Terrafugia Roadable Aircraft Gets Weight Break from FAA, But Still Far From Production

The Terrafugia Transition roadable aircraft that I have blogged about before is in the news again. A recent press release from the company states that the FAA has upped the maximum gross weight (plane, fuel, passengers, baggage) limit of the Transition by 110 pounds, for a total of 1430 pounds at takeoff. The Terrafugia team is attempting to certify the Transition in the Light Sport Aircraft category to reduce certification costs and complexity. The FAA made the exception for the Transition due to the fact that it is designed to be driven on roads like a car after landing at an airport. The additional weight will allow the Transition to include typical car safety features such as airbags.

While this is encouraging news for the Transition, I believe the company still has a ways to go before they can deliver a production aircraft. After talking with a Terrafugia rep at Oshkosh last summer (see picture below of the Terrafugia display at Oshkosh), I am a little less optimistic than I originally was that the company can deliver an aircraft in the time frame they are currently quoting (4th quarter 2011), if at all. Although the prototype did fly successfully, from what I read, and saw in company videos, it never flew a complete circuit  around the airport during the flight test program. That would require a series of 90 degree turns, of which I have never seen any video. It appears that the test pilot only took off and flew straight ahead, landing further down the very long runway. To me this indicated they encountered stability and control issues with the prototype that would not be acceptable in a production aircraft.  The rep at Oshkosh said they had to go back to redesign parts of the aircraft to address stability issues, but nothing that couldn’t be solved in the second design iteration. In the press release announcing the gross weight increase, Terrafugia says they will unveil “…computer graphics of the production prototype design..” at the big Airventure airshow in Oshkosh, WI later this month. But I’m thinking If they only have computer graphics to show at this time, the first flight of their second version must not be scheduled for any time soon. Add on the extensive flight test program that will be required to certify the production-ready Transition after first flight, and it looks like the end of 2011 to begin delivering production aircraft is very optimistic. I think the real problem is not as much technical as it is financial. I got the feeling from the Terrafugia rep that they need more money to get them through the certification process successfully. Having to build a whole new pre-production aircraft and test it certainly doesn’t help with the cost situation. With the estimated cost of a production aircraft near $200K, they probably don’t have enough deposits to keep them going until production.They claim to have 70 deposits of $10K each, for a total of $700K – in my opinion not nearly enough to get to production. I’m sure they are seeking other investors to help them out, but in these tough financial times, investors in high risk ventures are much harder to find. I’m still pulling for Terrafugia to be successful, but sometimes having the best, most innovative aircraft design does not always mean you will be successful. Luck and timing has a lot to do with it, and ufortunately Terrafugia is trying to make all this happen in one of the most difficult economies the world has seen in the past 50 years.