Share This Article

Although many designers have tried to build a practical flying car, the idea never took off.

Traffic is one of the banes of modern existence. What road- weary commuter has not dreamed of being able to simply fly over gridlocked traffic to get to an important meeting or be home in time for dinner? To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott’s famous lines, “Breathes there a motorist with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, ‘I wish I could overfly this traffic ahead?’” Others have longed for the convenience of a roadable aircraft, one that combines the practicality of a car with the speed and efficiency of an airplane or helicopter.

It’s an idea that’s been around for more than a century. Less than 10 years after Henry Ford built his first automobile and three years after the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, a primitive flying car reportedly took to the air in Paris on March 18, 1906. Designed by Romanian Trajan Vuia, who dubbed it an Aerial Carriage, the miniature tractor monoplane resembled a four-wheeled bicycle with birdlike wings. According to some accounts, Vuia managed to get his carriage off the ground—all of 3 feet—that day for a few brief moments. Some Eastern European historians in fact regard him as the third person to fly after the Wrights. Vuia apparently made several successful flights after that, but gave up on his invention after a 1907 crash.

Another, better-known inventor interested in combining an automobile and aircraft was American aircraft designer and pilot Glenn Curtiss. He built a three-seat, four-wheel Autoplane that he referred to as an “aerial limousine” in time to display it at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition of 1917 in New York City. Featuring an aluminum fuselage with three wings and twin-boom tail, it was powered by a 100-hp engine connected to a four-blade prop by a shaft and belts. Curtiss, who fell out with the Wrights over patent claims, eventually received a patent in 1919 for his Autoplane, and it made at least one brief flight of a few feet. But the designer soon lost interest in the project and abandoned it.

In December 1918, Felix Longobardi received the first U.S. patent for a flying car. Drawings of this multipurpose machine show it was intended as a roadable, flyable gunboat, with re tractable wings and an engine in the rear for flight, propellers underneath for operation in water and four wheels for land use. Longobardi’s invention never actually got beyond the sketch phase, but his patent was the first of many to follow for imaginative combined vehicles.

The promise of designing and flying “integrated” or “modular” craft by combining the capabilities of airplanes and automobiles has intrigued inventors ever since. The two approaches ad – dress the same design goal from different directions: A modular craft is primarily an automobile with wings and tail attached; an integrated type is an airplane that has been made road-worthy. Both have drawbacks that have prevented much progress over the years. Roadable Times, an Internet magazine edited by Lionel Salisbury, has traced about 100 of the two basic types in great detail.

French pilot René Tampier, another of the early birds in the quest to marry auto and plane, flew his roadable biplane in November 1921. His integrated design featured wings that could be folded back alongside the fuselage for towing, as well as an additional pair of wheels to steady the plane in that configuration.

After Tampier’s efforts, there wasn’t much interest in flyable automobiles or roadable airplanes during the 1920s. The Depression intervened in the 1930s, but despite economic hard times, there were a few dreamers who kept trying. In fact some writers have called the 1930s and 1940s the golden age of the flying car.

In 1932 Waldo Waterman of Santa Monica, Calif., produced the Whatsit, which he designed as a test platform to study the possibility of a tailless flying wing with tricycle landing gear. That led in 1935 to the Arrowplane, a two-place tailless follow-on with a detachable wing, powered rear wheels and a Menasco 95- hp automobile engine. The Whatsit was said to be stall-proof, but its tricycle wheel design proved unsuited to the highway.

Undaunted, Waterman produced the tailless Arrowbile in 1937 powered by a Studebaker engine, which turned out to be easy to fly as well as drive. Of three Arrowbiles that took off from Santa Monica headed for a demonstration at the 1938 Cleveland Air Races, one was damaged in a forced landing in Arizona, and another suffered the same fate in South Bend, Ind. But the third, piloted by Jerry Phillips—despite several forced landings due to engine problems—performed convincingly well, with a re – ported cruising speed of 100 mph in the air and 65 mph on the ground.

Phillips told the press during one of his stops: “If traffic got heavy, I flew. If the weather got bad, I cruised along the highways.” His tour almost ended in Buffalo, N.Y., when an airliner started taxiing toward him on an intersecting runway. Realizing the pilots didn’t see him, Phillips quickly put the Arrowbile in reverse and backed out of the way as the airline pilots looked on in amazement.

Following his tour, Phillips made recommendations for improvements when he arrived at the Studebaker plant in South Bend, where production of Arrowbiles was being considered. “But war clouds gathered,” he recalled, “and no action was taken.” However, a post–World War II improved design, Arrowbile No. 6 (later spelled Aerobile), was given an experimental certificate by the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) in addition to California state motor vehicle approval as a motorcycle. Still, it didn’t attract much public interest.

Meanwhile, the Autogiro Co. of America, a subsidiary of Pitcairn Autogiro Co., designed and flew the AC-35 Whirlwind, a two-seat roadable autogiro, under a 1935 contract that was part of a development program for the Bureau of Air Commerce. For ground travel or storage, its rotor blades could be folded back and the propeller disengaged.

In 1935 Joseph M. Gwinn, Jr., who had served as a World War I pilot, designed the Aircar, a single-engine, two-seat, tricycle gear roadable airplane with a fat, squat fuselage. Its wings consisted of four panels that were bolted onto the fuselage during road travel. Power from its 90-hp Pobjoy engine could be transmitted to the three wheels after the propeller gearbox was disconnected. Nationally recognized pilots Nancy Love and Frank M. Hawks were hired to demonstrate the Gwinn Aircar. But in August 1938, Hawks died along with his mechanic when he failed to clear a high-tension wire on takeoff from a polo field in East Aurora, N.Y. Production was subsequently suspended.

In 1943 Raoul Hafner, a British de – signer, created the Rotabuggy—an autogiro with free-wheeling rotors mated to a Jeep, dubbed a Blitz Buggy. Its first flight came in November of that year, followed by some test flights behind an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber, to see if the flying Jeep could survive drops from altitude. Tellingly, one British reporter de – scribed those secret tests as “scary.”

Also in 1943, Soviet designer Oleg K. Antonov developed the A-40/KT Krylatyi Tank, an air-towed five-ton armored vehicle fitted with biplane glider wings and twin tail boom. On reaching its target, the aerial tank was meant to be cut loose and dropped, to join ground troops. A prototype, incorporating a T-60 light tank, was built and apparently test flown.

William B. Stout, who has been de – scribed as the aviation industry’s “most whimsical and unpredictable inventor,” was noted for his revolutionary automobile and aircraft innovations—including the Ford TriMotor—as well as his sketches of futuristic aircraft. As such, he seemed ideally suited to develop a flying car. In 1931 he designed the Skycar, a mockup of which was shown at the National Aircraft Show in Detroit that same year. Stout was quoted in the April 1931 issue of Aero Digest as saying, “Any normal, intelligent man or woman with vision good enough to drive a motor car and balance sufficient to walk a straight line should be able to solo this plane within a maximum of four hours.”

Stout predicted in 1943 that the public would be ready to accept the flying automobile concept after World War II. His three-person Aerocar was a good automobile, meant to be used only secondarily as a plane. An addition to the car’s body, comprising a wing and outrigger tail assembly plus a pusher engine, converted the vehicle for flight. The Aerocar was specifically designed for use in populated areas, where its owners needed ground transportation five days a week and an aircraft only for weekend and vacation trips.

Stout took the opposite approach with his Roadable, which was an airplane first and an automobile second. Its wings could be folded back when its owner wanted to travel on the highway. Stout’s Roadable was never produced, but his enthusiasm for hybrid designs sparked increased postwar interest in the concept.

The Advanced Vehicle Engineers (AVE) Mizar (frequently misspelled Mitzar), built be – tween 1971 and 1973, was another attempt to attach flying surfaces to a compact car. In this case, the fuselage, wings and tail of a Cessna Skymaster were mated to the roof of a Ford Pinto. Both the Pinto and Skymaster engines were to be used during takeoff, but the Pinto’s engine would be shut off in flight. Once the hybrid landed, its four wheel brakes would stop the craft, after which its wings could be unbolted and the Pinto driven away.

On takeoff at Oxnard, Calif., in September 1973, however, two Mizar fliers, Henry Smolinski and Harold Blake, were killed after the wings separated from the Pinto. Investigators believed the tragedy resulted because the vehicle was over the tolerable gross weight.

In Roadable Aircraft: From Wheels to Wings, Palmer Stiles lists more than 30 patents issued in the decade after WWII, demonstrating the postwar flurry of interest in combining the two means of transportation. In February 1946, for example, Life magazine featured photographs of a flying car manufactured by Willis Brown, owner of the Southern Aircraft Co. in Garland, Texas. That hybrid was among several designed by Theodore P. Hall, a former development engineer for Consolidated-Vultee. His designs included an all-aluminum monoplane with a low cantilevered wing, and an improved model featuring a one-piece wing and twin boom tail that could be detached for road travel. Another Hall design, the ConvairCar Model 118, was a fourplace roadable plane equipped with a 190-hp Lycoming engine for flying and a 26-hp Crosley engine mounted in the rear for road travel. In 1951 Hall received patents for his Convertible Car-Airplane and Flying Automobile.

Many designers never got further than the patent drawings, but a rare few actually got off the ground. Among the most successful was Robert E. Fulton Jr.’s Airphibian, a conventional two-place, side-byside monoplane with fixed four-wheel landing gear. Fulton adapted the plane for the road by incorporating a combined wing and rear fuselage unit that could be unlocked within three minutes and rolled away on its retractable supporting struts, leaving behind an aluminum-body convertible coupe. In another minute the threebladed propeller could be re – moved and locked onto a bracket on the side of the fuselage.

The first Airphibian prototype took flight in 1945, with the maiden production model test flight coming two years later, on May 21, 1947. A 100,000-mile demonstration tour around the United States followed. Several prototypes actually exceeded 200,000 miles, in the course of which they went through more than 6,000 car/plane conversions. A refined Airphibian prototype became the first roadable plane to receive Civil Aeronautics Administration certification in 1950. Fulton was never able to find a reliable financial backer for his hybrid, however, a fate shared by most flying car visionaries.

In 1953 Leland D. Bryan of Milford, Mich., built and flew three different versions of his Autoplane, which he constructed using ERCO Ercoupe parts. Each had a twin-boom tail and a Continental engine. The first two converted from air to ground use by folding the wings over the top in a rectangle, to form a shield around the pusher propeller. The second of those models was flown for about 65 hours and driven more than 1,000 miles. Bryan’s third model was similar to the others except that it had side-by-side seating and the wings folded only once to an upright position. That Autoplane’s design proved Bryan’s undoing when he died in a crash in 1974 at Oshkosh after the wings failed to remain locked in position during a flight.

Other designs that tried to find a postwar market included the Boggs Airmaster, Hervey Travelplane, Whitaker-Zuck Planemobile and Bertelson Aeromobile. In 1951 Adoph R. Perl became one of the first to receive a postwar patent for a roadable aircraft. His design envisaged wings that folded into the body and a retractable tail boom to reduce the vehicle’s length when operated on the ground. There is no evidence that a prototype was ever constructed.

The Aerocar, by far the most successful flying automobile to date, was developed by Moulton B. “Molt” Taylor, an aeronautical engineer and pilot who decided to improve upon Robert Fulton’s Airphibian. Taylor’s approach was unusual in that his Aerocar carried the wings, rear fuselage and tail on road trips like a trailer and could be converted either way in five minutes. Taylor created his design in 1945, although the Aerocar’s first flight did not come until October 1949. A patent was granted in October 1956, and the CAA certified it that December.

In 1951 Taylor took the Aerocar on a nationwide tour to raise funds In the course of that trip he flew it to Washington, D.C., for military demonstrations, hoping to get a contract from the Army for a flying Jeep (“Fleep”). He soon discovered, however, that venture capital was drying up at that time. Ling-Temco Electronics considered initial production in 1961, but too few buyers signed on and only six Aerocars were built. The designer persisted, following up with two improved Aerocar models. When he died in November 1995, still a firm believer in the flying car concept, Molt Taylor left behind many innovative sketches.

Chrysler responded to an Army proposal in the 1950s to develop a light vehicle that could take to the air when it encountered difficult terrain by designing its own Fleep. The intent was to build a machine capable of hovering as well as flying forward at low altitude. Designated the VZ-6, Chrysler’s 20-foot-long vehicle had neither wings nor rotors, and was powered by a reciprocating 500-hp engine that drove two downward-facing propellers to generate lift. To move forward, the operator—who sat between the propellers—lowered the nose of the vehicle and directed the slipstream rearward by means of ducted vanes.

Two prototypes were built, and tethered flights were made in early 1959. During the first nontethered flight, however, the hovercraft turned over, injuring the pilot. Development of the VZ-6 was terminated in 1960.

In 1940 Henry Ford had declared: “Mark my word. A combination airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile. But it will come.” William T. Piper Sr. was never concerned that the flying automobile would ever replace lightplanes such as his famous Cub. He summed up his reasoning in his 1949 book Private Flying: Today and Tomorrow: “Aerodynamics being what they are, the roadable plane is neither a good plane nor a good automobile. In the air it is held back by an enormous amount of drag due to the ungainly sedan body and automobile wheels. On the ground, the light weight essential for flying works against its performance as an automobile, making it frail and flimsy in comparison with ordinary cars.” More recently, Mark D. Moore, manager of the Personal Air Vehicle Exploration Project at NASA’s Langley Research Center, opined, “When you try to combine them, you get the worst of both worlds: a very heavy, slow, expensive vehicle that’s hard to use.”

Nevertheless, interest in combining flying and driving capabilities in a single vehicle continues. In recent years a number of dedicated flying car enthusiasts have turned their dreams into sketches, engineering drawings and models, and a few have even developed nonflying prototypes. Some of them promote their projects and seek financial support on the Web. For example, Richard A. Strong of Dayton, Ohio, has built an extensive site ( publicizing the Magic Dragon Project, the latest design in his 50 years of experimentation. Strong offers video clips, recordings, reports, mockup photos and CDs to stimulate public interest in his ducted fan–propelled “roadable airplane and flyable roadster.”

Roadable Times currently lists 28 flying cars or roadable aircraft that are in some phase of design and/or development. These include the AviAuto, designed and patented in 1981 by Harvey R. Miller of Baker City, Ore., whose main feature is the capability to change from ground mode to flying mode at the touch of a button. The AviAuto’s innovative conversion mechanisms are reportedly being studied cooperatively by researchers at the University of California, Florida Institute of Technology and Iowa State University.

Rafi Yoeli, an Israeli aeronautical engineer, believes his Urban – Aeronautics X-Hawk, designed to carry a dozen people, and its smaller version, the Mule, will be capable of rescuing people stranded in burning buildings or soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. The X-Hawk is a helicopter without rotors that generates lift via two ducted fans rising from the rear. The fans are protected, so it can taxi anywhere without damaging people or structures. In the air, the X-Hawk is expected to cruise at 155 mph, with enough fuel capacity for two hours of flying time.

Macro Industries of Huntsville, Ala., is working on the design of the two-seat Skyrider X2R flying car. This hybrid vehicle incorporates a fly-by-wire system that would permit it to be autopiloted to a destination via GPS.

Paul S. Moller, an experimenter since 1974, has designed the Skycar M400, a personal VTOL aircraft he calls a “volantor” that is intended to carry four people and replace the automobile. There is no mention of roadability on its Web site (, so it appears this will actually be a hovercraft intended to jump over automobile traffic. Ducted low-emission Wankel rotary engines provide propulsion. A tethered Skycar prototype briefly demonstrated that it could hover, and design refinement continues.

In 2003 K.P. Rice of Santa Ana, Calif., designed the Volante flying car. The Volante’s wings and tail assembly can be detached from the car component within about five minutes and transported by trailer during ground operation. Rice claims about 300 flights have been made in his machine.

Vernon Porter and Clarence Kissell of Murphy, Texas, have labored five years to produce their prototype roadable tri-gear aircraft, the GT Flyer. Its 1,200-pound shell is made of fiberglass and foam, formed by hand. A Mazda RX-8 sports car rotary engine provides propulsion in flight, while a Volks – wagen transaxle transfers the power on the ground. For road trips, the wings fold back into long slots at the base of the body. Plans call for the GT Flyer to be licensed for ground use as a motorcycle. Roger William – son of San Antonio, whose 150-mph Road – runner aircraft with detachable fuselage converts to a three-wheel vehicle for road travel, also intends to license his hybrid as a motorcycle.

Another modern competitor is the Transition, a roadable light aircraft built by Terrafugia, a start-up organization in Woburn, Mass., created by Carl Dietrich and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although now in the one-fifth scale model phase, the folding-wing Transition is planned to be an operational prototype next year, funded by the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize that Dietrich won in 2006.

Designed as a personal air vehicle, the Transition is expected to have a range between 100 and 500 miles on premium unleaded gas and be capable of carrying two people with luggage. It will be equipped with GPS, an electronic calculator for weight distribution and airbags. If it is licensed as a light-sport aircraft (maximum weight of 1,320 pounds and top speed of 138 mph), new FAA rules will permit flights only during daylight hours.

At this writing there have been more than 75 patents on roadable aircraft or flying cars registered in the U.S. Patent Office since 1918. Only two designs—the Fulton Airphibian and Molt Taylor’s Aerocar—have been certified by the government for production, but neither could find sufficient financial backing to succeed.

Roadable Times sums up the many daunting challenges still confronting hybrid developers and makes a plea for practicality as well as safety-mindedness: “The most successful roadable-flyable will be one that is so gentle and forgiving that anybody’s grandmother or grandfather who wants to fly it, and who can qualify for the license, can do it without hurting themselves or anybody else. To those who want to experiment in this field, please design safety into your consideration.”


For additional reading, contributing editor C.V. Glines recommends: Roadable Aircraft: From Wheels to Wings, by Palmer Stiles; Unconventional Aircraft, by Peter M. Bowers; and A Drive in the Clouds, by Jake Schultz. Also see

Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here