It is safe to bet that a flying motorcycle will never be a practical transportation option. Yet that has not stopped Samson Motorworks, a small engineering firm in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, from playing the long odds. The company is building a prototype called the Switchblade Multi Mode Vehicle, and it hopes to sell a do-it-yourself kit as early as 2011.

Sexy design and the promise of air-ground transport have kept alive dreams of a flying vehicle in every garage. Samson chose a three-wheel design because it meets the definition of a motorcycle, which is not as highly regulated as cars are. For example, motorcycles need not have bumpers, which would add weight and expense to a flying vehicle.

As the company envisions it, occupants would sit in the aerodynamic Switchblade side by side in leather seats and in 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. The Switchblade’s stubby wings would open on pivots 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. Two large rearview mirrors would then swing out.

To contain costs while building revenue, design skills and manufacturing experience, Samson is following the path of other would-be aviation entrepreneurs by offering the Switchblade as a kit aircraft, in which no more than 49 percent of a craft can be preassembled by the manufacturer. It plans to sell the body for $60,000, but do-it-yourselfers will need to lay out another $25,000 for the engine and avionics. The craft would require a 120- to 150-horsepower engine (candidates on the market include Lycoming’s O-320 aircraft engine, Suzuki’s Hayabusa motorcycle engine and Kawasaki’s Jet Ski personal watercraft engine). Samson president Sam Bousfield says he is also watching the development by entrepreneurs of small rotary engines that run cleaner than conventional piston motors.

The Switchblade will succeed, Bousfield believes, because it will morph easily between transportation mediums. If pilots encountered bad weather, they could put down at a small airstrip—at least 610 meters in length, according to Bousfield—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 tightly regulated as to how close they can fly to homes, military installations, environmentally sensitive regions and other areas. It has competitors, too, such as the helicopterlike Butterfly Super Sky Cycle; the half-car, half-plane Terrafugia Transition; and the still unproved M400 Skycar. But the Switchblade 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.

The flying motorcycle’s body is also designed to be more environmentally friendly than a car’s: the Switchblade exterior will be made of self-reinforced (and technically, recyclable) polypropylene—aka “number 5” plastic on food containers—around a steel tubing frame.
“From a scientific point of view, it is definitely possible to build an aircraft that can also negotiate a highway,” says N. C. Nataraj, chair of Villanova University’s mechanical engineering department. Still, any reasonably complex system is optimized to do one thing, he says.

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So for a flying motorcycle, design and functional compromises would almost certainly have to be made to accommodate twin missions, Nataraj adds. For instance, civilian aircraft must be much more robust than cars. “If you get a ding in your [car] door, no problem,” he 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 the stringent standards of the Federal Aviation Administration.

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’s end. And after that, the rest could possibly be personal transportation history.