Toward a flying car at last?

Jay Carter’s FutureFlight-I vehicle looks more like a flying motorcycle than a flying car, but it demonstrated the concept impressively during an April flight from Georgia Tech in Atlanta to Sun ‘n Fun.

The three-day flight included stops at two motels and several restaurants, where parking lots served as airports; a Harley-Davidson dealership; the University of Florida and a resort hotel in Tampa, before arriving at Sun ‘n Fun.

The point was to demonstrate the practicality of autogyro, or gyrocopter, technology for true point-to-point flight, involving no more land space than is routinely used by automobiles. A good example was landing at the Longhorn Steak House in Tifton, Ga., where pilot George Mitchell made a couple of slow passes overhead, then dropped onto one side of the parking lot to the applause of a curious crowd.

At Gainesville, Fla., another vivid point – although an unintentional one – was made when FutureFlight-I circled above the University of Florida campus while waiting for the ground crew to arrive. They were stuck in traffic.

Several demonstration flights were made at Sun ‘n Fun, including a Showcase flight during which Carter’s patented landing gear capability impressed watchers. During one landing and takeoff, a spectator was overheard exclaiming, “Holy @#%#! He landed straight down on two wheels and took off doing a wheelie!”

FutureFlight-I was the first of a planned series of public flights to “expand understanding of our technology and its potential impact,” Carter said. “We are looking forward to FutureFlight-II. We’ll keep you posted.”

The FutureFlight demonstrations are paving the way for Carter’s Personal Air Vehicle, his next prototype, currently being built. A sleek, four-place flying machine, it has a 34-foot rotor and equal wingspan, is powered by a 100 hp Rotax 914 engine, and weighs only 800 pounds empty. Planned gross weight is 1,600 pounds, Carter said. One of the follow-on vehicles will have a 200 hp DeltaHawk Jet-A (diesel) engine, empty weight of 1,000 pounds and gross of 2,400 pounds, he added. It is expected to cruise at 200 mph. The PAV airframe is designed for “a range of engines and loads, from Rotax to turboprop,” Carter spokeswoman Anita Infante explained at Sun ‘n Fun.

There are also military versions in the works, including an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with an endurance of 24 hours.

All versions are intended to perform either vertical or very short-roll takeoffs, “depending only on the density altitude, gross weight and horsepower,” Carter stated.

As of April, the PAV fuselage plug, propeller and rotor all were finished. Three of these aircraft will be built initially, Carter said. The first should be ready for flight testing next spring.

Carter has enough ideas for utilizing his technologies to last a lifetime. Not limited to gyrocopter designs, his patent portfolio also includes that impressive, shock-absorbing landing gear and a unique propeller system. Both will be used on future iterations of the Personal Air Vehicle and, doubtless, other Carter flying machines, but Carter wants to license those technologies and, indeed, all of his inventions.

The ultra-high-energy absorbing landing gear was used on the CarterCopter technology demonstrator, previously flown at Sun ‘n Fun and Oshkosh. Designed to improve landing safety margins dramatically, and scalable to suit any aircraft, it utilizes what Carter calls a “smart valve” to provide constant deceleration of its hydraulic piston. The technology demonstrator was proof tested to absorb a 1,200-feet-per-minute landing with no harm to the aircraft or its occupants. The FAA standard for certified aircraft is 600 feet per minute.

Interestingly, the technology isn’t limited to aircraft. It’s already being used on a Baja race car, and could be adapted for many automotive applications.

Carter’s scimitar-shaped propeller blades catch the eye, but what you don’t see is really what makes the system work. The lightweight, carbon composite blades are built around an I-beam spar that allows them to bend, as necessary, to reduce gyroscopic loads when an aircraft changes direction. A simple pitch mechanism enables the spar to twist through 50°. A two-blade, 100-inch test propeller weighs less than 40 pounds but can handle up to 600 hp. Theoretically, airspeeds in excess of 400 mph are possible.

A companion invention is an electronic propeller control system measuring rpm, torque, air temperature, thrust and airspeed, then calculating the rpm needed for optimum efficiency and shifting pitch to hold that speed. “Its true airspeed indicator can measure speeds as high as 500 mph,” Carter said, “but is sensitive enough to differentiate between 4 and 5 mph on the ground.” If a sensor fails, the controller goes to its backup sensor and notifies the pilot. If all sensors fail, it holds rpm based on its calculations, but allows the pilot to assume manual control.

The propeller design is “the ideal planform of what a propeller should be,” commented Claudius Klimt, speaking at a Sun ‘n Fun forum.

If FutureFlight-I suggests anything to us, it is that the flying car concept finally is on the home stretch toward reality, after nearly a century of experimentation. When it gets there, Jay Carter’s gyrocopters, complete with his efficient propellers and super-safe landing gear, almost certainly will play a major role.

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