Why Flying Cars Endure


What is it about flying cars, anyway? You don’t have to get too far into the back-of-the-napkin concept phase to reach the irreducible conclusion that the idea just isn’t going to work. It’s like combining a knife with a hammer-you end up with a tool that will barely do either function adequately, never mind well.Yet the idea persists. Serious people throw good money at trying to meld these two transportation modes into a single vehicle, this despite the fact that the engineering challenges seem insurmountable, at least if you hope to make a flying car that has any hope of commercial success. Maybe that’s the missing ingredient. Maybe the people pursuing these projects have no illusions of commercial practicality, they’re just doing it for the entertainment value. And flying cars-or at least the idea of flying cars-is certainly entertaining. A couple of years ago at AirVenture, EAA sponsored a flying car exhibition offsite at a local Oshkosh drive-in. It was standing room only and the video we did of the event proved the most popular of the entire show.My theory is that people who follow these projects don’t have any real expectation that they’ll succeed, they just enjoy watching other people attempt the impossible. At this year’s AirVenture, I got a good look at Trey Johnson’s take on the flying car. Here’s a video on it. He’s inverted the solution; instead of a flying car, he’s developed a roadable airplane. Although I’m not convinced this has market legs, it’s at least less wacky than trying to make a bad, lightly built and too-small car fly. Johnson’s PlaneDriven idea uses a removable motive pod adapted from a motorcycle powertrain, thus it may be more grounded in reality because it’s really just an iteration of road towing a glider or power aircraft, something that’s done all the time.Unfortunately, the engineering challenges of pulling this off mean that the airplane-in this case a Glasair Sportsman-has to be more transformer than either airplane or car. Converting from flight requires dragging the 420-pound power pod from the baggage compartment on a ramp, attaching it to the tail, stowing the wings, jacking the suspension down and rigging up turn signals and controls. Wouldn’t it be easier to say, just call a cab? (I know, I’m not missing the point, I’m just refusing to recognize it.) Johnson says this transition takes about an hour now, but the company would like to get it down to 10 minutes. I’m not sure I see how that’s possible, given the mechanical complexity of the design.There are other flying car projects and the fact that one comes from China demonstrates that this affliction isn’t an American cultural thing. A Chinese-based company called ML Aviation wants to produce a flying car based on a gyrocopter concept. The blades fold and fasten to the aircraft’s boom-type tail. It has two engines, a Rotax for flying and a rotary for driving. Since unbridled optimism is a prerequisite for flying car developers, ML says its version will be ready for sale next year sometime. A guy named Molt Taylor probably said the same thing at one time or another.Not that I’m cynical about any of this, mind you. I’m just as willing to entertained as the next guy.