It is safe to bet that a flying motorcycle will never be a practical transportation option, but that has not stopped Samson Motorworks, a small engineering firm in northern California's Sierra Nevada foothills, from playing the long odds.
The company is building a prototype of its Switchblade Multi Mode Vehicle, or flying motorcycle, and hopes to sell a $60,000 do-it-yourself kit as early as 2011 (engine and avionics are sold separately, for about $25,000 total).
Occupants would sit in the aerodynamic Switchblade side by side in leather seats and climate-controlled luxury, behind an aggressively angled nose and canard. Samson is working with a third-party avionics-maker to create an instrument display that switches from air to ground readings on landing.
Samson president, Sam Bousfield, has applied for a patent for the way a Switchblade's stubby wings would open like scissors on pivots underneath and behind the cockpit as a box kite–like stabilizer extends from the rear. On solid ground, the wings would swing into clamshell compartments, protected by a steel keel.
Bousfield chose a three-wheel design because this meets the definition of a motorcycle, which is not as highly regulated as are cars. For example, the former are not required to have bumpers, which would add weight and expense to a flying vehicle.
But even as a flying motorcycle, the Switchblade has rules to follow. For instance, the Switchblade will have two rearview mirrors (as all motorcycles must) that will fold away in flight to avoid adding drag. And as a home-built or experimental aircraft, no more than 49 percent of a craft can be preassembled by the manufacturer.
A Switchblade would require a 120- to 150-horsepower engine (candidates already on the market include Lycoming's O-320 aircraft engine, Suzuki's Hayabusa motorcycle engine and Kawasaki's Jet Ski personal watercraft engine) that could spin a propeller or power a transmission. Bousfield says he is also watching the development by entrepreneurs of small rotary engines that run cleaner than conventional piston motors.
Sexy design and the promise of air–ground transport have kept alive dreams of a flying vehicle in every garage. Ultimately, the Switchblade will succeed where others have failed, Bousfield believes, because it will morph so easily between transportation mediums. If pilots encountered bad weather, they could put down at a small airstrip—about 610 meters in length (minimum)—fold in the wings, and finish the trip on the ground with no manual disassembly. The reality is a bit more complicated, given that aircraft are prohibited from operating on roads and closely regulated as to how close they can fly to homes, culturally and environmentally significant areas, and military installations. Compared with its chief flying competitors, however—the helicopterlike Butterfly Super Sky Cycle, the half-car, half-plane Terrafugia Transition, and the still-unproved M400 Skycar—it appears to be the most practical air–ground hybrid.
The Switchblade might even have "green" appeal. The engines suitable for the craft all use ordinary unleaded gas and meet California emissions standards, which are stricter than those issued by the U.S. That in itself would be environmentally notable because private-aircraft engines are subject to vanishingly few emissions controls. Private planes make up a small percentage of all combustion-engine polluters, which makes them a less-obvious target for environmental regulation. As well, part of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) mandate is to promote civil aviation, which might be stunted by environmental design compromises.