A Skycar named desire
The headline read, “Free program Tuesday on flying cars.” Further investigation told me that inventor Paul Moller would be giving a talk at the Explorit Science Center and bringing one of his “Skycars.” Before heading out, a quick Google check revealed that five years ago, Moller—who seems to function as Davis’ resident Wizard of Oz—was sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for, among other infractions, making unsubstantiated claims about the Skycar (the case was settled shortly thereafter). Still, the newspaper revealed there would be cookies. I fired up my groundcar and set the coordinates for “nerd.”
Due to high interest, the talk was held at the Davis Musical Theatre Company. On stage was a 1950s sci-fi movie prop: a gleaming, candy-apple red, Corvette-curved spacecraft, with a clear bubble canopy where the humans or Martians sit. The thing sported five serious-looking engines and not much in the way of wings. “A flying brick,” someone behind me said.
Later, we were told that this stage-model Skycar was in fact a nonworking mock-up from the ’80s. This was the first of several disappointments. (Turns out, almost all of Moller’s Skycars have been nonworking or unsafe for more than a few tethered test flights). When the host thanked Johnny’s Towing for bringing the Skycar to the theater, I put my checkbook away. I would not be flying home through the second-floor window tonight.
The reason, of course, is that it’s darn near impossible to make a plane that can maneuver like a helicopter. That’s the holy grail of flight, and why the military’s tilt-rotor Osprey, so far responsible for an astonishing 30 training deaths, is still being funded.
The host then introduced Dr. Moller, former UC Davis engineering professor, who looked nervous behind wire rims and a goatee, though young for someone who has been pursuing an unattained dream for more than five decades. The crowd gave polite applause as Moller approached the podium and then poof! A puff of smoke was released from the stage floor in front of the Skycar.
Not a commanding speaker, Moller was nonetheless humorous and self-deprecating, “I’m trying to rationalize the last 50 years of my life,” he said at one point, discussing his obsessive pursuit of the Skycar. The test flights he’s piloted, he said, while frightening, felt like a magic-carpet ride.
Moller International is actually working on two models: the Jetson, an engine-pocked saucer that resembles a certain cartoon character’s commuter ride and hovers just 10 feet above the ground (which Moller pointed out was the maximum allowable height without Federal Aviation Administration regulation) and the M400, which looks a lot like The Day the Earth Stood Still muscle machine we were all ogling. In theory, both will fly by adjusting the exhaust direction from their high-powered rotary engines. Loud? Imagine trading each of your car’s tires for a leaf blower.
Moller, perhaps chastened by the lawsuit, admitted we were still a few years away from production, but that he had received more than 100 deposits for Skycars. As Moller wrapped things up, I wondered if moving traffic 10 feet up would really solve our congestion problems. Interstate 80 is jammed from Roseville to Vallejo, and Highway 80 is bumper to fuselage as well. Hopefully, we’ll see.