What Now, Terrafugia?
Terrafugia's Long, Hard Road
So, Terrafugia..... The sort of things that I hear are: "Two words: Taylor Aerocar"; "So what? I'd buy a used plane for much less, carry four, fly there faster and pick up a rental car on the other end"; and "Do I really want to go find an A&P everytime someone uses their SUV to kiss the thing while they're parking?" And that's the polite stuff. But the fact is that there are people out there who like the idea, they like the people behind it and they're funding them. Honestly, I don't have much of an opinion about the vehicle itself, other than that it's a nifty collection of ideas and engineering. But if you'd like some insight into how a lot of money gets spent with at least little short term gain -- which, it should be noted, is mostly any research and design process in aviation -- this one makes a decent example.
Terrafugia used up a lot of money in the creation of an aircraft that serves as a proof-of-concept vehicle and, in practice, doesn't work all that well. As a start-up company formed mostly by freshly minted MIT engineers, it simply didn't have the resources needed to do the job right the first time. But even if it had, changes should be expected as they moved beyond the prototype. As it stands, the Terrafugia team has learned a lot about what they did wrong in building their first vehicle and seem to have found financial support to see them through creation of a V.2. Make of that what you will. In my opinion it's par for the course. The really interesting part is the back story.
When Terrafugia designed that first vehicle, Chief Technical Officer Carl Dietrich was fairly fresh out of his Ph.D. program and not exactly flush with cash. The original concept won a lot of attention and so became attached to a rough (if optimistic) progress schedule. It then progressed from the idea phase to the wind tunnel testing, but in the rush to meet publicly announced deadlines, manage its cash, and keep the media buzzing, some parts of the process may have moved a bit too far a bit too fast. Without the support of some of the resources needed to really do the job best that could be done, the vehicle became a reality. Unfortunately, it got there lacking three dimensional fluid dynamics software that might have disclosed the complex airflows that have placed the prototype closer to the barely flying realm of the aircraft spectrum.
In a refreshingly open and candid conversation I had with him, Sunday, Dietrich detailed some of the problems that has his company in redesign mode. First, the aircraft's heavy -- about 100 pounds over its LSA limit when loaded with a test pilot and test gear. The proximity of the canard and wheel pants disrupted flow over the canard's limited span, reducing lift that the craft recaptured only by flying with full pitch trim. At the same time, the vehicle is also producing more lift in its aft section than designers expected. In the end, those two aerodynamic effects together put the center of lift too far aft and that's why you see the vehicle flying with full pitch trim on the canard and near-full deflection of the elevator. It's also why you won't see the Transition fly this year at OSH and maybe never again until the redesign, which is currently expected to make its debut (in computer graphics form) in early 2010. It may arrive in physical form by year-end '10.
The fixes will redistribute the aft lift forward, and expand the distance between the canard and the wheel pants. All the airfoils are being tweaked and engineers are working to reduce the vehicle's overall weight. The first thing to go will be the stock cast iron continuous variable transmission that's currently in the prototype. There are a lot of hurdles yet to be overcome, and some of those are built by the natural skepticism of pilots. We'll see what happens. In the meantime, Terrafugia is undeniably bringing a lot of attention to general aviation and for a lot of folks, they're making the idea of aviation fun and exciting again. They deserve credit for that. They'll deserve even more if they pull it off.