Flying Car Takes to the Skies ... and Roads

No longer a subject of science fiction, a car that can fly like a regular airplane, but then land, fold up its wings and drive away debuted in Boston Wednesday.

Terrafugia of Massachusetts prefers to call its Transition a "roadable aircraft" rather than a "flying car." It has completed several test runs and one test flight as part of its proof-of-concept phase. The company plans to refine the craft further and begin commercializing it in 2011.

The plane was on display during a press conference at Boston's Museum of Science. Terrafugia's CEO and founder, Carl Dietrich, said that the Transition "changes the world of personal mobility" and that "travel now becomes a hassle-free, integrated land-air experience."

Its first test flight was on March 5, 2009, in Plattsburgh, New York, where retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and Terrafugia test pilot Phil Meteer took the plane to several hundred meters in the air and then landed back on the runway. "It was kind of a wahoo moment," said Meteer. The flight spanned about 900 meters, and prior to the air test the plane underwent several ground and wind tunnel tests.

After a flight the plane's wings fold in half and mechanically retract once the engine is off and the pilot enters a PIN number on a cockpit panel.

"[It has] all of the controls of a car so that any driver can drive it ... in the air it has all the controls of a normal airplane so that any pilot can fly it," Meteer said. In the air the pilot uses a control stick and rudder pedals to fly, while on the ground a driver users a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals to drive.

The vehicle has a body that resembles an airplane more than a car, but it has four wheels, an uncommon feature on general aviation aircraft, that lets it drive on roadways at 105 kilometers per hour (65 mph). It achieves surprisingly good fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon. In the air its cruising speed is 185 kph (100 kts or 115 mph).

The Transition isn't going to be for everyone because the user would need a sport pilot rating from the Federal Aviation Administration. Terrafugia claims that can be obtained in "as little as 20 hours of flight time in a Transition-specific course." The craft also costs US$194,000.

In automobile mode, or when the wings are folded up, the plane measures 2.1 meters tall, 2 meters wide and 5.7 meters long. As an airplane, the craft is 1.9 meters tall, 8.4 meters wide and 5.8 meters long. It has a 100-horsepower Rotax 912S engine, a safety cage and crumple zone, side impact protection, and a parachute that will lower the plane to the ground in case of mid-air engine failure.

The Transition already has 40 people on its waiting list, all of whom needed to pay a $10,000 refundable deposit on the plane. Many of the buyers, according to Dietrich, are those in or near retirement who already have their pilot's licenses.

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