Tuesday, February 26, 2008
DRIVING; Where the Chitty Chitty Meets the Bang Bang
By DAN MCCOSH AND GEORGE GENE GUSTINES
Published: August 2, 2002
ED SWEENEY first flew in a car in 1959, when he was 17, an age when all things seem possible. He still thinks they are.
A car is not an airplane. An airplane is not a car. Complex structures have grown up around this assumption of separateness – roads and runways, state departments of motor vehicles and federal air traffic controllers, the Interstate System of highways and the Federal Aviation Administration.
But did it all have to develop this way? Why not a vehicle that both flies in the air and drives on the ground? The technical challenges are not that difficult – the craft's wings fold up or come off, its wheels come out of hiding, and away it goes down the highway. And it's even been done, more than once. It has just never quite caught on with the American public.
But it did catch on with Ed Sweeney. He has been captivated by the idea of a flying automobile for more than 40 years, since that first ride in an Aerocar with its inventor, Moulton B. Taylor,
a Navy pilot and missile designer. The Aerocar, a tiny two-seater with detachable wings, was pushing the envelope of personal mobility when it first flew in 1956, one of the few certifiably airworthy vehicles ever built that was capable of traveling both in the air and on the highway. Mr. Taylor built five, but like other flying cars before it, the Aerocar never won the backing of a company that could mass-produce and market it.
Mr. Sweeney was a teenager with an advanced case of model-airplane fever when he went to the small airport that Mr. Taylor was running in Longview, Wash., and introduced himself. Mr. Taylor invited him for a ride in the Aerocar. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last until Mr. Taylor's death in 1995.
Today, Mr. Sweeney, retired in Black Forest, Colo., after a career that included publishing a model-airplane magazine and manufacturing light aircraft, owns the very Aerocar he flew in that day in 1959. He both flies it and drives it
– most often at auto and air shows, with his wife a frequent passenger – though keeping auto insurance coverage remains a constant challenge. It's easier to renew the Aerocar's airworthiness certificate every year, he said, than to keep it in license plates. But he manages.
''I've had my Aerocar up to 11,000 feet,'' he said. ''We were flying out of Colorado and that was already 5,000 feet, so we were halfway there.''
The Aerocar can drive at a maximum speed of 45 miles an hour, slower if it's towing its wings, and it gets about 10 miles per gallon, Mr. Sweeney said. Its maximum flying speed is 90 miles an hour, and it can fly 200 miles before needing a fill-up.
He enjoys the reaction of air traffic controllers when he calls to ask for clearance to use an airport: ''You ask the tower, 'Can I drive down your runway really fast and take off?' ''
When he and his wife lived in Florida several years ago, they often flew the Aerocar from Daytona Beach to Orlando. ''The air traffic controllers at Orlando Executive Airport became good friends; we knew all of them,'' he said. ''They would report me as traffic to other aircraft: 'You have an automobile in your 9 o'clock position. Same altitude.' They would hear back reports: 'Say again? What type of aircraft?' and then, 'Oh my Lord, you're not kidding – where did that come from?' ''
He says that his is the only Aerocar – and probably the only flying car of any kind – that's now in active use. The other four Taylor Aerocars are in museums, along with a variety of craft whose inventors tried to bridge the transportation gap between earth and sky. But Mr. Sweeney still believes in the concept. He is building his own modified, modernized Aerocar – he bought the trademark in 1988 – and is serious about its mass-market potential.
THE flying car is an old idea, and when the automobile and the airplane were both in their infancy, it didn't seem farfetched. Cars and planes share similar engines, and planes spend a considerable amount of time taxiing on the ground. Who knew where transportation was headed?
In 1917, Glenn Curtiss, the pioneer airplane builder and a founder of the Curtiss-Wright aircraft company, combined a four-wheel sedan and a triplane with a 40-foot wingspan. It hopped up off the ground but never flew. In the 20's, Henry Ford worked on a ''flying flivver'' – not a car that flew but an everyman's airplane (with a Model A engine) intended to be the aeronautical counterpart to the Model T. The project was abandoned after a prototype crashed in 1928 and killed Ford's friend and test pilot, Harry Brooks. Another project, the 1937 Arrowbile, was a Studebaker that looked like a flying wing with a detachable car pod. It flew but was never produced.
The 1946 Airphibian, one of the more successful efforts, was made by Robert Edison Fulton – an inventor, though no relation to either the Robert Fulton of steamboat fame or to Thomas Edison. The Airphibian was flown to several cities, and a photograph of it in the air over the New York skyline was published in Life magazine in October 1949. After a trip by ship, it was also photographed – this time wingless, in its car guise – in a London street.
But despite its occasional triumphs, the flying car has been stalled by questions of cost, engineering and practicality. For best performance, small planes need to be light, and the extra components and stronger structure needed to make the car drivable create excessive weight. Pragmatists have argued that a cheap airplane and a cheap car would be less complicated and perform better than a hybrid, and they have prevailed. The Aerocar worked, but at a cost of about $25,000 in the 50's, it was more expensive than many light aircraft of its day and 10 times the cost of a car.
One dedicated owner was Bob Cummings, a comic actor who starred in early television sitcoms. In one of them, ''The Bob Cummings Show,'' produced in the late 1950's, the Aerocar was written into the scripts. Cummings, who shared his fictional counterpart's reputation as a ladies' man, kept a logbook that Mr. Taylor preserved after buying the Aerocar back from him; the passengers Cummings recorded included Marilyn Monroe. Ed Sweeney's restored Aerocar – the one that has bracketed his adulthood – is the same one Cummings owned.
To build his modern model, which hasn't yet flown, Mr. Sweeney started with a Lotus Elise, a two-seat sports car that is one of the lightest cars on the road. Installing a smaller engine reduced the car's weight even further, to about 1,500 pounds. To make it fly, he is adding brackets that attach to what he calls a flight module – an assembly with wings and tail, powered by a more powerful Lotus engine. ''The automotive engine is far less expensive than an aircraft engine,'' Mr. Sweeney said. The overall effect is as if a giant pterodactyl had come down and seized the Lotus sports car. But Mr. Sweeney can envision a sky full of them.
Traveling in it wouldn't be quite the free-form experience envisioned by the driver stuck in traffic who fantasizes about shutting off the talking-book tape, pulling back on the steering wheel and just taking off. But Mr. Sweeney thinks it could be convenient. His idea is that an owner would drive the car to the airport, where a supply of flight modules would be available to rent. The module would be attached in a short time (he estimates 15 minutes), and the plane would be ready to go. At its destination airport, the pilot would drop off the flight module for the next renter, and drive away.
''Molt Taylor and I spent years drawing up a list of the technology needed to make a flying car practical today,'' Mr. Sweeney said, and advances in technology have shrunk that list. ''I firmly believe the future of air transportation has to include air vehicles.''
Building the car that makes it happen may be a lonely endeavor, but, Mr. Sweeney said, ''no matter how long it takes, I will do it.''
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company