Highway to the Sky

Deep in the Mojave Desert, a flying car is born. What’s next?

After a long day of flying, who wants to be bothered with parking the plane, traversing the tarmac and slipping into another driver’s seat just to get home? The solution for the busy pilot on the go: the BiPod, a twin-fuselage vehicle that can be flown up to 200 mph from one cockpit and then driven at freeway speeds from the other.

Think less “flying car” and more “roadable aircraft”—though it’s got Jetsons wannabes buzzing all the same.

Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., unveiled its hybrid gasoline-electric BiPod in July, having taken the project from preliminary design to its first flight in less than four months. Company officials told Aviation Week they were gauging “outside interest in further development,” since Scaled doesn’t produce its inventions for mass consumption. Now they’ve gone mum, with vice president Trish Mills stating that Scaled isn’t granting any interviews or visits to the BiPod’s birthplace.

BiPod Facts

31 feet, 10 inches — Wingspan in flight mode

7 feet, 11 inches — Width in drive mode, with the wings stored in the fuselages

200 mph — Maximum speed

700 miles — Flying range

820 miles — Driving range on one tank of gas, at up to freeway speeds

35 miles — Driving range on battery power alone

The future is being quietly crafted some 220 miles southwest of Las Vegas, in a city with fewer residents than there are rooms at the MGM Grand. Mojave is nestled near Edwards Air Force Base, where the world’s first space shuttle was developed. Half of the rocket engines tested last year were built in this desert town, according to area historian Bill Deaver. And when NASA recently handed out $10 million in grants, three of the seven companies chosen to compete for near-space payload hauls were based in Mojave.

“This is the kind of town where someone says, ‘What, does he think he’s a rocket scientist?’” Deaver says with a chuckle. “And you say, ‘Well, yeah, he is.’” Deaver was there as Scaled tested the BiPod, watching as the vehicle taxied the runway and its front wheels lifted off the ground. “We have a line around here: Look up and you might see a World War II Spitfire or an F-17 Stealth fighter jet—or you might see something no one has ever seen before.”

Mojave does have most of its eggs in one high-tech basket, with California’s Economic Development Department reporting some 17 percent of the town’s workforce was unemployed in July. Still, risk-takers such as Richard Branson have kept its airport fully leased even through the Great Recession while companies such as Scaled keep churning out dream machines like the BiPod that have the potential to revolutionize transportation.

“Innovation is what we do here, because there’s not much else to do in Mojave,” Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan told The New York Times in 2004, moments after he won aviation’s coveted Ansari X Prize for launching the world’s first privately built manned SpaceShipOne nearly 70 miles into the heavens. Rutan has been named among Time’s 100 “most influential people in the world” and described by Newsweek as “the man responsible for more innovations in modern aviation than any living engineer” for the work he’s done in the 29 years since he launched Scaled.

Rutan retired from the company in April and moved to Idaho, Mills said, but not before he worked closely with a small team to get the BiPod off the ground. Scaled is continuing to test and develop the vehicle, planning to use its propulsion system as a low-cost test-bed for other aircraft. No plans to develop or market the BiPod commercially have been announced. After so much innovation and promise, the dream factory is keeping its next step very close to the vest.

Meanwhile, a team of MIT grads and flying enthusiasts who founded Terrafugia in Massachusetts five years ago has its eyes on the personal-aviation marketplace. If The Jetsons and the Transformers had a love child, it might look something like Terrafugia’s roadable aircraft, the Transition. Whereas the BiPod’s wings have to be manually removed and stored in the twin fuselages, the Transition’s wings fold in with the switch of a button and the pilot doesn’t have to leave the single cockpit to switch modes.

“These are not cars,” Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor of Cars.com, says of the BiPod and Transition. “They are planes that pilots can drive to an airstrip.” Because of the training and expertise necessary to man even something as small as the BiPod, Wiesenfelder thinks we’re more likely to see automated flying cars become legitimate modes of transportation than piloted ones. “I love the idea. I think it’s super cool. But it’s obviously not a product for the masses.”

Nonetheless, for the last two years aspiring Transition owners have been able to sign onto Terrafugia.com, download a two-page form and send their refundable $10,000 deposits off via check, credit card or wire transfer. Some 100 people have reportedly reserved the plane so far, with the $269,000 balance due if it does indeed go into commercial production.

UNLV civil engineering professor Alexander Paz, who co-authored a study of on-demand air transportation in 2007, is optimistic about the viability of such vehicles.

“The study indicated that people are very interested and willing to use alternative modes of transportation as long as the associated cost is reasonable,” Paz says. “Once the production cost of these new vehicles reach adequate levels, small local airports and other convenient facilities can be used to provide new transportation services.”

It’s certainly been a challenge to combine two vehicles with inherently contradictory specifications. Planes need to be light, for example, while cars need safety elements that often add to their heaviness. “When something tries to be two things,” Wiesenfelder says, “it doesn’t do either one well.”

Those logistics are part of what drove Terrafugia in June to push anticipated delivery of the Transition back to late 2012, citing “a combination of production design challenges and problems with third-party suppliers.” Things looked brighter a few weeks later, when the company received clearance from the U.S. National Highway Safety Administration that carried the Transition closer to becoming the world’s first street-legal airplane.

But silence doesn’t always mean surrender, and Deaver cautions us not to discount the little Mojave Desert city where so many improbable ventures have taken flight.

“This,” he says, “is where dreams are made.”