“Mark my word, a combination airplane and car is coming. You may smile but it’ll come.” Henry Ford in 1940
Last month we introduced you to Prodrive’s amphibious vehicle, now we’re taking flight in a plane that doubles as a car. Are these machines mere gimmicks or a glimpse into the future? We slip on our Aviators and find out
As a private pilot, I know from personal experience that airfields and airports are almost always irritatingly far from your final location.
The airport in Exeter, for example, is a cab or bus ride from the city. There are exceptions, however. When you land at Goodwood, you’re right in the middle of where you want to be and at Le Mans it’s a short walk from airport to circuit. The obvious solution is an aeroplane that doubles as a car.
It’s simple: drive to the airfield, unfold the wings and take off. At the other end, you reverse the process and drive to where you want to go. The fantasy of the flying car is almost as old as flight itself and, throughout the history of aviation, eccentrics, dreamers and shed engineers have tried to turn the dream into reality.
Audi, Airbus and Italdesign are jointly working on an alternative take on the flying car and had a mock-up at this year’s Geneva motor show. It’s like a giant drone that picks up a passenger pod, flies it around and then can place it back on a set of wheels so that it can drive around as a car. It’s called Pop Up. But there was another, rather unusual flying car at Geneva that caught my eye. Tucked away in a corner of the hall was the PAL-V Liberty, a Dutch creation that combines autogyro (also known as gyroplane) and three-wheel car to make an intriguing proposition.
The most famous autogyro is Little Nellie, the machine that Sean Connery flew in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Essentially, you have rotor blades that provide lift and a pusher propeller at the back for thrust. Unlike a helicopter, the rotor blades are not driven by the engine – they spin as the machine is pushed through the air. That said, you need to get the rotors spinning on the ground, so that’s done via a power take off and clutch from the engine. The Liberty has two engines, both of which are used for flight but only one for driving.
You can see that the Liberty looks seriously top heavy once the rotors are folded up for the road. “It is,” says George Tielen, PAL-V’s head of training. “So much so that we realised straight away that the machine would tip over in corners even at low speeds.”
The solution is crafty. And Dutch. Remember the Dutch-designed Carver leaning car from the early 2000s? PAL-V has bought the patent for the Carver and incorporated the system into the Liberty. A tilting three-wheel car that flies. I’m intrigued.
So much so that I flew in my own aeroplane to Breda airport in Holland where PAL-V carries out its pilot training. Annoyingly, it’s an hour’s drive from the firm’s factory and headquarters so Tielen has to drive us there. In a Toyota.
The set-up is impressive, a lot like a smaller version of a Formula 1 team’s premises. Already around £31 million has been invested in the Liberty and as yet only the prototype has flown. If a small car company such as TVR faces a lot of testing and paperwork, it’s nothing compared with the world of aviation. Ultimately, PAL-V is aiming to get the Liberty certified by EASA (the European Aviation Safety Agency) and that’s going to take at least another year.
At Breda, Tielen is training 12 customers, none of whom are already pilots. He’s using an Italian autogyro called the Magni M24 Orion. I’ve flown an autogyro before but it was an open tandem-seat model, not a side-by-side closed machine like this one. It’s powered by an Austrian-built Rotax engine that is now the ubiquitous light-aircraft powerplant.
Its flat-four, pushrod configuration looks medieval by car standards, only the cylinder heads are watercooled and the electronic ignition and fuel injection are very simple. It’s the same engine that the Liberty uses, but in that machine they’re naturally aspirated and in the M24 Orion the powerplant is turbocharged. Why two motors in the Liberty? Because it’s heavy. The Orion weighs 285kg empty and the Liberty 664kg. You’d think fitting turbocharged Rotax engines to the latter would make sense if the more power the better is the case, but apparently there isn’t room for all the extra plumbing and intercoolers.
It’d take a lot of pages to explain fully the novel and wacky experience of flying an autogyro so we’ll just stick with the basics. It’ll give us half an idea of what the Liberty will be like to fly. The other half, how it will feel to drive, we’ll come to in a moment. Tielen fires up the Rotax engine and we taxi out to the runway. As yet, the rotor above our head is static and just flexing up and down. The clutch is released and the rotors start to turn. We won’t be going anywhere until we have more than 185rpm. Brakes off and we slowly accelerate. We’re off the ground pretty quickly but Tielen holds the Orion about 20 feet off the ground as rotor speed goes over 300rpm. Now he gently pulls back on the stick and we climb at 650ft per minute. There’s only one stick and set of pedals for the rudder.
An autogyro is naturally stable, which is a very good thing but does make the controls quite heavy in a turn. The really great thing about autogyros is that they don’t need much space to land, especially if there’s a decent headwind. Many people ask what happens if the engine conks out. Does it fall like a stone? …read more