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 more 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.

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.


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.

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).

Red Sky at Morning


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.")

Finally, a realistic analysis of flight delays

"Ask the Pilot," a regular feature of, today offers the best analysis of snarled airline traffic that I’ve seen to date.

"Airport congestion and flight delays are making travelers insane. A look at what will and won’t solve the problem" covers familiar ground (viz., airline scheduling practices, the shift of much traffic to small regional jets, and the need to update the air traffic control system). But it also addresses the issue that never seems to come up in op-eds and other surveys of the situation: airports–specifically, the number of available runways and associated taxiways and ramps.

(For a typical echo-chamber summary of the situation, see "Fear and Loathing at the Airport" at, which sounds the familiar alarm and rounds up the usual suspects. "Nobody is in charge. The various players in the system, including big airlines, small aircraft owners, labor unions, politicians, airplane manufacturers, and executives with their corporate jets, are locked in permanent warfare as they fight to protect their own interests. And the FAA, a weak agency that needs congressional approval for how it raises and spends money, seems incapable of breaking the gridlock.")

"Ask the Pilot" writer Patrick Smith, who is an airline pilot, summed up the problem with an all-too-familiar example:

Two weeks ago I was working a flight from Europe to JFK. We landed shortly after 5 p.m. — several minutes ahead of schedule, ironically — only to spend the next two hours — two hours — taxiing from the end of the runway to our parking position. Our assigned gate was open and available the entire time, but the airport had become a spaghetti snarl of planes. Taxiways were blocked; aprons, clogged. It was literally gridlock — with scores of 50- and 70-seat RJs jockeying for space with A340s and 747s.

But that delay had nothing to do with thunderstorms, creaky radar equipment, buzzing bizjets, private pilots and their putt-putt planes, or overworked controllers and understaffed FAA facilities.

"So why not build more runways?" asks Smith.

For lots of reasons, not the least of which are the long and contentious battles that runway construction projects inevitably trigger among airport authorities, politicians and anti-expansion neighborhood groups. At my hometown airport, Boston’s Logan International, it took 30 years to get a badly needed, 5,000-foot stub of a runway completed.

No less daunting are the funding and technical issues. Taxiways have to be constructed; complex lighting systems installed; navigational aids put in place; flight patterns developed and test-flown. At Denver, the opening of a sixth runway carried a tab of $165 million. Denver, at least, had the room. A runway suitable for heavier jets needs to be two miles long. At LaGuardia? At Kennedy? At Newark or Washington National? Where would it fit?

What Smith doesn’t mention explicitly is that the FAA neither owns nor operates airports. It helps pay for them through the Aviation Trust Fund, but it can provide money only after the local governments and other entities that actually plan, build, and operate such facilities get the projects rolling. There’s no Bismarck to unify the airport fiefdoms that muck up the national air transportation network on the ground, where all flights begin and end.

Rod Machado’s New IFR Pilot’s Handbok

IFRMachado-350px My old friend Rod Machado has just released his latest book, Rod Machado’s Instrument Pilot’s Handbook. I’d known Rod for years before I recruited him to serve as the flight instructor for Microsoft Flight Simulator, and we’ve collaborated on a few projects (and overlapped at aviation events) since.

Rod Machado’s Instrument Pilot’s Handbook is the companion to his popular and comprehensive Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook, which I’ve used with many students and ground school classes. I’ve been waiting for his IFR book for a couple of years.

Although the FAA just released an updated (and much improved) Instrument Flying Handbook, it’s still an "official" handbook with all that the word implies. Rod’s book covers all of the same material (and much more) in his inimitable style.

Now, I reviewed the entire IFR book–every word–before it went to press (and I wrote the foreword), so I know all about Rod’s penchant for puns and goofy jokes. But I’ve also grown to appreciate just how much he knows about matters aeronautical, and how much of that knowledge you can absorb even while you’re groaning at one of his endless games of wordplay. And even if you don’t read, the pictures alone will expand your knowledge.

To get an idea of what’s inside the new book, check out the excerpts (.pdf).

If you’re an IFR student or an instrument-rated pilot who wants to brush up on the arcana of flying in the clouds, you should get Rod Machado’s Instrument Pilot’s Handbook.

New Version of Voyager Flight Planning Software

My friends at Seattle Avionics today announced a new version of their Voyager Flight Software System–my favorite preflight planning tool.

The latest screen shots look great, and Version 4.0 of the program apparently has a new DirectX rendering engine, so it should offer real-time scrolling and zooming, much like Google Maps and Google Earth. And the latest version can display geo-referenced Sectional and IFR charts.

You can see the new version at AOPA Expo in Hartford, CT this week.

I’ve used Voyager for many years to plan all types of trips, including long cross-country ferry treks and the annual peregrinations of my Extra 300L. It’s an invaluable tool, and I’m eager to try the latest edition.

ScannedWx2 GeoRefProc  GVScannedAirportInfo

End of the Aerobatic Season in the Pacific Northwest

Seattle-October 001 The monsoons have returned to the Seattle area, but fortunately, I took advantage of a break in the weather last Thursday to fly the Extra 300L from its summer quarters at Seattle’s Boeing Field to its winter home at Boulder City, NV (61B), near Las Vegas.

You can download both the planned route* and the GPS track from my Garmin 396 from one of my Skydrive folders. The files in that folder are (small) .kmz files for use with Google Earth.

If Google Earth (a free download) is installed on your system, you can open them in that application and see both the planned route and track superimposed on the Earth.

I use the Voyager Flight Software System to plan my flights. That nifty tool lets me dump routs directly into the Garmin 396 and to Google Earth. Getting the tracks that the GPS records back into Google Earth requires a couple of simple steps, which I’ll write about some other time.

You can zoom in and out, tilt the display, etc. to see my meanderings. You can also change the color and thickness of the lines after loading the data files in Google Earth. For more information about using Google Earth, see the product help page.

BFI-61B-9-27The track data was recorded every 10 seconds (if you if zoom in on the airports where I stopped, you’ll notice some zigs–or zags–in the traffic patterns).

The basic route of flight: KBIKCVOKOVEKDLO61B

(*I planned to stop at KLHM in northern California, but according to a NOTAM, the runway was closed, hence the dogleg to Oroville, which has the virtue of relatively cheap fuel.)

Total flight time: 6.7 hours to fly 1049 nm (for those of you keeping score at home, that’s an average ground speed of 156 knots). The Extra has enough fuel to handle legs of roughly two hours with reserves; the route above shows the fuel stops.