Where’s the Car/ Plane? Which one?

“OK, where’s the car that turns into an airplane?” After all it is 2012 and this is EAAirVenture in Oshkosh, WI, the largest airshow in the world where all the things of the future are on display. One of the guards at the main gate nodded as though this was an ordinary question. 

“Straight along this road, after the third crossing. It’s the booth is on the right. Can’t miss it.” 

The other guard leaned over toward me. “There’s a bunch over by the ultra lights and—“ 

The first guard shook his head. “Those aren’t real cars. Not street legal and they’re barely planes.” 

“Yeah, but what about the one down by the NASA pavilion?” 

“That one’s a motorcycle.”

“What about the one over by the war birds?” 

“I already said that ultralights aren’t real airplanes.” And that pulled three ultra light pilots into the argument and I went through the gate to get out of the argument.   

They were both right. There is only one true car/plane hybrid that is ready to fly and there are a lot of others that are something else.  

I found all of them and I would say that all of them are flying cars or close enough, including the car/helicopter combos. I even found that there is an association for builders of car/plane hybrids. It’s the RAOPA or more formally, the Roadable Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association. This organization helps builders with advice on building, laws and licensing and fund-raising help. 

There is also an on-line magazine dedicated to car/planes; “Roadable Times”. But it has as much coverage of fictional and defunct car/planes crosses as the newest modern models. Probably the best way to keep up with the new developments is EAA.org. This large site is nicely divided into sections; check out the experimental and the ultra-light sections.

The first one I ran into was “The Transition”. The one the first guard was talking about. It’s a commercial, non-kit, airplane that is legal to drive on the road. The builders say that their big breakthrough came when they figured out that the way to go was to work on making a plane with folded wings legal to drive on the road instead of trying to take a car and make an airplane out of it. Oddly enough, it was that insight that was the modern breakthrough. Basically it is a twin-tailed plane with folding wings. Both the folding wing and the two-tailed design were developed during World War II. Although the wings of the “Transition” do fold two separate ways; both of the folding points were used in World War II. 

Legally it is the only true car/plane hybrid. What does that mean? It requires a true pilot’s license and is licensed and insured as a Light Sport Airplane and as a regular car. It’s showroom pretty with all the usual bells and whistles of a cool small plane; computer display controls, full vehicle parachute. Of course it also has multiple airbags, anti-lock brakes and gets 35 miles to the galleon on the road. They even have nice choices in different colors both for the outside and for inside upholstery. 
They say that almost a year in development was spent meeting all the varying rules and regulations of both airplanes and cars. Think about having both car headlights and signal lights and also required airplane lights. It took months just to figure out where to put the license plate. This one actually gets gas at a gas station, if you can find one with a  very high roof. They recommend using semi-truck places. Filling the tank requires standing on a folded wing and getting the nozzle to the roof of the plane. They had some fun pictures on their site of the prototypes being pushed into a gas station as they tried to figure out how to make it work. Its greatest step forward is that it uses regular gasoline instead of aviation gasoline. Which is important because Aviation Gasoline or Avgas, as it’s commonly known, sells for about $5.79 for 100 Imperial Liters. (You can do the math on this; it gives me a headache.)

“The Transition” holds two people and as much luggage as most small planes or small cars. They’re only asking for a $10,000 deposit and it could be yours in a few as three years. And they have a payment plan. If you have to ask how much the total cost is, you can’t afford it.

The down sides include that you need to get this registered as both an airplane and a car. It also requires owning both a pilot’s license and a driver’s license. They helpfully included an extra -large glove box to carry all your paperwork. (Car insurance, plane insurance, licenses and spare aspirin for the headaches from the paperwork.)

Check them out at DrivenToFly.com.

A word about licenses, there are varying levels of licensing for flying. What kind of license is required depends on the size of the plane you are going to fly. The most common license is the “Sport Pilot License”. This requires passing a book test and taking over a hundred hours flying instruction in a plane with a pilot. The usual cost is $1,200 but that depends on how much the instructor charges by the hour. There is also no requirement that the cockpit time must be meet in a particular amount of time. Some people rearrange their lives and finish in less than a month. Others take years. The other major difference between a pilot’s license and a driver’s license is the age requirement. A pilot must be sixteen years old to solo and get their full pilot’s license. How old can you be and start working on your pilot’s license? Age nine; before that kids are probably too short. 

Once a pilot has the Sport Pilot License the hours they have put in can also count towards a “Private Pilot’s License” this license lets a pilot fly people that aren’t relatives and fly cargo. The same hours can go to the “Recreational Pilot’s license” which allows someone to fly an experimental plane. 

Next on the list are serous kits. You have to have the tools. (Welding may or may not be required and some kits require being able to splice wires. Check the website first.) And you need some knowledge of reading blueprints to be able to build these. You basically get a box in the mail. They assure people that they have call centers to help you and that most people can assemble them in three to five weeks. The reason kits are so popular for small planes is that if the pilot builds the plane, then the pilot/builder can license the plane as either an Experimental Amateur-Built plane, as a Experimental Light Sport Aircraft or a Special Light Sport Aircraft, depending on how much of the plane the owner assembles, what the purpose of the plane is (trainers and educators get a break on taxes and fees), and how heavy the completed plane is. It also means that repairs can be done by the pilot/builder without requiring the services of a professional  Airframe/ Production Mechanic. This can save hundreds or thousands of dollars, if you trust yourself. The sellers can tell people which license and which registration is best with which machine.        

First up of the kits is the “Switchblade”, named for the way the wings fold, fast. They expect to be able to start selling next year. It seats two but is so small that it may count as a motorcycle instead of a car. Different states and countries define motorcycles in different ways and this three-wheeled futuristic looking thing may require getting a motorcycle license as well as a driver’s license and a pilot’s license depending on where you land it. This one can drive to the airport as a car; fly to another state and be counted as a motorcycle. They went for the sports car meme so leather interior, clamshell doors and cool red or silver color and can go over a hundred miles an hour on the ground. It does have a standard whole plane parachute, multiple airbags, digital dash display and it gets 45 mpg on the ground. People who that have driven it say it outperforms a Jaguar and flies like a B52. They are raising money for this by building radio-controlled models of the Switchblade that also turn from car to plane. The final price wasn’t set yet for
either the models or the plane the last I checked.
Check them out at www.SamsonSky.com.

The “Caravella” is similar to the “Switchblade”. They’re both kits that might be a motorcycle or car depending on where you are. The “Caravelle” has a manual transmission, built-in parachute and has three wheels. Its production is being crowd funded. So support them. The whole thing should cost about $50,000. Its cool bit is a retractable tail as well as folding wings. The owner is already driving it around San Francisco. This one looks like it will hit the market very soon as they have already passed California emission testing. Apparently, the people doing the testing asked no questions about the folded wings or the tail sticking out the back. They only stuck the sensor in the tailpipe. 

Check them out at www.Caravella.aero. 

Next is a flying dune buggy, the “Maverick”. This one is in production now. Some are already available at larger airshows and can be delivered. It is technically a para-plane. (That is its wing is a cloth parachute.) The down side of this is that it can’t use a commercial airport. The upside is that it doesn’t require a pilot’s license. This one is already licensed for the road and can go up to 100 miles an hour on the ground. It gets 30 miles a galleon on the road. Also by the way the wheels are attached, they can be
replaced with floats or skies. It has off-road capabilities with a heavy-duty frame. It can handle almost anything except a real airport.

As a plane it flies like a car. That is, the steering wheel is the same on land or in the air. Most para-planes steer more like a motorcycle and some even steer with foot pedals.

Its main drawback is that conversion requires removing the cloth wing and packing it up in the provided bag. This can take a chunk of time. The first few times it might be hours. Think of a folding a giant map or a large tent. Of course as a driver gets more familiar, it should get faster.  If the wing is packed in the “Maverick” it takes all the storage space in the back. One solution is to keep the wing at your improvised airfield. The Maverick also has a large propeller in the rear that is not covered and might have to be removed in some areas. The patent on this is owned by a non-profit organization, “Beyond Roads” or technically “The Indigenous Peoples’ Technology and Education Center”. 

This vehicle took six years to invent and is designed for the Third World. They were aiming for a vehicle that could go literally anywhere on the planet. Its total cost is $94,000.

Contact them at www.mavericklsa.com. 

Then there are the two car/helicopter crosses, actually car/gyrocopters, The “ML Carcopter” and “The PAL-V”. The “ML Carcopter” is being made in China and hopefully will be available by 2014. These are two seater, four wheeled vehicles that run on regular gasoline. They may look like a helicopter but it is a gyrocopter, not a true helicopter. And that’s important because gyrocopters are covered under the Experimental Amateur-built aircraft or Experimental Light Sport Aircraft rules depending on how much of the vehicle the owner/pilot builds themselves. It has a full plane parachute to help prevent the “maple-seed” landings that gyrocopter do after engine trouble. 
(The difference between a true helicopter and a gyro copter is that true helicopters have a tail rotor which helps stabilize their level flight and gives it the ability to go straight up and down. Also without a working engine most helicopters crash quickly and gyrocopters spin down slowly. Also a helicopter license is a separate matter that no hours that a pilot has already got count towards.) 
They have very little storage space. Conversion is easy; simply unlock and fold down the mast that holds the propeller and the propeller automatically folds up and locks down. This machine actually has two engines, one for the wheels and one for the propeller. This does cut down on the difficulty of switching the power from one to the other but it increases weight. There is also the possibility that they will come out with multi-fuel machines. That means that the car might run on diesel and the plane on gasoline.  The price is not clear since its in Chinese on the website. 

Check out www.Car-Coter.net for more info. The website is in more Chinese than English but if you’re patient and read it slowly you will find most of the info you need. 

The other one is from the Netherlands, “The PAL-V”.  This is a four wheeled, two seater. It is also a gyro-copter. The makers say that it only requires about 20 to 40 hours for the average pilot to learn how to fly it. It goes up to 112 miles per hour on the ground and gets 28 miles per galleon. They don’t have a final price but say “The PAL-V” will be ready in 2013. 

Now we move down the size and cost scale.  There are many paraplanes and ultralights that can both drive on the ground and fly and here is where definitions get tricky. Both paraplanes and ultralights are not legally airplanes. This means they can’t land at an airport but it also means that you don’t need a pilot’s license to fly them. 

Actually, if you can sit on the seat of an ultra light or paraplane and can see over the steering yoke, you’re big enough to fly. Some companies are adamant about not selling planes to anyone under eighteen and require a set number of hours of supervised training. Other companies look at a nine-year-old in the pilot’s seat and assure a parent that, “If' she’s good at riding her bike; this should be easy.” And most of these ground vehicles could never drive on a highway; they are more on the level of go-carts or motorcycles. Although some of them are multi terrain, with optional skies or floats. Another drawback is that an ultra light might put you on a diet. Most of them have a limit of 200 pounds total and that includes the weight of the gas.  

Para-planes cost around $25,000 on average but used models can turn up for sale for as little as $4,000 and models without the parachute wing can go as low as $2,000. The two great advantages of a para-plane are that any rectangle parachute can be used to replace a damaged wing and in case of total engine failure, you’re parachuting already--sitting down under a steerable parachute. 

Some para-planes are small enough that the wing and the body or trike as it’s called, can both fit in the back of a truck. On most of them, the wing can be folded into a bag but there isn’t room for the folded wing on the trike. 
One of the best, in my opinion, is the “Air-Chopper”. It looks like a three-wheeled motorcycles and steers like one, too. Although the two handlebars are not connected.  It is actually large enough to hold two people and strong enough to lift both. Without the easily detached wing, it might count as a motorcycle but the makers haven’t tried to get the legal permits. There is nothing to stop a person from getting the trike (as the body of a para-plane is called) emission tested and licensed as a motorcycle.  

Check them out at sunflightcraft.com. 

Another good paraplane company is nicely named, “FutureFlight” at www.flyppc.com.

But there are at least a dozen paraplane companies and that doesn’t count the places that just sell the plans. Yes, you can get plans for a para-plane off the Internet, add a go-cart, parachute and small gas motor and you’re airborne and on your own. Good luck with these as there is no regulations. It’s good luck and pray with those. 

There are new machines popping up all the time. Since that airshow I ran into one more; “The SkyBlazer”. It’s supposed to be as large as “The Transition” but it’s a jet. That requires the jet license and requires Avgas, which is an innovation because most jets require true jet fuel. It has the two engine model. They don’t have all the kinks worked out yet. Within a year it could be in production or have disappeared completely. 

But there are enough designs for basicly flying cars to say that they are here and won’t be going away anytime soon. The one thing that they all have in common is that wading through the world of  paperwork and government regulations is as difficult or more difficult than the more fascination and better known work of  engineering. Now soon we’ll see what that can mean for our world. But I know that I would bet on larger garages and a lot more people in the air. Hopefully, including you and me.