If only the Wright brothers’ Flyer could have been crossed successfully with Henry Ford’s Model-T, then the United States might have taken collectively to the air around the time of the first world war.
It never quite happened this way, and probably just as well: imagine the number of accidents that might have occurred. Then double, treble or quadruple them. Flying is a science, an art and a skill. Aircraft need to be well constructed and dutifully maintained. Pilots must be level-headed when skies around them darken or spin. They must cope with engine failures, seized-up landing gear, winds that hound them off course. They must know where they are, and certainly how high or low they are flying and whether up or down and in what direction.
These things might seem obvious, yet even the most experienced pilot occasionally loses it. Vertigo can strike unexpectedly. Flying through dense banks of dirty clouds can trick the mind’s eye when everything looks like nothing and down is up and up down. And what would you do if a block of ice got stuck in your Pitot tube?
Ah, but if you could stretch to a Moller International SkyCar equipped with the latest Nasa-developed Sats (Small aircraft transportation system) technology, such scaredy-cat concerns would surely vanish quicker than a Saturn rocket.
Nasa’s “highways in sky” computer navigation system promises to turn the sci-fi dream of a popular flying car into digital-age reality. Imagine clambering aboard with the nuclear family (or not) into your Ferrari-red Moller, opening the garage door of your Mon Oncle-style home – by remote control, of course – pressing a button or two, heading on to the freeway and, Jiminy Cricket, vaulting into the azure blue on trips to Wal-Mart, Dairy Queen and Taco Bell, and back home in time to catch a repeat of The Jetsons without a single hair turning grey in the process.
So when the American magazine Engineer said that a Sats event scheduled for Sunday, June 5 at Danville Regional Airport, Virginia, might “one day be viewed as one of the most significant milestones in aviation history”, it was time to take to the air.
Across the Atlantic, on board a chicken-or-fish jumbo, I studied the Engineer. “Sats uses finely tuned GPS satellite technology”, it read, “to allow plane-to-plane communication and provide cockpit displays showing the precise location of every aircraft in a flying zone. It will remove the need for expensive ground-based equipment, and enable large numbers of planes to operate safely around a small airport. Sats also makes it possible for one pilot to operate as safely as two by programming in pre-determined flight paths.”
I dreamed happily of weird and wonderful experimental sky cars flying into and out of Danville. And, of zooming about in one aloft in the Confederate sky like some 21st-century rodeo jock. It wasn’t exactly like this at Danville. As a retired real estate developer and Cessna pilot – who had flown himself in for the occasion – told me: “I don’t think we’re gonna see these things flying for another quarter-century; I can’t figure out whether I think that’s a good or a bad thing. Will flying ever be the same when anyone can just get in, turn the key and go anywhere they want?”
Early motorists must have thought much the same thing. Fine when the roads were the plaything of playboys and tomboys at the ship-like steering wheels of thunderous Deusenbergs, Oldsmobiles and Mercer Raceabouts, but what would the roads be like when every Tom, Hank or Sally could afford to drive?
I had to hide my disappointment that there was no Moller SkyCar flying, or waiting to be flown, at Danville. For, whatever the true stage of development of the Moller M400 SkyCar, this is a lovely looking VTOL (Vertical take-off and landing) machine designed, Mercury willing, to take four people on journeys of 750 miles at 315mph at around 20mpg and at up to 32,000ft.
To date, though, the prototype can only take to the air when tethered from a tall crane. What if, at this early stage of development, one of the three computers, 24 microprocessors or 25,000 “lines of machine language software code” on board the M400 should fail? Down would come Moller, SkyCar and all.
Nasa, meanwhile, has a number of Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) projects on its computer screens, but, to date, none has been built. Avcen, a London-based aviation company, is developing the Jetpod, a five-seater flying taxi, that, presumably, will be programmed so as to be unable to fly “south of the river” late at night.
I pick up a Moller brochure at Danville. “No traffic, no red lights, no speeding tickets. Just quiet direct transportation from point A to point B in a fraction of the time. Three-dimensional mobility in place of two-dimensional immobility. No matter how you look at it, the automobile is only an interim step on our evolutionary path to independence from gravity. That’s all it will ever be.”
Yet, there is still, as the experience of Danville proved, a giant step between the reality of an ultra-reliable, faster-than-the-wind Chevy Corvette and a dream-like Moller SkyCar.
Dr Paul Moller, a Canadian-born inventor, engineer and university professor, first took to the sky in an aircraft of his own making in 1966. Three feet into the air, to be precise. That was the operational ceiling of the Moller XM-2 flying saucer. The XM-3 of 1968 managed a further seven feet. Things were looking up for Moller then, if slowly, yet all I could see looking up from the ground at Danville were familiar Cessnas and Pipers. Not a single SkyCar. No soft whirr of the twin-rotor engines Moller has developed from Outboard Marine Corporation’s snowmobile motors, no thrum of seven-bladed, variable speed fans, no demonstration of the emergency parachute system that would see the SkyCar safely down to Earth in the event of engine failure.
Mind, you, if such a demonstration had been advertised, a laconic grandfather in a stetson suggested, personal liability lawyers would have easily outnumbered would-be SkyCar owners at Danville. “They’re just waiting for things to go wrong. First accident with a SkyCar and the lawyers will be down on Moller like a pack of hyenas.” He tells me that folks tell him that Dr Moller has jetted through three wives and $250m over the past 40 years, but has yet to get the SkyCar convincingly onto the road or into the sky.
Even if and when SkyCar does fly untethered, will Sats, the computer system it needs to make it an aircraft that anyone can fly after “just two hours’ training”, really work? I looked in on a number of whizzy computer screen presentations, but as an old-school, seat-of-the pants pilot, I want to look at the sky, stars, cloudscapes, contrails and the Earth dancing around me. I get easily bored with computer screens, and especially so when no one can or will satisfactorily explain how exactly Sats will connect effectively with thousands of SkyCars whizzing about over malls and trailer parks sometime in the next 25 years.
I got the feeling that Sats and personal aircraft fans are like guileless members of some perfectly innocent religious sect. They want to believe that a car can fly, that Sats will perform daily miracles for them.
Some of us will have dreamed of pulling back gently on the steering wheel of the car we’re driving on a fast road heading towards the crest of a hill and imagining it lifting into the sky and over the traffic ahead. Is this a dream many of the people attending this event at Danville might have shared? A number of those I chatted to admitted to being dreamers; they were neither pilots, nor did they ever expect to win their pilot’s wings through conventional training.
I spoke to Dave Unwin, editor of Today’s Pilot. Dave has flown something like 150 different aircraft. Does he think the SkyCar is anything more than an act of faith? “I’m sure we’ll have sky cars of one sort or the other in 40 or 50 years’ time, even less if the political will and money was there,” Unwin says. “But, I’ve looked long and hard at the Moller SkyCar and don’t see how it’ll have the power needed for VTOL operation nor how it will fly with so little in the way of control surfaces.
“Computers will be able to do a lot, but not everything. Anyone can make a flying saucer in their back garden with a couple of lawn mower engines if all you plan to do is get the device hovering a few feet in the air, but building a proper VTOL sky car is something else altogether.” So, not entirely convinced? “No.”
Sats, though, will be useful whatever happens to Moller’s SkyCar and other personal aircraft. Dave Unwin is an enthusiast. “The system is brilliant and it’s just about all there.” It promises that the US’s 3,000 or so small, and underused, regional airports will be able to handle frequent, all-weather flights by creating a sophisticated computer navigational link between light aircraft and control towers. This could be invaluable one day when roads seize up with the sheer weight of traffic and if air taxis, and even sky cars, become a common sight.
My Sats brochure lists the four key things the system offers:
1. Automated flight-path management systems that allow higher volume operations at airports that don’t have towers or terminal radar
2. Guidance and display systems to allow pilots to land safely in low-visibility conditions at minimally equipped airports
3. On-board graphics and data displays to improve single pilot performance
4. Assessment of the effects of seamlessly integrating a large number of Sats aircraft into the national airspace system.
There are a number of times when I would have dearly liked to have had the second item installed in an old aircraft heading for an uncertain airfield. Sats would certainly make conventional flying much safer even if we don’t all end up part-exchanging the family Ford for a Moller M400. And, yet, despite Sats, several of the technologies displayed at Danville were well established rather than futuristic. Munro and Associates, from Troy, Michigan, for example, exhibited designs for a $70,000 personal plane powered by a $3,500 Corvette V8.
In some senses, the Danville show was positively nostalgic, looking back to an age when sci-fi comics and B-movies suggested that we might all be Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, or Dan Dare jetting about in a sky car. Or vaulting into the air by means of trusty jetpacks strapped to our jumpsuits.
The earliest recognised design for a sky car was, I think, the Curtiss Autoplane, as early as 1917. Shown that year at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition, New York, it never flew. Waldo Waterman’s 1937 Studebaker-powered Arrowbile did fly, and five were built, yet somehow the business never quite took off. In the 1950s, Ford began serious research into flying cars but came down to land when the Federal Aviation Administration pointed out that known forms of air traffic control would be wholly inadequate for the volume of take-offs and landings a cheap Ford sky car would encourage.
The prototype ConvAircar crashed in 1947 and that was just about the end of the game until 1956, when Mott Taylor’s Aerocar, one of which still flies, proved that it could be done. A front-wheel drive fibreglass-bodied car powered by a Lycoming aero-engine towed a trailer housing folded wings, tail and rear-mounted propellor. The 65mph car could be converted into a 110mph aircraft in five minutes. It flew and flew well. Yet, the market wasn’t ready for it, and even when Ford expressed an interest in working with Taylor, the invasion of the US by cheap Japanese cars in the early 1970s and the ensuing oil crisis put paid to the affordable flying car.
Might Sats and SkyCar bring it back? Are inventors such as Paul Moller nuts to even bother when none of us really wants the sky (a) clogged and (b) clogged with pilots who ought not to be flying so much as a hostess trolley in their front room? But, as Mott Taylor, the man who did make a car fly, said: “If it weren’t for us nuts, you’d still be reading by candlelight.”