The Flying Car

My electronic mailbag recently included yet another pitch for a "flying car." If, in the last 60 years or so, you’ve read more than a few sequential issues of Popular Science, you know what I’m talking about. These contraptions appear on the cover of guy, tool-tinkering magazines about as often as Britney Spears gets top billing at People. (And no, I never thought I’d have occasion to include Britney in my blog. But maybe my Google hits will soar.)

Blade Runner, Jetsons cartoons, and "Welcome to Tomorrow" exhibits at world’s fairs and Disney theme parks aside, the honor of inventing the car/airplane hybrid usually goes to Moulton (Molt) B. Taylor. He created the AEROCAR in 1949. (The first patent for a drive-fly vehicle seems to belong to Felix Longobardi, who proposed the idea in 1918.)

Taylor’s design apparently had something of Robert E. Fulton, Jr.’s "Airphibian" in its genes. It worked, after a fashion, but Taylor spent the rest of his life trying to persuade someone to mass-produce it. When I was the editor of the Western Flyer (now the General Aviation News) in the mid-1980s, Taylor called me about once a month. While I held the phone a safe distance from my ear, Molt declaimed against the airspace-grabbing FAA, short-sighted manufacturers, and all the other obstacles that had kept him from filling the skies (and roads) with Aerocars. You can read an affectionate and detailed telling of Molt’s story in A Drive in the Clouds by Jake Schultz. Or talk to my friend Hal Bryan, who knows more about–and revels in–odd aircraft than anyone I’ve known, except maybe Pete Bowers.

Anyway, Taylor’s dream lives on in the sporty AEROCAR 2000 and in many other space-age designs, including the Skycar (Moller International) and the subject of that recent email, the Transition from Terrafugia. The latter machine is billed as a "roadable Light-Sport Aircraft." According to Terrafugia’s Web site, the company includes graduates of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. At present, the Transition seems to exist as a CG model and as a virtual airplane that flies in the X-Plane flight simulation.

Now, I’m hardly qualified to pass judgment on the technical merits of any of these designs. Something like the Transition, designed to do its flying between airports and then drive to and from home, may become a practical solution for recreational pilots and even some commuters.

But no matter how much razzle-dazzle technology is brought into these machines, I remain a skeptic about them becoming more than curiosities, because the fundamental obstacles to their development and wide adoption aren’t technological.

The core problem, which rarely seems to come up in breezy news reports (here’s a typical example; another gushy account is here) about the inventors and their machines, isn’t developing a collision-avoidance system or computerized controls that make the vehicles as easy to fly as a car is to drive. No, the fundamental issues are societal, political, and regulatory. And they’re much more serious than the "auto-mobiles will frighten the horses" alarms of the early 20th century.

First, who is going to certify the machines and their operators and supervise maintenance? Granted, airphibian pilots of the future may not need as much training as today’s private pilots, but driver’s ed won’t suffice, either. The FAA can barely keep up with today’s air transportation system (about 600,000 aviators hold pilot certificates in the U.S.; some 240,000 civil aircraft ply our skies)–supervising flight schools, maintenance facilities, and manufacturers; regulating pilots and mechanics; running the ATC system; overseeing the airlines; etc. Witness the FAA funding debate.

image More important, absent a major overhaul of the FAA regulations and ATC system, how would thousands of new hybrid air-ground vehicles fit into existing airspace? Urban areas lie beneath complex mazes of FAA-regulated airspace designed to ensure the safe and efficient flow of aircraft. If you were to own a snazzy Skycar, you couldn’t just buzz around at will, especially over "congested areas" (see, e.g., FAR 91.119).

Airports already contend with complaints over noise and concerns about safety. In Seattle, one tony neighborhood wages a perennial battle against Children’s Hospital in part because the medical center’s helipads allow too many annoying rotorcraft to fly in at all hours of the day and night–even if they are transporting critically ill children. Imagine the furor if scores of personal air vehicles buzzed randomly overhead, taking shortcuts from home to work.

Even spectacular accidents like the recent I-5 pileup in LA are largely confined to roads and highways. Recall what happens today when an airplane crashes in a populated area (despite the frantic coverage that typically ensues, such accidents are occasional events that rarely harm people on the ground) and then imagine the hysteria if aerial flivvers plop into neighborhoods, schools, and shopping centers as often as cars break down and entangle themselves on the roads. And let’s not get into how aerial commuters would avoid conflicts with airliners.

If aircraft/automobile hybrids are limited to aerial operations at existing airports, their utility quickly evaporates, especially in the crowded urban environments where they’re most often promoted as machines to escape terrestrial traffic jams. Close-in airports are rare; those that do exist (e.g., Boeing Field in Seattle), are busy, complicated places.

Other issues abound: Could such new vehicles operate safely in inclement weather? If, for example, the Transition is indeed certificated as a light sport aircraft, it can fly only during the day (to operate a light sport aircraft at night, the pilot must hold at least a private pilot certificate) and only in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC).

And how would these hybrid aircraft and their operators handle such common hazards such as airframe icing, turbulence, thunderstorms, and density altitude? Of course, one could argue that upon encountering bad weather, airphibian pilots would land and proceed on the ground. But that argument assumes judgment and skill not in evidence on today’s highways and byways; wide availability of landing spots; and a discipline sadly lacking even among many current pilots.

In the end, air/ground vehicles like the Transition could save on hangar and tie-down costs, but that’s about their only true advantage over existing aircraft, at least until the general public becomes much more comfortable with small aircraft and all that they imply.

More on Science and Islam

Today’s NY Times features a front-page story, "Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert," about King Abdullah’s plans for a $12.5 billion University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. The story notes in part, "The king is lavishing the institution not only with money, but also with his full political endorsement, intended to stave off internal challenges from conservatives and to win over foreign scholars who doubt that academic freedom can thrive here."

The story makes for an interesting read, especially in light of my earlier entry about Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor in the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Seat 6A

LeavingFairbanks_06 I just returned to semi-tropical Seattle from the Aviation North Expo 2007 in Fairbanks, where I spoke about stall/spin training and using Microsoft Flight Simulator as a training aid. As I noted earlier, aviation is modern Alaska’s lifeline. Even the indigenous people are flying into Fairbanks this week for the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention.

The ANE conference focuses on safety, and Alaska pilots have more than the usual issues to deal with. Most short trips in the Lower 48 don’t take a typical light airplane pilot far from civilization. Fly just 30 minutes from Anchorage (less from Fairbanks), however, and you usually find yourself far from basic services, to say nothing of most creature comforts–often in temperatures from another world.

As others have noted many times, the scale of Alaska overwhelms your normal sense of perspective. I have ferried small airplanes to Alaska a couple of times (pictures here), but the first leg of the airline flight home this morning from Fairbanks to Anchorage gave me a high-altitude perspective that I had missed on previous trips.

LeavingFairbanks_05 I have flown in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest for more than 30 years, and I’ve made many cross-country treks around the U.S. mainland. I’m accustomed to wide-open spaces and tall mountains. But as I pressed my nose against the window at seat 6A this morning (even if you’re a jaded road-warrior, always get a window seat on flights to, over, and from Alaska), I suddenly realized what was missing from the scenery below: straight lines.

In the sparsely populated areas of the American West, people have etched the landscape with roads, power lines, and the grids that divvy up range and farmland. Look closely, and beyond the glow of Las Vegas, even the moonscape that is most of Nevada betrays a human presence. We build visitor centers at the bottom of Meteor Crater.

But moments after departing Fairbanks by air, you see a primal vista that flows unbroken to the horizon. No straight lines.

I’m reminded of a wonderful book, Inside the Sky by William Langewiesche. Chapter 2, "The Stranger’s Path," tells the story of John Brinckerhoff Jackson, in Langewiesche’s words, "the greatest explorer of the aerial view." Jackson, who spent much of his life in New Mexico, once wrote:

"…What catches our eye and arouses our interest is not the sandy washes and the naked rocks, but the evidences of man."

Perhaps he’d never flown above Alaska.

(More pictures from this morning’s flight here.)

Hello from Fairbanks

moose-signI’m Fairbanks (as in Alaska) this weekend to speak the Aviation North Expo 2007. I’ve been to Alaska a few times (see pictures from a previous ferry flight to Anchorage), and it always astonishes me. I’ve usually had the good sense to head up in the spring or summer, so finding winter conditions in Fairbanks in October was still a surprise.

As was the warning posted outside the hotel. Given the temperature (still on the plus side of zero on the Fahrenheit scale), I don’t think close encounters of the Alces alces gigas kind are likely.

Anchorage (beautiful yesterday, as this picture shows) is the temporary roosting place for what must be among the largest flocks of 747s plying today’s skies. None of them is carrying passengers, however. They’re all cargo versions, hauling stuff over the pole between Asia and Europe and North America.

anchorage-02

Of course, for a pilot, the amazing thing about Alaska is how important GA is to life. It’s not just a hobby. And the state, so vast, sparsely populated, and otherwise rustic, is also the test bed for much new technology, including ADS-B, the foundation of the next generation of air traffic control; GPS-based RNAV routes; and other developments. I hope to share more details as the weekend progresses.

Microsoft Flight Simulator in Aviation Training

USNavyFSLab I often get questions about how flight schools and other training organizations (e.g., the U.S. Navy) use Microsoft Flight Simulator in their programs.

I’ve collected links to many news reports, journal articles, and other information about that topic on my Flight Simulator in Aviation Training page at BruceAir.com.

That page also addresses questions about FAA approval of flight training devices (the FAA doesn’t approve flight simulation software), how flight models figure in FAA approval (spoiler alert: the FAA doesn’t care much about flight models, at least at the FTD level), logging simulator time, and so forth.

(By the way, if you’re interested in some of the technical details about the 6-DOF flight model used in Microsoft Flight Simulator, see the article “Aircraft Simulation Techniques” on the FSInsider Web site. The document, written by one of the aeronautical engineers on the Flight Simulator team, is available as a .pdf file.)

More Airplane Pictures

Seattle-Oct13-2007 010Foggy mornings in Seattle (last week we had a couple of spectacular exceptions) are good opportunities to post pictures on the Web. Here are some links to some of my SkyDrive folders with lots of aviation-related pictures:

We are enjoying a couple of spectacular autumn days here in Seattle before the monsoons return. I live in the Queen Anne neighborhood, which boasts one of the most famous postcard views of the skyline (photo at right snapped yesterday afternoon from Kerry Park).

Richard Rhodes has a New Book Out

image I’m off to the bookstore to get the latest by Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. Rhodes wrote the (still) definitive popular history of the Manhattan Project, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and its sequel, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. He mastered the science and technology central to those stories, but he’s also a compelling story-teller. The Making of the Atomic Bomb won a Pulitzer Prize.

Rhodes is a brilliant and prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Among my favorites is Deadly feasts : tracking the secrets of a terrifying new plague, about the discovery of prions (proteinaceous infectious particles) the agents responsible for mad cow disease and its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

New and Improved BruceAir.com

BruceAirLogo_Small The new and improved version of www.BruceAir.com is now live. I have updated the behind-the-scenes code (using Microsoft Expression Web to create and generate better HTML and CSS), reorganized pages, and–I hope–improved both the appearance and utility of the site.

Pilots (and virtual aviators) will find updated pages about Microsoft Flight Simulator and the role that FS plays in real-world flight training. Of course, you’ll also find refreshed pages about my book, Microsoft Flight Simulator as a Training Aid. And I’ve overhauled the Aviation Resources page, an annotated list of (mostly free) information for pilots available on the Web.

I have moved the BruceAir aerobatic videos to one of my SkyDrive folders; you’ll find they’re easier to access and faster to download.

Instructors and students may want to check out my Goodies for Pilots page, where I’ve posted a kneeboard note-taker and PowerPoint shows.

Remember: "Every seat’s a window seat on BruceAir."

Red Sky at Morning

redsky-01-oct10-2007

Seattle enjoyed a spectacular sunrise over the Cascade Range today, as shown in this view (and another) from my house.

Given the forecast (see the Seattle NWS office Forecast Discussion), the scene recalls the old saying,* “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.”

*(Which, apparently, derives ultimately from Matthew 16:2,3: 2…He answered and said unto them, "When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. 3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering.")

FAA “Wings Program”

faastlogo The FAA has long offered the Pilot Proficiency Program (known to most aviators as the "Wings Program") as a substitute for the Flight Review required by Section 61.56(e) of the Federal Aviation Regulations. The Wings Program expires at the end of the year, however, and many pilots are confused by its replacement, the WINGS – Pilot Proficiency Program.

The new program is entirely Web-based. You can get more information about the program and register at www.FAASafety.gov. The Web site keeps track of the ground and flight training that you accumulate during each 24-month period, and it provides the documentation you need to verify that you’ve met the recurrent training requirements that allow you to act as pilot in command.

Many of the online courses offered at www.FAASafety.gov meet the ground-training requirements of the new program. The interactive courses offered by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation are offered as references for many of the training programs. You don’t have to join AOPA (but if you’re a pilot, you should be a member) to take the ASF courses or use the other training and safety resources available from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

The new program offers three phases (explained here). Note that during the flight training required under the new program, pilots must meet the standards of at least the Private Pilot Practical Test Standards. All of the Practical Test Standards are available for download as .pdf documents from the FAA Web site.

You can also find the following references on the FAA Web site:

I also maintain an annotated list of (mostly free) aviation-related resources at BruceAir.com.

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