July 8, 2011

I don't want my flying car

Here's a video of a new flying car.

My dad worked on a flying car in 1938. It was pretty similar to this one in concept, except you had to do the conversion manually, bolting on the wings and propeller. Also it had only three wheels (tricycle style). It really did fly and the company made about 20 of them. But the FAA never approved it, saying that the front wheel mount was too likely to buckle on landing. So, the company sold all the units to the Japanese. 

It's a really, really hard engineering problem, which is why they're still working on it over 70 years later.

One problem with flying your own light plane around is what do you do after you land. Rent a car?

The other problem is that flying is more dangerous than driving, and not that many people are cut out to be pilots. I'm only an average driver, so I've never wanted to be a pilot. I'm not a good quick decisionmaker, and flying seems like a good way for me to turn my bad decisions into my funeral.

For example, my cousin took off once from Oakland with his sister on board the Cessna to show her what a good pilot he'd become. But, on what turned out to be her one and only flight, then a pea soup fog rolled in off the Pacific and they spent the next few hours looking for a hole in the fog with an airport in it. As his sister recounted in detail, they finally found one with about a gallon of fuel left. 

Even with clear weather, uncareful pilots would get lost all the time. It was hard to figure out where you are. William F. Buckley recounts how when he was a student at Yale, he stayed up five days in a row studying for his finals, then, hopped up on speed, he immediately went to airport to take a celebratory flight. (He'd been a flight instructor in the Army during WWII.) An hour later, he started to come down from his chemical elation and realized he had no idea what state he was over. He finally swooped low enough to read the road signs on the highway and got back to the airport that way.

Okay, the take home message would be that piloting and WFB's pill consumption habits don't go together well. But still ...

So, my question is: Has computerization and GPS and weather forecasting and so fort done much too make being a private pilot safer than a generation ago?

42 comments:

James Kabala said...

People took speed in 1950? Live and learn.

Leggs said...

I would guess that automation has been of marginal value in improving the safety of light aircraft. GPS would have taken your cousin to the nearest airport, but the equipment in a light plane would still not have gotten him down through the fog to land. Commercial and military aircraft have gotten safer becasue the modern power to weight ratios have given them a larger margin of capability for flying out of trouble, and they do have sophisticated auto pilot and positioning systems but a modern light aircraft is essentially in the same league as one from the 30's.
The ruthless physics have not changed. Flight is a high kinetic and potential energy activity conducted in the confusion of three dimensions and danger will alwyas be there.

Anonymous said...

you still have to take off and land, that and weather conditions (ice, wind shear) are what get people killed.

Anonymous said...

Hell, speed was everywhere in the 1950's. james Bond took speed in the first few of Fleming's books, and lots of famous people used benzedrine. I'm not sure what the legal status of speed was, but no one thought much about it. Heck, as I recall, lots of famous people in the late 50's and early 60's also experimented with LSD, which was not illegal at the time. My dad took what was probably speed ("pep pills" in the army. The 50's were a LOT different than what most of today's young people have been told.

Anonymous said...

James: WH Auden was a notorious speedfreak.

Also, the Nazis invented (or popularized, I am not sure) a method of synthesizing methamphetamine. It's known as the "Nazi formula," and was used on soldiers.

In fact, all manner of hard drugs used to be used with reckless abandon. The main advances in the recreational psychopharmacopeia since the time of our hunting fathers have been in psychedelics.

At some point, Mr. Sailer should write on the differences changing drug consumption, particularly among the priestly [re: public intellectual] ruling class, have had on the popular mood.

Steve Sailer said...

"At some point, Mr. Sailer should write on the differences changing drug consumption, particularly among the priestly [re: public intellectual] ruling class, have had on the popular mood."

That's a good topic, but not for me. I don't have enough first hand experience and I'm not willing to get more.

Kylie said...

"People took speed in 1950? Live and learn."

Heck, yes, and they took it decades before that, at least in Hollywood they did.

David O. Selznick was a notorious pill popper. It's how he was able to pursue his other notorious habit, issuing memos, to the chagrin of all who worked for or under him.

MGM got Judy Garland hooked on speed to keep her weight down and her energy level up so she could perform in all those musicals with Mickey Rooney.

In my own middle-class neighborhood in the early 60s, a couple of the moms popped pills so they could go on marathon cleaning and ironing sessions. They called them "pep pills".

" The 50's were a LOT different than what most of today's young people have been told."

Yes, and in some ways they were a LOT better.

jaakkeli said...

With the price tag on this thing, it will be a lot cheaper to buy a simple airplane and rent a car wherever you land. You can buy a couple of decent Cessnas with that money. And that's only counting the price in the article: you'll also end up with the cost of insuring a $250 000 car that probably drives pretty poorly and needs to meet the very strict safety standards for airplanes while getting exposed to the hazards of the public road.

It's just much more natural to keep the fragile, expensive vehicle in an airport hangar and drive around with the cheaper cars that can handle punishment better. If someone bumps into your car while parking, you might get away with the guy at the gas station putting in a new rear light but no chance of that with the air traffic authorities.

Not to mention there's a reason nobody buys an amphibious car or a motorbike-snowmobile or a boat that can be both a ship and a submarine ... optimization for a particular medium of transportation has such large benefits in efficiency and performance that it will always be better to keep swapping vehicles.

AmericanGoy said...

German soldiers in WW2 took benzadrine.

Lots and lots of it.

Kylie said...

I don't want to fly, drive or ride in anything that looks like it was built by the Acme Corporation.

Steve Sailer said...

"It's just much more natural to keep the fragile, expensive vehicle in an airport hangar and drive around with the cheaper cars that can handle punishment better."

That was the problem in 1938. They made it a 3 wheeled car to save weight when it flew, but the FAA was worried that drivers would bump the one wheel in front into curbs, weakening the front wheel struts, which could give way on a hard landing, ramming the cockpit into the runway at landing speed.

It's a pretty fundamental problem.

Dave said...

Have a look at the Parajet Skycar to see the right way to build a flying car - at least they have the principle right. One of those designs that just makes you think 'oh, right, *that's* how you solve that problem' - you know it's the right answer as soon as you see it.

jody said...

small aircraft are still pretty dangerous. but with a robot flying the car instead of the person sitting inside, take off and landing become less dangerous, i assume. we have to bring up that uncomfortable HBD topic: you DO NOT want the average woman to possess a flying car. she will kill herself quickly, and might take people with her. steve said his dad's company sold all their prototypes to japan, but can you imagine the skyline over tokyo or seoul or beijing, filled with asian woman sky drivers?

of course what we're really talking about here, with the flying car, is ten thousand small aircraft all in the air together at the same time over the same city. crashing into each other is far more likely than getting lost. so this flying car thing, it won't work, not without some new kind of traffic control. and forget our thought experiment about the skies over east asia. south asia would be a disaster. in india, they can't drive period, and have no traffic control for ground vehicles. these people can't be trusted with personal air vehicles.

i think robert zemeckis tried to show such a thing in back to the future 2, and there was also a display of flying car society in the fifth element. blade runner showed flying cars but didn't portray much in the way of traffic control - it looked more like existing air traffic control than our putative future of "red light yellow light green light in the sky".

i know mercedes and volkswagen have been working for a while on getting cars to sense each other on the road, and to automatically maintain distance. perhaps a similar aeronautical system would be employed here, in three dimensions.

Anonymous said...

Drugs in the Fifties: Read Kerouac for first hand accounts. And the there's James Ellroy, whose fictional Los Angelinos - cops and civilians alike - were always swallowing uppers.
Gilbert P.

David said...

All we need is to have the average American - millions of 'em - negotiating an extra dimension on the way to work every morning.

Anyway, the flying car will never "fly" - can you imagine the lawsuits? The litigation hazard involved would be so enormous, it could crater what's left of the justice system (perhaps by means of restricting to near-zero the average person's ability to sue for almost anything).

David said...

One of his daughters says she thinks Orson Welles became obese because his metabolism was janked by all the speed he took in the 1930s. ("By the handful," a co-worker described Mr. Welles's method of self-dosing.) Burgess Meredith in his autobio said Welles introduced him to speed as a lovely thing. It enabled 24-hour+ theatre rehearsals and such.

Watch "Citizen Kane" again. Some of those folks seem rather lively. Do they not?

And speaking of Old Hollywood films generally, what about "His Girl Friday"? You can't tell me nobody was wired in that.

Anecdotally, every actor I know well is a substance user of some kind (though not speed freaks, strangely enough; most are pot-, hash-, and/or acid-heads). Whenever they cut back on the stuff, they merely inaugurate an increase in their boozing.

Anonymous said...

You guys should check this out....

http://www.hover-bike.com/index.html

Steve Sailer said...

Drugs are a pretty constant theme in Heinlein's sci-fi novels from 1940s onward, even in his juveniles.

Anonymous said...

In case it wasn't mentioned, the flying car comes equipped with airbags, and a parachute. With GPS, I wouldn't be afraid of flying in one-if I were driving.
The parachute makes a big difference for me. Get overloaded by circumstances, just say "fuckit," hit the chute, and let the air bags take care of the rest.

Mr. Anon said...

"Kylie said...

In my own middle-class neighborhood in the early 60s, a couple of the moms popped pills so they could go on marathon cleaning and ironing sessions. They called them "pep pills"."

Mother's Little Helper:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfGYSHy1jQs

Although, I think they're actually referring to downers, not uppers.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

Drugs in the Fifties: Read Kerouac for first hand accounts. And the there's James Ellroy, whose fictional Los Angelinos - cops and civilians alike - were always swallowing uppers.
Gilbert P."

Elroy's novels, at least the better ones like "L.A. Confidential" or "The Big Nowhere" are a form of speed themselves - you can easily stay up all night reading them. And then one feels the need for a long hot shower to wash off the resultant dirty, grimy feeling.

Anonymous said...

The popularity of this thread's subtopic leads me to think that the flying car isn't an engineering problem, but a chemical one. Just ask my old friend Harry.

Tscottme said...

Steve, the automation hasn't made its way into most of the general aviation fleet. Most GA aircraft are still 20-50 years old but they now sport a portable GPS unit and a active noise-canceling headset and reliable radios.

The automation is in the few new aircraft sold ($250k and up, the personal/business jets, and the airliners).

The new aircraft that are selling Cirrus/Cessna Columbia has a "panic button" that will return the aircraft to straight and level flight if the pilot becomes disoriented (not disorien-TATED) and the aircraft can be equipped with a balistic parachute recovery system that lowers the entire aircraft to the ground if necessary. This aircraft, I believe James Fallows flies this, costs about $250k. So it's like seeing a commercial for Mercedes or Lexus new uber-wagon and presuming the '98 Mitsu Eclipse in the next lane can park itself or has night vision deer detectors.

The 2 biggest causes of GA aircraft crashes are running out of fuel and flying into bad weather. These indicate a persistence of bad judgment.

AOPA.org is the NRA of aircraft community. They have lots of stats. It's safer than in the past but the safety record hasn't progressed at the exoponential rate that airline safety has improved. Automation and a revolution in crew training technique has revolutionized airline flying. Many years airlines have zero deaths in the US while they fly about a half billion passengers in the US.

Here's an idea for HBD research, why do Latin American and African airlines have such high accident rates compared to US/Euro airlines with Asian airlines in between? You see cultural difference in starl and measurable ways at any sufficently busy flight school.

Marlowe said...

Ayn Rand also partook of speed. The founders of modern American conservatism, ripped to the tits!

Darfur Miller said...

Your question could best be answered by taking flying lessons.

I flew actively for twenty years before the kind of flying I liked doing became too expensive. The value of the antique biplanes and warbirds has gone through the ceiling, just like most eligible vintage road racing cars, another activity I participated in. It had nothing to do with fuel costs or the great bugaboo product liability.

I started out in PA-18 Super Cubs, went to Stearmans and eventually BT-13s, T-6s and even got to get dual in and eventually solo a P-51-all in my early twenties and all on the salary of a railroad clerk. Flying anything like that today means buying one. A Mustang is half a million to a million dollars today.

Piper, Beech and Cessna make roughly the same light planes they always have. They quit for a while because of "product liability", but that is bullshit. The real reason was and is that corporate jets are a lot more profitable per square foot of hangar space and per dollar of employee salary. Aircraft plant employees are NOT well paid-as a function of the value their work produces per dollar of net spendable generated or the gross price of the finished product they have never been paid less, they are getting wages far lower than UAW auto workers.

I doubled my salary and then some when I quit Cessna in Wichita and went to work for the (then) Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe RR. I was already a licensed A&P and had just gotten my commercial, multi and instrument rating. To get ANY flying job with Cessna then you had to have an ATP and Citation rating or several thousand hours GA time with CFI and CFII ratings and experience and a four year college degree.

As a kid you had a lot of blue collar union workers who flew and owned airplanes. That is mostly gone. Most were straight and level day VFR pilots and fatal wrecks were rare.

That market was abandoned by the GA industry not because it was not profitable but because Citations and Caravans were MORE profitable. Which is why the RR abandoned passenger service and why the electronics industry got rid of Heathkit and made it hard for hobbyists to buy electronic parts.

The Europeans would have whacked their balls really hard for that. Which is why they still have those things there. And also manufacturing.

Darfur Miller said...

Your question could best be answered by taking flying lessons.

I flew actively for twenty years before the kind of flying I liked doing became too expensive. The value of the antique biplanes and warbirds has gone through the ceiling, just like most eligible vintage road racing cars, another activity I participated in. It had nothing to do with fuel costs or the great bugaboo product liability.

I started out in PA-18 Super Cubs, went to Stearmans and eventually BT-13s, T-6s and even got to get dual in and eventually solo a P-51-all in my early twenties and all on the salary of a railroad clerk. Flying anything like that today means buying one. A Mustang is half a million to a million dollars today.

Piper, Beech and Cessna make roughly the same light planes they always have. They quit for a while because of "product liability", but that is bullshit. The real reason was and is that corporate jets are a lot more profitable per square foot of hangar space and per dollar of employee salary. Aircraft plant employees are NOT well paid-as a function of the value their work produces per dollar of net spendable generated or the gross price of the finished product they have never been paid less, they are getting wages far lower than UAW auto workers.

I doubled my salary and then some when I quit Cessna in Wichita and went to work for the (then) Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe RR. I was already a licensed A&P and had just gotten my commercial, multi and instrument rating. To get ANY flying job with Cessna then you had to have an ATP and Citation rating or several thousand hours GA time with CFI and CFII ratings and experience and a four year college degree.

As a kid you had a lot of blue collar union workers who flew and owned airplanes. That is mostly gone. Most were straight and level day VFR pilots and fatal wrecks were rare.

That market was abandoned by the GA industry not because it was not profitable but because Citations and Caravans were MORE profitable. Which is why the RR abandoned passenger service and why the electronics industry got rid of Heathkit and made it hard for hobbyists to buy electronic parts.

The Europeans would have whacked their balls really hard for that. Which is why they still have those things there. And also manufacturing.

Dutch Boy said...

Buckley spent a good deal of his adult life abusing Ritalin. Maybe he got the habit at good old Yale.

Anonymous said...

My cousin was an amateur pilot and told me that when GPS systems first came out they temporarily increased the number of accidents involving amateur pilots. The reason: imagine one such pilot flying from say LA to Sacramento and another from Sacramento to LA. Now imagine they both took off at roughly the same time and that both set their GPS-based autopilots for a great circle flight at about the same altitude. I'm not sure whether this whole story is true and my cousin was known to stretch the truth but the scenario does sound plausible.

Anonymous said...

A car that is also a plane does not have to be very good at either to be of use.

Years ago I knew a guy who had one of the old Ken Brock gyrocopters. As a few gyro owners did, he put lights and mufflers and whatnot on it and registered it for road use as a motorcycle. It was a lousy motorcycle. But he would fly ten minutes over water and land and drive up to his employer saving a nearly one hour drive plus considerable bridge tolls.

Remember the car that was also a boat? It wasn't great at either, but it was sure handy for quick fishing trips-or if a flood happened, or high water on roads, or for other specialized uses. It actually wasn't THAT bad a boat, except it was made out of stamped steel and rusted, and doors below the waterline....Well okay, it was terrible. But one bad IMPLEMENTATION of a concept doesn't invalidate the idea. I would like to have a floating car or a flying car if it were done right.

Anonymous said...

"Even with clear weather, uncareful pilots would get lost all the time. It was hard to figure out where you are."

This won't be a problem with GPS.

Btw, this is not a flying car but a mini-plane. A flying car is like what Jetsons use. Or the stuff in BLADE RUNNER.

Anonymous said...

Flying car wouldn't be for everyone, but there is the appeal. It would be for the elite.
Flying motorcyle would be cool too.

Anonymous said...

"you still have to take off and land, that and weather conditions (ice, wind shear) are what get people killed."

This is why flying cars have to ascend and descend like the ones in BLADE RUNNER. Vertically up and down.

Charlesz Martel said...

Check out the Moller Skycar for a Jetsons-like vehicle- I'm sure there's a youtube video.

I agree and disagree with Darfur Miller- I'm a pilot and have owned airplanes as well. The Liability issue was HUGE for General Aviation (GA). Piper was found 5% liable for a 50 year old airplane, rebuilt three times by non-factory shops, and flown by a legally drunk, non IFR pilot at night into the side of a mountain-just one of many egregious examples. Cost them millions. Juries feel that someone should pay, and they choose the guy with the money. Under our laws, you can be 1% legally liable but financially responsible for 100%. When the cost of hull insurance per aircraft built exceeded the cost of building the entire aircraft, stopping production made economic sense. As soon as Clinton signed the law limiting liability (I think it was 20 years and 5 million, or something like that)- Cessna immediatley announced they were restarting light aircraft production. Prices had been going up 10-15 % per year for all GA aircraft, as the industry wasn't making them anymore (except homebuilts and experimentals). One of the very few things Clinton did right, by my book. If GA aircraft were not profitable, then why did Cessna restart production? Now is the golden age for corporate jets, so presumably hangar space for new ones is even more valuable now.

The problem with GA aircraft as a transportation device has always been weather, skills, and lack of car. GA makes sense for trips between 300-600 miles. Further than that, fly commercial, less, drive-except in special you-can't-get-there-from-here circumstances. Most GA pilots think flying impresses women.In my opinion, women tend to think that that's just money wasted that they could otherwise be spending on shoes.

I always wondered why a small motorcycle, with a small enclosure of some sort, carried on board the aircraft, wasn't a better solution. Most would run quite happily on avgas, for example. And there was/is a motorcycle with a weatherproof enclosure for sale in Europe- I've seen them.

Lastly, Elvis became hooked on speed while in the US Army in Germany- his sergeant gave them out to keep guys awake for guard duty. Maybe our Air Traffic Controllers should do the same! (Joke).

Charlesz Martel said...

Oh- per Heathkit-

What killed Heathkit was the increasing complexity of the kits. Electronics got to the point where Surface Mounted Devices (SMD's) were wave-soldered to keep them small. Heathkit was getting repair rates of over 50% on finished kits. There are still some kit manufacturers out there (see Make magazine if you like to build stuff) but none of the Heathkit quality- they were the gold standard in kits. You can still find their stuff on Ebay- but you'll pay collectors' prices for unbuilt kits. Got to the Dayton Hamvention some year to see all the kit guys still out there- and to bring this back to the HBD side, look at the age/race of all the old men, and wonder about our country's technological future. Sic Transit Glorea Munde.

Anonymous said...

Not for a second did I fall for your flying car story. You could've at least provided a cartoon of the Jetsons to spice it up a bit.

Pete said...

I always wondered why a small motorcycle, with a small enclosure of some sort, carried on board the aircraft, wasn't a better solution. Most would run quite happily on avgas, for example.

My uncle was an Air Defense Command pilot on the big Convair lawn darts and he designed one for that very purpose. It had a low compression Cushman engine that would run on JP-4 (a wide cut gasoline jet fuel, not a kerosene like Jet A/JP-5/JP-8). The handlebars folded and two D-rings that enabled it to be winched into the missile bay. The USAF banned it (for crew use) as they felt a source of fuel fumes in the missile bay would be Very Bad.

I agree and disagree with Darfur Miller- I'm a pilot and have owned airplanes as well. The Liability issue was HUGE for General Aviation (GA). Piper was found 5% liable for a 50 year old airplane, rebuilt three times by non-factory shops, and flown by a legally drunk, non IFR pilot at night into the side of a mountain-just one of many egregious examples. Cost them millions.

They could have done what everyone else did and used the bankruptcy courts to cut off those judgments. Besides, 99% of these big judgments were reduced by the judge and there was a "confidential out of court settlement". I know of not one of these cases where they actually just went out and paid the award cash.

Most people's knowledge of GA tort law came from aviation magazines. Richard Collins, J.Mac mclellan and Budd Davisson all told pure horseshit to their readers because they didn't want to piss off the aircraft companies who bought huge full page ads.

The GA manufacturers did NOTHING to reduce their liability (such as, making a safer aircraft or providing for really effective flight training) and just bought more and more liability insurance. For decades. I lack great sympathy for them.

By the way, GATRA did little to reduce actual awards since most of them were for relatively new aircraft.

Anonymous said...

When JFK Jr crashed his plane I asked my father (who had been a pilot in WWII) about it. He said instrument flying (for which JFKJr was not qualified) is extremely unnatural. You have to train yourself to completely ignore your body's sense of space. This isn't so easy.

Anonymous said...

The Heathkits that are in big demand, unbuilt, are the vacuum tube hi-fi and ham radio ones. People still want to build this stuff.

Kylie said...

"When JFK Jr crashed his plane I asked my father (who had been a pilot in WWII) about it. He said instrument flying (for which JFKJr was not qualified) is extremely unnatural. You have to train yourself to completely ignore your body's sense of space. This isn't so easy."

What a fascinating insight. Thanks to both you and your dad.

Charlesz Martel said...

Re: Pete's Comment

But the Mfrs haven't changed their designs much, if at all. The electronics are better, but is training? If your account is accurate, then either the liability issue is still a ticking time bomb, or GATRA is working. Bankruptcy can't be used against new claims going forward- and BTW, many of the mfr's did go bankrupt and were bought by others, corporate names intact. Or am I missing something?

Did your uncle's bike ever get into production? I was thinking along the lines of a Honda monkey with folding bars or a Yamaha mini-enduro size bike....

Douglas Knight said...

For those interested in the stories of Buckley's flights, they are in his essay "Learning to Fly." However, Steve has conflated two different flights. Buckley got lost when sober. During the flight after staying up on speed for a couple of days, he fell asleep.

Douglas Knight said...

Also, I don't think Buckley was a flight instructor during the war, unless flight is a euphemism for sexual hygiene.