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MenuHomeAviationHumansOriginsScienceWeb LinksSite MapContact If a pilots group based in Lawrence, Mass., wants some students from MIT to show off their scale model of a flying car, why would they bring the show to Nashua? For better parking, of course – meaning "parking" from the point of view of airplane fans.

"We were looking for an airport that has a big enough room, so people can fly in for the event!" said Penny Bowman, head of the Boston chapter of the Experimental Airplane Association, which is hosting the unusual talk.

Not many things would bring that many folks flocking to Daniel Webster College on a Saturday morning, but the people behind the Terrafugia company think they’ve got it.

Terrafugia – from the Latin for "escape from land" – is composed of a half-dozen people, most in their 20s, who met at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. If all goes well, they hope to have a prototype by the end of 2008, which is speedy by airplane-development standards. In Nashua they plan to show off the five-foot model they’ve used in wind-tunnel tests.

"Carl (Dietrich), the CEO, has been thinking about this type of vehicle since he was a kid. It’s of those dreams that hasn’t gone away for him – or anyone else in the country, it seems," said Anna Mracek, the vice president for business development of the nascent firm. "Whenever we talk about it, people get excited."

And they’ve been getting excited for a century, since the dream of a flying car is as old as flying and cars, with the first such patent issued in 1918.

A number of models have been built over the years, notably Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar, but even those that solved the technical problems have never been able to overcome regulatory and business drawbacks, and remained novelties.

Terrafugia’s idea is a four-wheel car with wings that fold up at a touch of a button and remain attached to the vehicle. It would land and take off on traditional runways. "This isn’t something you’d use to pick up the kids at soccer" said Mracek. It would allow point-to-point travel over distances of up to 500 miles. You could drive to the airstrip from home, fly to another airstrip, then drive to your final destination, all in one vehicle.

"We call it a ‘roadable aircraft,’ not a flying car. It sounds like just semantics, but it reflects a philosophy difference," said Mracek.

Part of the difference is that the target audience for the estimated $150,000 machine, which is still in the wind-tunnel-testing phase, is pilots who want more convenience, rather than commuters who want to do zipping through the air.

Other differences include new airplane engines developed in recent years that use automobile gas rather than special "av gas" sold at airports; lightweight composite materials for the body; and high-tech avionics, the electronics needed to keep track of flight, which are cheaper and lighter than ever.

Perhaps the most important difference, however, is the "light-sport" category of aircraft and pilot’s licenses approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in late 2004. This license makes it easier for people to become pilots – for example, only 20 hours of flying practice is needed instead of 40 – and also eases some requirements for airplane construction, which both expands Terrafugia’s potential market and lowers its development costs.

"That was definitely one of our enabling pieces," said Mracek. "It reduced the certification burden."

The Daniel Webster talk is part of a market research drive by Terrafugia that will culminate in a trip this summer to Oshkosh, Wis., for the nation’s premier private-plane gathering, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture Oshkosh.

"We’re trying to make sure we’re on the right track in terms of what the pilot community is look for, to make sure we’re working on something that is important to pilots out there," Mracek said.

Daniel Webster College, with its hefty aeronautics program and close links to adjacent Nashua Airport, was a perfect venue for that.

For her part, the aircraft association’s Bowman is wishing them the best.

"I think it would be great," she said of the idea. "There’s so many people who struggle with being able to fly from one location to another. This could make a difference."

May 7, 2006

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Photo courtesy of Terrafugia and Benjamin L. Schweighart

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2006 - Nashua Telegraph