. No need for a runway. Still, that spinning rotor seems like it might be inconvenient anywhere there are power lines, trees, shrubs, tall people, horses…

It’s a great idea. I’m ready to buy one. After, of course, they’re certificated, tested…and practical. Until then, I’d prefer something safer. Motorcycles, bicycles, parachutes, small airplanes, young women…


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