A car that flies like 007’s autogyro

Technology

UNUSUAL aircraft are a regular sight at the Farnborough air show, which opened in Britain this week. But the particular unusualness of the Liberty is not so much that it is a flying car, but that flies as an autogyro. Although the Liberty remained firmly on the ground during the show, it is described by its makers, PAL-V, a Dutch firm, as a “production model” that will be used to obtain the necessary approvals for use on the road and in the air, so that deliveries can begin in 2020.

Autogyros have been around since the early days of aviation. Amelia Earhart set an altitude record in one in 1931. Three years later, an autogyro carried a soon-to-be jilted groom to what he thought would be his wedding, in a film called “It Happened One Night”. Another film, “You Only Live Twice”, which was released in 1967, featured an autogyro called Little Nellie, piloted by James Bond.

Like a small plane, an autogyro employs a propeller (either front-mounted, as Earhart’s was, or at the rear, like 007’s and the Liberty’s) to provide forward thrust. But instead of having fixed wings, an autogyro’s lift comes from a rotor. Unlike a helicopter’s, though, this rotor is not powered by the engine. Instead, it is turned by oncoming air, a result of the propeller’s forward thrust, flowing over the blades.

According to PAL-V the Liberty can take off and land on a runway as short as 90 metres. In aircraft mode, it can carry two people at up to 180kph (about 110mph) for a distance of 400-500km. Folding up its rotors, tail and propeller, which takes ten minutes, turns it into a car.

In either mode the Liberty consumes standard petrol, so is easy to refuel. And in the event of an engine failure while airborne, PAL-V claims, it could flutter down safely onto a patch of land no bigger than a tennis court. To be on the safe side, however, it is fitted with two small combustion engines, either of which could be used to fly or drive it if the other stops running.

Unlike the makers of some other novel small aircraft, PAL-V has eschewed electric power, at least for now. Existing batteries cannot provide a useful range, says George Tielen, the firm’s test pilot. And unlike passenger-drone companies, whose products employ several electric rotors to take off and land vertically, PAL-V is not seeking approval for autonomous operations. Requiring people to have both a driver’s and a pilot’s licence lets the company meet existing rules and thus enter the market faster.

According to Mr Tielen, the Liberty will allow someone to drive to an airfield or other suitable strip of terrain, take off, fly to somewhere similar near his destination, land and complete his journey by road—with the flexibility that if, say, the weather were to turn nasty while he was there, he could then drive home. That convenience, though, comes with a price tag that starts at €300,000 ($350,000). Which would buy a lot of air fares and Uber rides.