New Hampshire has two different companies building a car that can fly 

  • Pal-V, a Dutch company, is developing a three-wheeled vehicle that can be driven like a car or flown like a gyrocopter, with the non-powered overhead blades providing lift as a propeller in back pushes the craft forward. Pal-V

  • The Terrafugia Transition, which flies like a small plane but can drive on the road like a two-person car, is shown folding up its wings after landing. It has not yet been released on the market. Terrafugia

Monitor staff
Published: 10/20/2019 6:12:54 PM

New Hampshire is preparing for life with electric cars and is starting to think about life with self-driving cars, but there’s another automotive option on the horizon that needs to be considered: flying cars.

Or, rather, roadable aircraft.

That’s the term used in a proposed state bill, apparently the first of its kind in the country, which is designed to ease the way for this new class of transportation. It’s also the term used by the two companies with a presence in New Hampshire who are developing vehicles that can go on roads as well as through the air. 

Why this clumsy-sounding terminology? The thought is that “flying car” sounds like an automobile which occasionally takes off, while “roadable aircraft” sounds like a plane which occasionally travels on the ground, a more accurate description. These vehicles require airport runways to take off and land, and on the ground collapse their flight gear like a bug retracting its wings in order to hit the road. 

“It’s an aircraft first. It just happens to be one that you can drive home,” is how Keith Ammon explains it.

 Ammon, a former state representative, should know. He is the region’s dealer for Pal-V, a Dutch firm that’s making a three-wheeled vehicle that flies like a gyroplane, a sort of simplified version of a helicopter.

Two companies in N.H.

Pal-V – the name stands for Personal Air and Land Vehicle – has been in development in its native Holland for a decade. The company hopes to deliver 25 specialized units in North America in 2021 and start selling general models in 2023.

New Hampshire could be central to their plans. Ammon is working to set up a training center for Pal-V with the National Flight Simulator at Manchester airport, where Pal-V has an office.

The state’s other roadable aircraft is further along, since test models are already in the state. A Woburn, Mass.-based firm called Terrafugia is running tests at Nashua Municipal Airport of a four-wheel design that looks like a compact car with foldable wings, and flies like a small airplane.

Terrafugia, started by some MIT grades more than a decade ago, was bought by Zhejiang Geely Holding of Shanghai, China, in late 2017. Soon after that it leased hangar and office space in Nashua and added a research and development facility in California. 

Terrafugia has always been tight-lipped and its new owners are no different. In February, for example, the company sent a note around Nashua airport asking people not to talk about its test flights: “We kindly request that if any media contact you for more information to refer them directly to me.” It also declined an invitation to be part of the recent Aviation Day at Concord Airport and did not respond to a Monitor request for an interview

The company has said it hoped to begin production this year but no details have been released.

First-of-a-kind legislation

Roadable aircraft face two big obstacles. One is regulatory. 

Flying vehicles are overseen by different agencies and governed by different rules than driving vehicles. Proposed legislation in New Hampshire takes aim at that. 

Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charleston, has filed an LSR, which is a sort of draft version of a bill, titled “Relative to roadable aircraft.”

“The bill is an attempt to get some rules in place, should (federal) NHTSA certify them for the road,” said Smith. Details are still being worked out although one possibility is to create a new, separate class of vehicles. 

If this bill ever becomes law, it would probably be unique. 

“I think this is the first one, the first law like that,” said Mark Jennings-Bates, vice president of marketing for Pal-V.

Very different technologies

The other challenge to roadable aircraft, of course, is technical. Things that make a viable, safe car can get in the way of being a viable, safe airplane, and vice versa. 

Pal-V and Terrafugia have tackled that problem with very different approaches, starting with something as basic as the number of wheels: Terrafugia’s models have four like a car but Pal-V has three: one in the front, two in the back, like virtually all small planes.

Jennings-Bates said there were two reasons to go with three wheels. One is aviation related: “Cross-wind landings with four-wheeled aircraft are horrible.”  

The other advantage, he said, is that three-wheeled vehicles can avoid crash-testing requirements that cars face, saving time and money in development. 

The drawback, however, is that there has never been a successful three-wheeled car sold in the United States, which adds another obstacle to sales.

Another design problem involves the controls. A car’s steering wheel needs to be stable but the equivalent in a plane, known as a yoke, must be able to move around to control pitch and roll. Pal-V has a joystick that folds up from the floor to be used as a flight controller, while Terrafugia provides a yoke and a steering wheel.

The biggest difference between the two companies, however, is how they fly.

The Pal-V is a gyroplane, which has overhead blades that look like helicopter blades but which aren’t powered. They are spun by air passing over them as the vehicle moves forward, providing lift and removing the need for long wings.

Terrafugia’s design, on the other hand, is a traditional fixed-wing plane, where the lift is provided by air passing over the airfoil of the wing. 

There are many similarities between the two, however. Notably, both companies have made pusher planes, meaning the power blades are in back, pushing the craft, rather than in front and pulling it like a Cessna. Both also require a pilot’s license, not just a driver’s license, although Terrafugia is classified as a light sport plane, reducing the number of flight hours required to get a license. Both can use premium gasoline rather than specialized aviation fuel required by many airplanes, but neither can be worked on by your local auto shop; they will require certified aviation mechanics.

Finally, both are very expensive: Terrafugia and Pal-V each say their two-person vehicles will cost about $400,000, and Pal-V is charging $600,000 for the first two dozen, limited-edition models. 

Two other companies also are trying to bring roadable aircraft to market, both using fixed-wing designs: AeroMobile in Slovakia and Samson Switchblade in Oregon, which makes a kit version. All four of these, by the way, call themselves the “first practical” way to fly and drive at the same time.

Not a drone

There’s one other technical approach to the fly-and-drive problem: drones.

A number of companies are rushing to create electric-powered drones, which use multiple helicopter-like blades to take off vertically and then fly horizontally, that are big enough to carry people. At least one firm has a version that would also be roadable.

This approach looks promising but it has a big drawback: range. The number of batteries that can be carried aloft under current systems would limit how long drones can stay aloft, and thus how far they can go.

That leads to the question of who will be the customers for roadable aircraft. They are likely to be people who would otherwise own a private plane and need an easy way to cover the “last mile” from the airport to their final destination, either for a long commute or for occasional trips. 

Ammons drew a parallel to “a seaplane, an amphibious plane that has floats on it. It can be a boat, but nobody thinks of it as a boat. You’re not going to putter around on your seaplane if you’re going water-skiing.”

So you’re not likely to putter around town in your roadable aircraft. Whether you’ll be able to fly in one any time soon remains to be seen, but if it happens it may well happen in New Hampshire first.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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