Paul Moller thinks he has a better idea. After earning a graduate degree in aeronautics and a subsequent stint as a college professor at the University of California at Davis, Moller founded California-based Moller Aircraft Company, which later became Moller International Inc. While the company initially earned money manufacturing exhaust systems, every company Moller acquired, every technology he developed, has been dedicated to the ultimate goal of creating a machine he calls the Skycar.
Using "powered lift," the same technology used by the military's vertical take-off and landing Harrier "Jump Jet," Moller has spent the better part of his life designing the "volantor," a craft capable of a vertical take-off and landing, hovering, and cruising speeds at nearly 400 miles per hour. If he has his way, the vehicle of the future will look a lot like the Batmobile.
Shiny, bright red, with a large bubble canopy, four jet engines and a huge airfoil on the back, Moller's M400 Skycar would make George Jetson envious. After 30 years, 700,000 man-hours of work, and more than $45 million (more than $100 million in current dollars, figures Moller), the Skycar is ready for its first test flights this June. The four-seat craft, using a "fly-by-wire" system (computers will actually "fly" it, responding to inputs provided by the pilot), is projected to operate at altitudes up to 30,000 feet, cruise at 350 mph and have a 900-mile range.
The Federal Aviation Administration had to create an entirely new category of aircraft for the certification and licensing of the Skycar. The ducted-fan engines will be custom-built by Moller, using a variant of the Wankel-type rotary engine. To ensure reliability, the Skycar will have multiple redundant systems in case of a breakdown. If all else fails, a parachute will deploy, allowing the Skycar to float safely to the earth.
If successful, Moller could be commuting to work in the Skycar in the next few years. For the rest of us, it could be a decade or more until both the vehicle and the requisite automatic controls and navigation systems fall into place. Once certified for production, Moller figures that if at least 500,000 Skycars are produced each year, the cost of the Skycar will fall to about $80,000, the same as a luxury automobile. Not bad, considering the cost of a new single-engine airplane today runs at about $200,000.
For Moller, who grew up on a chicken farm in British Columbia, flying has been a lifelong dream. He started building a helicopter from scratch when he was 14 (his father ended up using the tail rotor to help circulate the air in the family's hatchery).
Moller's first machine, the XM-2, was a round, flying saucer-shaped craft using a pair of engines to keep the vehicle hovering a few feet off the ground. Subsequent variants of the same basic design followed, culminating in the M200X, which hovered 70 feet over awestruck reporters in 1989. Not until the Skycar, however, could Moller's inventions reach beyond the category of aviation novelty.
"It's been a longer-term vision for this to become a reality than I originally anticipated," says Moller, before confessing, "I'm not so certain I was being very practical when I started out with this whole thing. For me, it was sort of a personal drive to build it."
Does he expect the Skycar to return its investment? "Money for me is not the issue," Moller says. "Never has been...The real issue here is achieving the goal of putting my vision and making it work and vindicating the support of so many other people. The payoff for me is flying safely."