Jeffrey Jablansky NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Transition to the skies: Terrafugia's flying car could change general aviation forever
July 29, 2013
  • Share
  • That’s not pie you see in the sky, but it might be a Terrafugia. The Terrafugia Transition flying car is expected to roll out no earlier than 2015, but the company is working fast to making the flying car a reality. The car’s folding wings expand in about 60 seconds, meaning it can roll from the highway to the runway with little effort. The company’s TF-X concept, which was unveiled earlier this year, will bring helicopter-type flying ability to a road-ready car.

    Foldable wings on the Terrafugia Transition let it go from highway-ready car to take-off in about 60 seconds.

    Carl Dietrich began saving up for his pilot’s license when he was eight years old. Little did he anticipate that, some decades later, his enthusiasm for aviation and aerospace would lead him toward creating an airplane that could double as a passenger car.

    In 2006, he and four co-founders opened Terrafugia, a company with a mission to shift the reality of to the personal flying car from the airplane hangar to the two-car garage. The company’s “proof of process” is the Transition, a two-seat, carbon fiber-bodied airplane that can also act as roadgoing transportation. Thanks to foldable wings that retract within approximately 60 seconds, the Transition can be driven on highways like a passenger car, and can take off on any airplane runway.

    “We’re selling more freedom,” Dietrich said. “Turns out, it sells really well.”

    On land, driving the Transition requires nothing more than a conventional steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. In the air, however, outboard rudder pedals, a fold-up joystick and a console-mounted throttle take their place. Power from an Austrian-sourced, four-cylinder, 1.2-liter engine goes through the driveshaft to a gearbox that either routes the power straight back to the propeller or off to a side-mounted, continuously variable transmission.

    A production-ready Transition is expected to roll out no earlier than 2015.

    The Transition features four-wheel independent suspension, rather than aircraft-standard leaf springs, and its four wheels do not retract, as an airplane’s would. It runs on premium unleaded fuel, and has a top speed of nearly 115 mph – fast enough to make it from Manhattan to Montauk in about an hour.

    Terrafugia argues that the technology and systems that power the Transition are grounded in reality, rather than a flight of fancy. During our recent visit to Terrafugia’s headquarters, which is nestled among start-ups and tech giants along the Route 128 technology corridor in Boston, regulators from the Federal Aviation Administration were closely eyeing the Transition with flashlights and cameras. Dietrich is adamant that, in order to be taken seriously, the production Transition conforms to four-wheeled, motor vehicle safety standards.

    Since the Transition project began nearly seven years ago, Terrafugia now has a slate of competitors interested in a piece of the flying car market. While Dietrich hints that his company has generated “preliminary interest” from auto manufacturers, he affirmed that Terrafugia exists to demonstrate and prove the possibilities that exist, rather than to have immediate, automotive-scale impact.

    “My job is to make this a no-brainer for an automotive executive to say, ‘Of course we’re going to do flying cars,'” Dietrich said. “Nobody is going to say that right now.”

    The Terrafugia Transition as a maximum air speed of 100 knots, or 115 mph.

    The rollout for the production-ready, crash-tested Transition is expected to commence no earlier than 2015, and the first deliveries will go to a hand-selected group of customer beta testers in the United States, of whom all but one are experienced pilots. Operating the Transition requires a valid driver’s license and a sport pilot certificate, which is earned after a minimum of 20 in-flight hours. The Transition will be priced to compete with purpose-built light aircraft, such as the Cessna 172, with a base price of $279,000. Factoring in major options like air conditioning and autopilot, the company expects that most Transitions will cost approximately $300,000.

    In the not-so-distant future, Terrafugia plans to begin work on the TF-X concept to rival George Jetson’s own commuter car: a four-seat, gasoline hybrid-electric flying car capable of semi-autonomous vertical take-off and landing, much like a helicopter. For the company, it represents a fundamental shift away from operating within the existing framework and vehicle regulations, made possible by advanced telemetry and technology. Onboard systems in the TF-X will be programmed with much of the information required to obtain the sport pilot license, to remove stress from the experience of flying and imbue a sense of security in pilots.

    “You can get in the vehicle, tell it where you want to go, and it will basically fly you there,” Dietrich said. “This is how we lower the barriers and make it accessible to a much broader audience.”

    While the TF-X is likely over a decade away from computer-aided design sketches to production, the Transition is expected to take to the air at this week’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Oshkosh, Wisc., in front of a crowd of an estimated 50,000 spectators, according to Dietrich’s own estimation. Given Terrafugia’s capacity to assemble nearly 100 Transitions per year once production begins, in a burgeoning market for cars that can also fly, he hopes that the Transition’s run will make a formidable impression.

    “The idea of a flying car is out there in pop culture, and it captures people’s imaginations,” Dietrich said. “[We’re trying] to make it easier for more people to get up into the air.”