For almost two hundred years, humans have been dreaming of a vehicle which works equally well on the ground and in the air. While trying to achieve this goal, we had a lot of flawed inventions, failed dreams and broken bones. Still, we’ve come a long way by now and might be closer than ever to making flying vehicles a reality.
The concept of a flying vehicle was formed even before cars. The experiments began in the 18th century when a French inventor, Jean Marie Le Bris, decided to turn his horse drawn cart into a gliding vehicle. It sported a 50-foot wingspan and very nearly killed Le Bris on its first and only flight. The Artificial Albatross wasn’t a commercial success, as you might assume.
Another quest to conquer land and air was taken up in 1917 by inventor, thrill-seeker, and all-around galavanter, Glenn Curtis. Curtis knew a thing or two about speed, having set the world’s land speed record in his younger years. His secret was ditching the horse and opting for a newfangled thing called an engine. That’s how the Curtiss Autoplane was born.
Sadly, its meager 75 horsepower engine was insufficient for the task. The best it could manage was the occasional, embarrassing hop. Curtis was humiliated and his dream of a flying car hopped off into the sunset. He had the right idea, but the technology just wasn’t there yet.
Experimental machines of the 40s
If you’re thinking that the flying horsedrawn death trap is the most terrifying vehicle in this list, take a look at the Hafner Rotabuggy. Built by the British Airborne Forces in 1943, it was designed to provide ground transport to troops in enemy territory. The only catch was that it had to be dropped it out of a plane.
It had no power source, which means that before the air resistance caused its rotors to spin, the plane plummeted towards earth at terminal velocity. The Hafner Rotabuggy project was soon dropped in favor of other (hopefully less terrifying) transport technologies.
In 1947 aircraft manufacturer Consolidated Vultee decided it was high time to rekindle the dream of car plane hybrids. Their Convair car was an unholy union of aerodynamics and vehicular engineering and, with its 35 foot wingspan, a masterpiece in true impracticality. After the prototype crashed, consumer confidence died, and the project was scuttled.
The first flying (falling) Ford
By the 1970s, aeronautical technology had come a long way. Henry Smolinski was an inventor and entrepreneur who felt he had finally discovered the secret to unlocking the car plane.
Instead of constructing a commercially successful flying plane from scratch, he decided it’d be far less hassle to chop the wing section of a Cessna plane and weld it to a trusty Ford Pinto. Unfortunately, it all went completely wrong. The wings fell off, Smolinski and his business partner died and the dream of that awesome flying Pinto died with them.
New century and the modern day approach
Flying cars from the 20th century fell into one of three categories. Either they 1) simply didn’t work; 2) kind of worked but weren’t commercially viable; or 3) were so terrifying that no one would get close to them.
In 2009 an inventor named Larry Neal developed the Super Sky Cycle and this time it worked! Neal’s cool helicopter motorcycle design actually began to approach what so many inventors had strived to accomplish since the earliest days of the Artificial Albatross.
Unfortunately, it was still too expensive and risky to work as a commercial product, and the business venture collapsed.
All around the world, different companies began to take advantage of new technologies to find a product which both worked and could become profitable. Recently released Kitty Hawks’ Flyer is a perfect example. It has a flight time of roughly 20 minutes and it’s strictly intended for use over water.
It’s definitely a huge progress, but these machines are still not the perfect sky and road hybrid we dream of.
Futuristic concepts becoming reality
In March 2018, Dutch automotive technologies firm PAL-V unveiled the world’s first commercially manufactured flying car. Yes, after two hundred years of failures, an actual bona fide flying car is slated to hit the markets in early 2019!
With its narrowed front and swept back cockpit style cabin, this beautifully sleek piece of engineering really looks like a car-plane hybrid. It is currently available for purchase at $620,000 but we can always hope that the price will drop in the future.
California startup Opener recently announced the first vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft – The BlackFly. This odd-looking craft resembles a cross between a drone and a space-age coffin. It’s particularly interesting because it won’t require its driver to have a pilot’s license. This improved accessibility may well be a game-changer.
While the Liberty Pioneer and BlackFly are still niche items for the most adventurous and wealthy among us, other companies are working with autonomous technology to bust the flying car market wide open.
Uber’s lofty vision is to place flying car technology into a lot more hands by releasing completely autonomous flying vehicles onto the market as a “mainstream service” by as early as 2023!
If the evolution of flying vehicle projects tells us anything, it’s that we humans are determined to make flying cars happen. It seems that after two hundred years of struggle and innovation we might soon observe such machines becoming a part of the urban landscapes.