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Sci-Fi Fans, Rejoice: The Flying Car Is Here

It's a glimpse of the future of the auto business... perhaps. A flying car was unveiled by its Woburn-based manufacturers on Wednesday at the Boston Museum of Science. But we're still many years away from zipping around the sky like George Jetson.

[soundslide]http://www.wbur.org/files/soundslides/2009/wbur_0319_flying-car[/soundslide]The Jetsons had one. We've seen them in sci-fi films such as "Bladerunner" and "Minority Report." In "Back to the Future," the characters race through time in a flying DeLorean.

CARL DIETRICH: This is not that, this is the reality.

That's Carl Dietrich, CEO and co-founder of Terrafugia, the Woburn-based company behind the new, real "flying car." He says he prefers the term "roadable aircraft."

DIETRICH: It's about setting expectations. The press loves to call it a flying car and the problem is that's really not what it is, it's not gonna replace your Honda or whatever. If you're a pilot, if you're in the market for an airplane, this is going to be a much more attractive product to you because it provides you a new freedom that other airplanes can't provide.

In theory, that is, because the "Roadable aircraft," or "Transition" as it's being called, is a prototype. It was built and designed by MIT-trained aeronautical engineers who love to fly. They're thrilled, says Dietrech, in the wake of its recent maiden voyage.

DIETRICH: That happened at 7:40 a.m. on March 5.

It was airborne for 37 seconds and travelled 3,000 feet down a runway in Plattsburgh, New York. Colonel Phil Meteer was the test pilot. For him, the ride was a dream come true.

PHIL METEER: Actually, this goes back to my aeronautical engineering training in the '70s. I used to doodle car planes in my classes.

And that's what it looks like. A gleaming white hybrid: part car, part plane.

METEER: Notice, steering wheel, looks pretty normal right? Gas pedal. Break pedal. So in the car mode you have all the controls of a normal car. When you covert to the airplane mode, the fly-drive levers go forward, you extend the wings, then we un-telescope our stick…

The transformation from land to air vehicle takes less than 30 seconds, according to Meteer. The craft has all the controls of a modern airplane, but you can fill it up at any gas station. It takes super unleaded. The GPS system navigates both highway and skyway. Pilot Meteer says ultimately it will make "personal aviation" practical.

METEER: It's the size of a large SUV, it fits in a normal garage, you can have all your pre-flight requirements the night before, and I don't have to transfer any baggage; I simply drive to the airport and then I can fly to Albany and go watch a show and then drive to Schenectady to see my aunt, I'm not tied to one runway, the whole logistics of personal aviation have changed.

GORDON GILBERT: The idea of making cars that fly or airplanes that drive like cars has been around since the Wright Brothers, and most of them have not been successful for one reason or another.

Gordon Gilbert writes for Aviation International News.

GILBERT: I think if there's a chance of this really happening, this is probably the best chance.

Terrafugia still has manufacturing and regulatory hurdles. And Gilbert says for the average American the "roadable aircraft" is still the stuff of science fiction.

GILBERT: I don’t think that these kinds of vehicles are going to blacken the sky.

Each vehicle costs $194,000 and the target buyers are pilots. You need a certified sport license to drive and/or fly one. Terrafugia plans to deliver the first batch of "roadable aircraft" in 2011. And the local designers say the vehicles will be built to withstand Boston's brutal potholes.

This program aired on March 19, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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