Friday, December 03, 2010

Duck and Cover: here comes the airborne Humvee

Many years ago, while tootling down I-95 from a weekend visit to Maine, we were stopped dead in our tracks for quite a while. As folks are wont to do when stuck in traffic, we gabbed about how cool it would be if we could just go airborne and fly over the whole mess. This capability, of course, would have to be reserved for our little fun on four wheels.  Hell, if everyone could turn their car into a plane, then the skies would be full. Of course, the skies are bigger than the highway system. Still, the Jetson thought of everyone flying from Point A to Point B is scary.

How many millions of air traffic controllers would we need? (Bring back PATCO!) Would people heed the traffic controllers, or decide that they were entitled to whatever open area they spotted, in much the same way that a-holes take to the breakdown lane when there’s a lot of traffic (no doubt congratulating themselves that they are smart enough to do so,  when all these dummies like me are resting our heads on our steering wheels and sighing)?* Would people fly recklessly, weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds, not signaling?  Would they fuselage-gate? Would the State troopers take to the skies, with interceptor engines?

On that day in Maine, we found out, once the traffic began to move, that someone had landed a Piper Cub (historic Rogers’ family shorthand for any small plane) on the highway. Kind of the reverse of the great highway escape we had been envisioning for ourselves, before we returned to to our fear-of-flying-car senses.

Still, I was intrigued to learn that there is a flying car in the works – and has been for a few years – and one company that’s building one, Terrafugia, is local:

Terrafugia (ter-ra-FOO-gee-ah) was founded in 2006 by award-winning MIT-trained aeronautical engineers and MBA's – who also happen to be passionate private pilots. The company’s mission is to provide innovative solutions to the challenges facing personal aviation. The result: the Transition Roadable Aircraft.

As an MIT-trained MBA (albeit not an award-winning one), I began to like this company even more (albeit with my flying car fear-factor still operative).

Their Transition is a “dual-purpose” vehicle, but it’s built more or less as a plane you can drive, rather than a car that can fly. I.e., you drive your Transition to the airport and take off. You don’t just start cruising around, getting your kicks on Route 66, and decide you want to fly over (not drive through) Winslow, Arizona.

Still, the handwriting is on the wall – or the contrail is in the sky – and at some point or another these “dual-purpose” vehicles will no doubt be de rigueur for those who have one of everything else, and feel that their estates aren’t complete unless they have both a hangar and a (12-car) garage.

Still, it’s kinda cool looking, although still a little scary. I know, I know: if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns, and in the hands of good pilots/drivers, the Transition will work. But what about bad drivers, of which there are so damned many.

Ominously, the model pictured has Mass license plates. Our Commonwealth, I’m a-feared, is considered something of a national model for bad drivers (although I don’t know if this is borne out by the facts, and I’m too lazy to look it up).

But the Transition is not aimed at bad drivers.

The Transition® addresses head-on the issues private and sports pilots face: cost, weather sensitivity, high overall door-to-door travel time and a lack of mobility at destination.

No more getting stuck with a crappy rent-a-car with failed AC in the middle of the desert, as has happened to me.  You just take off in your Transition.

More ominously than those Mass. plates, Terrafugia is working with the Pentagon to develop a flying Humvee. (Source: Boston Globe.)

Not that I begrudge the Pentagon working on this way-cool Transformer, “a four-person flying military vehicle,” which is a hybrid Humvee-helicopter sort of thang.


The Transformer will be used for:

…medical evacuation, avoidance of improvised explosive devices, remote resupply, and Special Forces insertion.

It’s all good, military-wise.

What I’m worried about here is that the Transformer will end up the same way the Humvee did: used by civilians for no purpose other than to show-off, intimidate, and guzzle gas.

I was delighted when they stopped producing the Hummers.  Who needed them?

I live in a crowded urban neighborhood, and, during the Humvee hey-day, there were a couple of these beasts on our narrow streets, casting a mighty scary shadow on my lowly Beetle.

My fear is that there’ll be no stopping some gear and propeller-heads from wanting a Transformer of their own.

The Transition I can see.

The Transformer? Puh-leeze, oh lords of the firmament and the earth, do not let this become a consumer item.


*Every time I see someone pulling this trick I think ‘where’s a cop when you need one?’ Well, one day – I believe it was on Route 3 where it meets Route 128 – there actually was a cop, pulling over the scofflaws and ticketing them. Tee-hee!

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