Technology

The Unexpected Rebirth of the Flying Car

How the 21st-century military may make one of our wildest and longest-held dreams come true

“This new millennium sucks! It’s exactly the same as the old millennium! You know why? No flying cars!” – Lewis Black

Of all the far-out visions for the future provided us by popular culture (indeed, by this very magazine above almost all else), perhaps none is so conspicuously absent today as the flying car. Other sci-fi fantasies – the invisibility cloak, laser weapons, universal translators, 3-D printers – exist to some degree, if only on a lab bench somewhere. But the flying car, once considered the next logical step in personal transit, simply never took flight.

But now, for the first time since the age of Henry Ford, the flying car has a serious patron. And it’s not some eccentric millionaire or overzealous garage inventor. It’s the United States Department of Defense.

Back in April, DARPA put out a call for proposals seeking a vehicle with some thought-provoking features; a capacity of one to four passengers, enough sturdiness to go off-road, and – most intriguingly – full flight capabilities with vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). Called Transformer, the program sought “terrain-independent mobility,” not just so soldiers could get around physical obstructions, but also to help them avoid ambushes and that most pervasive threat in America’s current military engagements: IEDs.

Some DARPA initiatives die quiet deaths. Others become NASA or the internet. Transformer lay quiet for a few months, but then the proposals started coming in, complete with futuristic but feasible-looking concept drawings: Humvees fitted with collapsible helicopter rotors or huge ducted fans or folding wings (or a combination of the above) sweeping over rugged terrain or sloping third-world cities, gunners hanging out the side door. You could almost hear Ride of the Valkyries playing over some unseen loudspeaker.

But these designs were different from the fanciful schematics that spring up in garages and on Web sites from time to time. Not in spirit or mechanics necessarily, but in the fact that they sought a concrete prize beyond the satisfaction of flight itself: millions of potential defense dollars to develop the prototypes, and perhaps many millions more in contracts should they succeed.

Last month, Maryland-based AAI Corp. landed a $3.05 million DARPA grant to develop its hybrid wing/rotor Transformer vehicle (above). Then Lockheed Martin scored a similar study contract to develop its own alternative Transformer design (right), employing a huge ducted fan on each wing to provide lift and thrust. Shortly thereafter, jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne received $1 million to develop a lightweight diesel engine to power the vehicle. The three companies have already put their heads together on the project. With economic incentives and a strategic imperative in mind, it appears the flying car is finally getting off the ground.

There are various explanations as to why the flying car has not already become a reality, but most plainly it seems we ran out of incentive (if not imagination). In the heady days of the 1920s, the flying car was a foregone conclusion: “Today events in the realm of aviation are tumbling along at such a pace that we can almost imagine ourselves spending next summer’s vacation touring the air roads.” These words, typeset in the November 1926 issue of Popular Science, detailed great strides in the machinery of flight that were bringing the technology down to the common man. The piece included a black and white depiction of Henry Ford next to his compact hybrid car-plane, the “Ford Flivver.” According to Ford, his machine would “be brought within the reach of every man’s pocketbook.” He might as well have been talking about the Model T.

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