The Airphibian: The Car That Flies

Since the 1920’s, futuristic scifi novels and films depicted humans zipping around sky cities in flying cars. Several dreamers even produced designs for cars that could be converted into airplanes and vice versa. The first of these to be certified by the FAA was the “Airphibian”, the brainchild of an amateur designer who taught himself aeronautics from a book.

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The Fulton FA-3-101 Airphibian, on display at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center.

Robert Edison Fulton was a born adventurer. Born in 1909, his father was a friend of Thomas Edison. At the age of 23, he traveled around the world on a motorcycle for a year and a half, studying architecture and shooting almost eight miles of film; at one point he was shot at by Pashtun tribesmen in Pakistan, spent a night in a Turkish jail, and dined with Indian Maharajas. Upon his return, he wrote a book about his travels, and later edited his movie footage into two documentary films.  He then went to work for Pan Am Airways, filming the journeys of the Pan Am Clippers to far-flung Pacific islands just before World War II. During the war, Fulton formed his own company that produced aeronautical instruments, and developed a mechanical simulator used to train aerial gunners. He also taught himself to fly and got his pilot’s license.

After the war, Fulton conceived the idea of an airplane that could be converted into a car, and called his concept “The Airphibian”. The air-car was intended as a cheap mode of travel over moderate distances–one could fly 300 miles or so to an airport outside one’s destination, then take off the wings and store them, and drive into town.

Fulton taught himself aeronautics by reading books from the library, then began the task of designing his air-car. The Airphibian was a high-wing monoplane with fabric-covered wings and tail section that could be detached from the main cabin. The cabin itself had four wheels and could be driven like a car. The fully-assembled aircraft had a wingspan of 34 feet and a length of 22 feet, and a loaded weight of 2100 pounds. It had a six-cylinder 165 horsepower engine. On the road, the car had a steering wheel and brake, clutch and gas pedals, and could do 55 mph. In the air, the steering wheel became the control yoke, and the brake/clutch pedals were used for the rudders. The Airphibian could fly at 110 mph. It could fit two people.

The first flight of the prototype was in 1947, with Army Captain Frazer Dougherty at the controls. Over the next few years, three other prototypes were built. One of them was flown by Charles Lindbergh. In all, the four prototypes were driven over 200,000 miles on the road, and made over 6,000 converted air flights.

In 1950, the FAA certified the Airphibian as “airworthy”. But the long years of development and the expenses of certification, and the lack of sales (only 8 production models were sold, to the FAA itself; they were built but never delivered), had driven Fulton’s company to bankruptcy. Reluctantly, Fulton was forced to sell the company, and the Airphibian was never commercially developed. Other “flying cars” soon followed: the “Waterman Whatsit”, the Consolidated “ConvAirCar”, the “Trautman RoadAir”–but the Airphibian was the first air-car to be certified by the FAA. (Only one other design, the Taylor “Aircar”, was also certified.) None of them were commercially successful. The very concept of a flying car presents trade-off problems with weight and power that make it impractical to produce both a well-performing car and a well-performing airplane.

After the failure of the Airphibian, Fulton made one other notable invention. After studying the method used by British trains to pick up mailbags without stopping, using a protruded hook to grasp a line attached to the bag, Fulton came up with a similar system  for a low-flying plane to pick up people or equipment without landing. The idea, known as “Skyhook”, was adopted by the US–the military used it to pick up downed pilots, while the CIA used it to pick up clandestine agents and equipment. The person to be picked up sent aloft a length of line with a small inflated balloon which was spotted by the pilot of the rescue craft, who swept in low and used an extended hook to snag it. The line was attached to a harness worn by the downed pilot, who was pulled into the air and then reeled into the plane. The US used “Skyhook” throughout the 1950’s until helicopters made it obsolete (some parts of the military/intelligence network still used Skyhook systems to retrieve equipment, including spy satellite photos, until the 1990’s).

The Airphibian that was test-flown and certified by the FAA, number N74154, went to a museum in Arizona, then to the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa, Canada, for several years before being given to the Smithsonian in 2009. It is currently on exhibit at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

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