A Word about FLying Cars

2y ago

4.8K

The fantasy of flying cars has been dangled in front of us for decades. Sadly, it has remained just that: A fantasy. This despite persistent efforts by many, from backyard inventors to A-list aerospace firms, to allow drivers to become flyers with the flick of a switch—or at least to be able to fly conveniently and easily wherever and whenever they want. We’ve seen vertical-lift Cuisinarts like the Moller Skycar hover, tethered, 10 feet off the ground and do not much else and short-take-off autogyros like the CarterCopter achieve flight brilliantly but not quite the economics of viability.

As an automotive and aerospace journalist for more than 15 years, working for Air & Space/Smithsonian, Popular Science, Wired, and Gear Patrol, I’ve seen it all, and covered the efforts to make some version of accessible flight possible for all of us. Now, of course, we’re seeing battery-electric flying car concepts supposedly re-invigorating the field with their loudly proclaimed benefits of safety and computer-controlled flight. Time will tell if these machines will be able to muster the range and real safety necessary to be practical.

So what’s the holdup? Physics, of course, and economics. It takes tremendous, excruciatingly noisy power to lift a machine off the ground using spinning blades alone. Then it takes even more power to cover any ground at all while still staying aloft via those same blades. (Electric motors, you ask? Aren’t they powerful and quiet? Yes, they are. But batteries are heavy and expensive—two things completely incompatible with general aviation.) As the ideas stand right now, you might be able to squeeze a few miles of commuting out of them, but nobody’s going to zip off to the lake house 500 miles away any time soon. You could certainly add in actual aerodynamics to the designs, via lift-generating wings, but then what you have is not a flying car as much as it is a regular old airplane. But even those wing-inclusive flying car ideas have failed to take hold in the market, thanks to the persistent demand for at least a degree of convenience.

In short, all the ideas, up until now and at the present moment, are all just too expensive and too reliant on old-school stick-and-rudder skills that are beyond the interest of the target market. Is there hope for the future? Of course—computer-aided flight and advanced aerodynamics will continue to push private aviation closer and closer to practical, broadly usable machines. If batteries have a breakthrough in weight, as well, the sky will truly be the limit. Furthermore, the arrival of autonomous driving might eventually permit regulators to scale back the weight- and cost-boosting safety requirements for road vehicles, meaning you can operate a 1,200-pound flying car that’s still mostly an air vehicle safely on the ground, since there will be little chance of accidents with other machines. So one day, we may indeed be able to take a roadtrip/skytrip across the country, choosing at a whim when to fly with the birds or carve up some terrestrial twisties. We can only wait and dream.

Until that time, however, there is one thing in the air that comes remarkably close to the roadtrip enthusiast’s vision of unrestrained freedom. It’s the Icon A-5, a lightweight, astonishingly sophisticated and easy-to-fly amphibious airplane. Thanks to its folding wings, it can be towed to any usable runway or lake and launched on an adventure of hundreds of miles. It of course requires a pilot’s certificate, but one with a much lower set of requirements than a conventional certificate—and an assumption you won’t fly at night or in bad weather. I flew an A5 in New York City last year, and it was a revelation. It’s nearly effortless to control and supremely safe, thanks to its anti-stall characteristics. It’s spry and fun, and I could instantly see myself squirreling away my wife or a pal for a refreshing cruise or a weekend getaway. It doesn’t pretend to meet all the comparatively insane demands of a flying car—you can’t really commute with it, it must be towed on the road, etc.—but it’s absolutely the best possible solution our current level of technology and economic practicality can produce for those craving accessible flight.

Its cost? About $240,000—roughly the same as the average Lamborghini. Had I that kind of cash handy, I’d write the check in a heartbeat, for the pure privilege of taking to the air any time the itch for a different kind of roadtrip—yes, a skytrip—bubbled up in my life.

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