Flying car takes off on first test flight

Maiden flight: Prototype of the Transition 'roadable aircraft' gets off the ground

Logging 37 seconds in the air, a prototype of a flying car completed its first test flight earlier this month in upstate New York.

Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia Inc., founded four years ago by MIT graduates, reported today that its Transition "roadable" aircraft completed its first flight at Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y. on March 5 with retired U.S. Air Force Col. Phil Meteer at the controls. The short flight was confined to the expanse of the runway, but it was enough to allow the company to test the Transition's stability and controllability.

The flight comes after six months of ground testing -- the flying car has been driven under its own power in on-road test drives and in tests of its taxiing capability.

"This flight is a symbol of a new freedom in aviation. It's what enthusiasts have been striving for since 1918," said Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich in a statement.

The two-seater vehicle fits into the light sport aircraft category and has an anticipated price tag of $148,000. Richard Gersh, a vice president at Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia, told Computerworld in January that the company already has received more than 40 orders for the Transition. He hopes the first one will be in a customer's hands by next year.

"We're not going to have a flying car, as people think of it, for a while," said Anna Dietrich, Terrafugia's chief operating officer, in an earlier interview. "I would never say it's not going to happen, but today the infrastructure is not there, nor is the training, nor are the avionics that would make the training unnecessary. What makes sense right now is a 'roadable' aircraft."

Dietrich said the idea of a such a vehicle is what fired up the imaginations of Terrafugia's founders and pushed them to launch the company. The problem, however, is that the U.S. doesn't have the infrastructure to support vehicles that both fly in the air and travel on surface roads regularly. Unlike runways, roads pass in front of houses, grocery stores and office buildings. And a sky filled with small planes piloted by people who don't have pilot's licenses could be problematic, to say the least.

Dietrich noted that there are about 6,000 public airports in the U.S., and most people are, on average, within 20 miles of one. The idea, she said, is to take advantage of this underutilized infrastructure. With a drivable aircraft, a pilot could fly into a small airport and, instead of getting a rental car or waiting for a taxi, simply fold up the plane's wings and drive off.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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