By J.R. Wilson
DAVIS, Calif. — In the wake of World War I, private aviation boomed in America as barnstorming pilots, most of them ex-military, took to the skies to introduce many of their countrymen to the airplane. It was about that same time a dream was born — that someday anyone who wanted one could own an airplane.
U.S. military leaders say they will start buying the flying Moller Skycar within the next three years.
After World War II that dream began to take a new shape as private automobiles made the U.S. the most mobile society in history — a society in which aviation emerged as a vital component. It was only natural that cars and planes merged in the minds of futurists, who predicted the coming of a new form of transport — the personal flying car. Yet like so many of the concepts born of science fiction and techno-optimists during the 20th Century, the flying car failed to materialize.
As the 21st Century dawns, most people, no doubt, would be surprised to learn that the notion of a flying car not only lives on, but is the thrust of a serious joint program by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. This program seeks to set guidelines for certifying flying cars and the technologies and regulations needed to make it a reality before the new millennium has completed its first quarter century.
More importantly, especially in light of where most technological progress has emerged in recent years, private industry is far ahead of even the dreams of the government. In fact, leaders of at least one company — Moller International of Davis, Calif. — plan to begin test flying their M400 Skycar this year.
Company founder Paul Moller, who has been pursuing this particular dream since his teens in Canada, built his first full-scale prototype "ground effects vehicle" in 1964. He is convinced his Skycar will become a part of the U.S. military's battlefield fleet within three years and private transportation before the end of the decade. The primary barrier to the latter, he says, is not technology, but government certification and regulations.
Which is where the NASA/FAA Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) comes into play, a five-year study effort, first funded by a sometimes-skeptical Congress for 2001 to the tune of $9 million.
"In a nutshell, in five years what we want to do is set the stage and get all the pieces in place so SATS is ready to meet the transportation challenges of this country in this coming decade," says Dave Hahne, SATS program planning lead at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "It will take some time for it to grow into adulthood. The national airspace is big and complex and it is difficult — if not impossible — to make sweeping changes overnight.
The Moller Skycar is envisioned to be not only a private flying automobile, but also to fulfill law-enforce-ment, military, and public transportation.
The first thing that FAA officials must do is make sure it is at least as safe as what they have today, Hahne says. Meanwhile, Bruce Holmes, manager of NASA's General Aviation Program Office at Langley, spent a good portion of 2000 trying to convince members of Congress — and especially those in the House, who initially rejected the idea — to authorize money for SATS.
By government standards — and considering the sea change a successful SATS implementation would bring to transportation and society — the five-year plan might be considered a bargain at an estimated $69 million.
"Future demand cannot be satisfied through planned national investments in the maturing aircraft hub-and-spoke and automobile highway systems," Holmes said in launching the SATS concept in July 1999. "We have a goal to enable doorstep-to-destination travel at four times the speed of highways throughout suburban, rural and remote communities served by public use airports." NASA and the FAA, however, predict it will take an additional 25 years of research, technology innovation and implementation, certification and regulation, and writing and demonstrations of viability before the ultimate dream of personal air transport comes to pass.
Not everyone agrees with such a long and drawn-out timetable.
Moller insists the technologies already are available to create a new system of private air transportation that is fully automated from the beginning. Moller has been working since 1965 what he calls a "volanter" — defined as "a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that is capable of flying in a quick, nimble and agile manner [Lat. volare, to fly; Fr. volant, to move in a nimble and agile manner]". But only now have all the necessary pieces come together.
"I'm very dependent on technology — computers, software, engines, composites, all have added to the potential for success. We were way out there back in the Sixties without all those," he says.
Those advances are not limited to the vehicle itself, but also apply to what the SATS people call the "e-frastructure".
To read more, click here.