Hannah Elliott

Hannah Elliott, Forbes Staff

I cover the fun stuff: High-end cars, watches, fashion and culture.

4/03/2012 @ 1:31PM |9,113 views

The Flying Car Comes To The New York Auto Show

This week at the New  York Auto Show a company called Terrafugia will debut a street-legal airplane. A flying car, so to speak.

Called the Transition, the fold-up vehicle will fly 100 miles per hour and has a range of nearly 500 miles. On the road it gets 35 miles per gallon using premium unleaded gasoline. It’s not quite the flying car of Jetsons fame, but it’s the closest thing on the market so far. 

“This is what we can do today with existing technology inside the existing regulatory structure that we have and the physical infrastructure with airports and air space,” Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich says. “It’s something that actually works.”

Photo Gallery: Terrafugia Flying Car

Dietrich and his wife, Anna–both aviation engineers–started building the $279,000 plane with five others six years ago in Massachusetts. They were looking for a way to assuage several irritants common among pilots: dealing with severe weather in small aircraft, paying high prices to rent hangar space and finding ground transportation at the 5,000 public use airports nationwide, most of which don’t provide it.

They also wanted to alleviate what Dietrich calls “get-there-itis”–when pilots push through poor weather conditions in order to reach their destination even though they know forging ahead is dangerous.

“Pilots tend to be very mission-focused,” he says. ”We are saying we can make flying not only more reliable but actually a lot safer because you’re going to be less tempted to make a bad decision if you know you can land and drive safely when the weather gets bad. It may take you a little longer to get there if you drive rather than fly, but you know you can get there.”

The Transition is certified as a Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA) and can be flown by anyone with the corresponding certificate, which requires only 20 hours of flight training. (Private pilot certification requires 40 but typically takes 50-70 hours of flight training.) The Sport Aircraft designation means the plane can carry only two people in an ultra-lightweight plane; the Transition weighs just over 1,400 pounds.

Dietrich says the Transition fills a need both for those who will use it for business (a surveyor or broker flying clients around the countryside) or as a recreation option for enthusiasts. Would you buy the Transitioin instead of a car? No. But you might buy it as a second car. Or as a second plane.

“The visibility is akin to something like a cargo van with the wings folded up along the side,” Dietrich says. “It’s not going to replace your everyday bang-around car. It’s not intended to. But it can drive legally on the road at highway speeds. It can get you there.”

Suffice it to say the thing has its detractors–many of which come from the aviation community. One private pilot I know characterized it as “targeted toward people who buy gadgets from Hammacher Schlemmer.”

“It’s not a car at all,” he told me. “It’s an airplane that they’ve dressed up with some car-looking fairings.”

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