My left leg had begun to ache, as is often the case on long drives. We’d covered some 711 interstate miles by the time we pulled into the motel lot in Johnson City, Tennessee, that day. I’d earned a steak, a bed and a tumbler of Jack, and not in that order. Tomorrow, another 350 mi. before reaching the gate. Ugh.

An airplane guy, I should explain the reason for choosing asphalt over air. Our son was returning from a nine-month deployment and his mother and I were going to be there cheering wildly as he walked off his transport. Period. We would have airlined it, but his exact arrival date had been unsure and since buying tickets at the last minute would have been dicey and pricey, we hit the highway instead.

Coursing hours along an interstate with cruise control locked at 70 mph (well, maybe a few clicks higher) induces reflection, and some of mine focused on the marvel beneath our tires. Upon entering the interstate system, a motorist can drive to Seattle, Sacramento, San Antonio or Sault Sainte Marie without encountering a traffic light or, theoretically, slowing below a mile a minute. And with enough gas and gumption, you can do that for a very long time since the system now comprises 47,000 mi. of multilane, divided highway. 

The network’s creation began during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, and bears the name of its champion. In fact, the symbol for “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” is five stars in a circle, commemorating Eisenhower’s rank as General of the Army in World War II. It was in that latter capacity, moving men, weapons and materiel across Europe, that he came to appreciate the logistical genius of Germany’s autobahn with its “broader ribbons across the land.”

As a young officer Eisenhower had participated in a military convoy that traveled from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. The journey along paved and dirt roads as well as wheel paths, desert sands and mountain trails, took 62 days and averaged 6 mph, and its rolling stock was involved 230 accidents along the way. The War Department concluded that the country’s road network was “absolutely incapable of meeting the present day traffic requirements.” The year was 1919. 

Yet less than 20 years later, German drivers were zooming unimpeded at ten times the speed over smooth, wide, limited access roadways stretching thousands of kilometers between major cities.

Now the Europeans may be at it again.  The European Union is funding a project involving a half-dozen institutes whose purpose is to identify the impediments and possible remedies to commuting in “personal aerial vehicles.” Yeah, it’s hard not to snicker. The flying car is an old idea — Glenn Curtiss was promoting an Autoplane eight years before Eisenhower’s sorry convoy set out from D.C. — that has failed every time (I know the Taylor Aerocar and Fulton Airphibian got certified; good luck buying one.) 

However, technologies are emerging  — think UAVs, Google’s driverless car, ADS-B — that, together with regulatory relief, could end the clucking. And there are some really bright people on both sides of the Atlantic who might have the last laugh. Carl Dietrich is one of them. 

It was his sketch in 2005 that has evolved into the Transition, a “two-place, fixed wing, street legal airplane.” During a recent visit to the Terrafugia headquarters/R&D facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, I saw it on a dynamometer, which is calibrating its road performance. But the thing, technically a roadable light sport aircraft with folding wings and Rotax 912iS power, has logged more than 100 flight hours. So far no show stoppers have emerged on the ground or in the air.

Hardly a thing of beauty, the vehicle is intended to address the four main drawbacks to aircraft operation and ownership as delineated by private pilots to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers. These are: impeding weather; the high cost; excessive door-to-door travel time; and the lack of ground transport at the destination.  

With the Transition, a pilot could drive through storms while burning autogas and then park the thing in the garage. Dietrich notes it’s the only VFR aircraft “in which the owner can say, ‘I know I’ll be back home Monday.’ That’s huge.”

Progress has been slower than anticipated, but steady. An MIT aeronautical engineer like several others on his 25-person team, Dietrich hopes to flight test a conforming prototype in 2015 and begin deliveries the following year. His hope is that it will “excite a lot of people about aviation.” At $279,000 per, we’ll see, but I hope he’s right. 

Neither the Transition nor any other flying car will displace true business aircraft, but attracting more participants to aviation benefits the community as a whole by increasing economic activity, advancing technology and infrastructure and bolstering political clout. And in forecasting. After all, if you see one going the other way on I-80, you’ll know there’s weather ahead. B&CA