The Ups and Downs of the Flying Car

On that summer afternoon in 1954, pilots at Seattle's Boeing Field could have been forgiven for shaking their heads as they watched an automobile roll down the runway, take off, and soar out of sight. Just minutes before, the automobile had been driving down the old Pacific Highway with wings and tail in tow. Moulton B. "Moult" Taylor, the car's designer and builder, was at the wheel.

Taylor had just driven from a parking spot in front of the Ben Franklin Hotel, where aviation notables attending a conference could peer through the windows of his Aerocar and examine it to the ebullient tune of Taylor's sales pitch. One of them had taken Taylor aside and said, "Mr. Taylor, one of these days the Aerocar will displace the commercial airline except on the long-distance haul." The man was W. A. Patterson, then the president of United Airlines.

Yet here I am 30 years later at Moult Taylor's diminutive airplane factory in Longview, Washington, looking at one of only seven Aerocars ever built. Something went wrong. That something, according to Taylor, was government regulation.

But even the sympathetic listener has to wonder if 71-year-old Taylor's passion for the machine that is the centerpiece of his life's work has clouded his vision. After all, who other than a few Popular Mechanics freaks would buy a car that flies, even if government didn't stand in the way? And after showing it off to the boys on the block, what would a buyer do with the thing? And how safe could one in the sky be-much less the thousands, even hundreds of thousands, Taylor dreams of?

He dispatches my reservations, as well as some I hadn't thought of, with a shower of ideas that pop in my ears like little firecrackers. I am talking to a rare bird who combines vision, technique, and the ability to spin wrenches, and my doubts about the Aerocar have betrayed my own lack of vision.

Who would buy it? A person who wants to get into his car at home, drive to a convenient spot towing the wings and tail on integral wheels, rig for flying in five minutes, fly at 150 miles per hour to the vicinity of his destination, unhook the wings, and drive the rest of the way. No airports, no waiting lines, no highway congestion, no 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, no rent-a-car. The Aerocar would appeal to people like sales reps for whom time is money; families off to see grandma for the holidays; commuters who have spent as much time hassling traffic lights and freeway interchanges as they care to.

Third World countries that lack a well-developed intercity highway system would benefit enormously from the Aerocar. It comes complete with its own freeway at no extra charge and sells for about the price of a new Lincoln. Not bad when compared to the traditional light planes being built today-with 1930s technology-for $50,000 on up.

Safe? The Aerocar passed all of the tests required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) during certification, as well as a lot of tests they didn't require. But as I listen to Taylor talk, I realize that the very idea of him designing an unsafe airplane is ludicrous. He's designed 15 or 20 different models that are flying-hundreds of airplanes in all. He designs airplanes because that is what he loves, and they are safe because carefully designed airplanes are safe, not because the FAA is watching. The few Aerocars that went into everyday operation flew a total of 9,000 hours without serious incident except for one Aerocar pilot, a cranberry magnate with a flair for the unusual, who hit a horse while landing on a road in Cuba. (He made repairs at a country service station and flew his Aerocar back to Boston.)

Naturally, far more territory and objects are potentially vulnerable to falling aircraft than to car or truck accidents that occur on streets or highways. But as Taylor points out, the requirements for a license to operate a light plane are far more stringent than those for getting a driver's license, and pilots-unlike most car drivers-must demonstrate their proficiency at flying from time to time. Partly because of these tougher standards, Taylor suggests that general aviation is a relatively safe form of travel, and if the same standards were applied to Aerocar pilots as to general-aviation pilots, there's no reason why their safety record wouldn't be equally as good.

Practical? The Aerocar can be converted from plane to car (or car to plane) by one person in 5-10 minutes. The wings, tail, and rear-mounted propeller snap into place, and the engine can't be started if any component is improperly positioned. It carries two passengers and baggage. (It could carry three, but FAA regulations prohibit more than two; both must sit in the front seat.) The panel has all the instruments necessary for monitoring the engine and for flying under visual conditions. The steering wheel serves as the control mechanism in flight-turn the wheel to roll the airplane, pull back to climb, and so on. Moreover, the most advanced of the Aerocars is pleasing to the eye. It could pass for an Italian sports car, with the interior trimmed with leather and plush carpet. On the road, the Aerocar gets 15 miles per gallon; in flight, it burns 8 gallons of fuel per hour and has a 32-gallon tank.

Of all the engineering accomplishments that made the Aerocar possible, the most significant is the rear-mounted prop. This is different from a "pusher-prop" in that it is mounted behind the elevator and rudder. Its advantage is large: driving around with a propeller out front just wouldn't have worked. The propeller is turned by a shaft with a "dry fluid drive," a device filled with tiny ball bearings that have some of the qualities of fluids and some of the qualities of solids. The dry fluid drive overcomes "torsional pulsing" problems created by reciprocating engines. Thus, without it, a long shaft from engine to prop wouldn't be possible. Taylor recently did some consulting with the Air Force Association on a flying Wright Brothers replica that was having this "pulsing" problem, and he solved the problem by using a dry fluid drive.

Taylor points out that there have been no advances in individual travel since 1943, when I was born, and he asks, "Are we going to be stuck with the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit forever-more? Is this the fastest we are ever going to go?" And whose fault is it that we aren't going faster? "Government. Government."

Ford Motor Company took a tentative peek at the Aerocar in the early '70s, more as a politically motivated favor to a Department of Transportation (DOT) official than out of serious interest.

But Ford was surprised to find that Taylor had a serious, technically advanced product, not a gimmick. Ford sent Richard Place to its New Product Development office to give the Aerocar a full evaluation with an eye to going into production. Place, with many years of experience as a pilot and as an automobile-industry executive, became convinced that the Aerocar was a logical next step in the evolution of personal transportation.

Ford, the company that created the modern automobile industry by mass producing 15 million Model Ts, is no stranger to innovation. To be financially successful, Ford would have to adapt mass-production assembly-line techniques to the Aerocar, Place believed, a step that would require a tooling investment of "hundreds, perhaps billions of dollars." And Ford would have to build a minimum of 20,000 to 30,000 a year, a massive undertaking even for a company of Ford's size.

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