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.
Whereas small planes use more fuel per hour of operation, they also tend to arrive sooner at their destinations than cars do because they travel more or less in straight lines and, at least so far, traffic is lighter.
The flying motorcycle's body is also designed to be more environmentally friendly than a car's, given that the Switchblade exterior will be made of self-reinforced (and technically, recyclable) polypropylene—aka "number 5" plastic on food containers—whereas the frame will be steel tubing.
"From a scientific point of view, it is definitely possible to build an aircraft that can also negotiate a highway," says C. Nataraj, chair of Villanova University's mechanical engineering department.
Still, any reasonably complex system is optimized to do one thing, Nataraj says. Samson is trying to build one vehicle that does two complex tasks: safely transport people on crowded streets as well as in the air. Design and functional compromises would almost certainly have to be made to accommodate those twin missions, he adds.
There is a robustness to even civilian aircraft that is absent from cars, because, for the most part, a car breakdown entails pulling over. "If you get a ding in your door, no problem," Nataraj says. "Get a ding in your wing, and you will not be flying."
General aviation pilot and flight instructor Jeffrey Geibel of Belmont, Mass., says a craft like the Switchblade would have to be maintained per stringent FAA standards.
None of this is lost on Bousfield, and, like many a pioneer before him, he is pushing onward and upward. His next step will be wind-tunnel testing. An FAA-approved prototype is expected by year-end. And after that, the rest could possibly be personal transportation history.
A LEGACY OF AERO-BIKING
It's nearly impossible to definitively ascertain a "first" when it comes to small flying machines, especially flying motorcycles.
- There's a vintage silent film, apparently lost to the ages, of someone putting rockets and stubby wings on a bike. It didn't work.
- Evel Knievel put two wheels on a rocket and tried to jump his X-1 Skycycle across Idaho's Snake River Canyon in 1974. It didn't work—spectacularly.
- The Butterfly, LLC, has been producing flying three-wheel motorcycle kits since 2007. Its Butterfly Super Sky Cycle looks like the unlikely offspring of an old traffic helicopter, a go-kart and an Everglades airboat.
- Moller International debuted its prototype M400 Skycar, another trike, three years ago. The Skycar has promised innovations not least of which is vertical takeoff and landing. A peek at the Skycar's sleek body confirms that someone at Moller has watched a lot of Star Wars movies.