Terrafugia Roadable Aircraft “Transitions” to Flight

The Terrafugia roadable aircraft (“flying car” is so yesterday) flew for the first time on March 5, 2009, according to a statement and videos on the company web site. Called the “Transition”, the light aircraft/car hybrid was designed, developed and built by aerospace engineering graduates from MIT. As I wrote about in one of my blog entries a little over a year ago, of all the “flying car” concepts I’d seen throughout my career as an aerospace engineer, I felt this one had the best chance of not only flying, but being successfully marketed and sold. Looking at the video posted on their site, it looks like they were very conservative on the first flight, basically flying straight and level only about 50-100 feet off the runway. It appears that the test pilot then landed straight ahead on the long runway at Plattsburg, NY, although you can’t really see it touching down. (I’m still curious to see how it lands, especially with its four-wheel landing gear.) The runway at Plattsburg is over 11,000 feet long, which was probably why it was chosen for the first flight. The long runway, built to accommodate B-47 and B-52 bombers during its military days, is also 200 feet wide, making it an ideal place to fly an untested aircraft. As was predicted by the Transition team, the takeoff angle was relatively flat compared to the high pitch angle seen on many light aircraft takeoffs. The low wing, short coupled fuselage configuration pretty much drives a flat takeoff angle, leading to a longer takeoff roll, so the Transition will not be the ideal aircraft to fly off of short runways. Even though the video only shows the airplane flying straight ahead, there is a still photo that shows a Cessna flying chase next to the Transition that seems to indicate that it flew higher than shown in the video. It’s possible that the aircraft flew a complete circuit around the airport on a subsequent flight, but that the company is waiting to show that more exciting video at a later time. 

So, we’ve seen the Transition driving on the road, and now in flight. It appears that the major technical obstacles of a roadable aircraft have been overcome. For aerospace engineers, that may actually be the easy part. Since I wrote my blog entry about the Transition in February 2008, the projected price has ballooned from $140K to almost $200K. In these very difficult economic times, will Terrafugia have not only the money to finish development and certification, but also enough orders to begin and maintain production? As an aerospace engineer, I’m definitely pulling for them to succeed.  If they do,  it could inspire more young people to pursue an aerospace engineering degree, knowing that one day they may not only be able to start a successful aerospace company, but have a heck of a lot of fun doing it.

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