Each June, Carl and Anna Dietrich take a weekend trip to Maine to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The couple usually head to Acadia, a six-hour drive they loathe. Every year they debate renting a plane to make the scenic two-hour flight. “My wife and I are both pilots,” Carl says, “and there’s a beautiful little airport in Bar Harbor.” Yet they always decide against it, worrying that bad weather might interfere with the return flight and make them go through the hassle of renting a car. “There are a lot of trips like that, where if we could count on being able to get home when we need to, we’d fly,” Carl says. Instead, they sit in traffic.
During the workweek, the Dietrichs are trying to solve the very problem that keeps them car-bound during weekend getaways. As cofounders of an aviation start-up in Woburn called Terrafugia, they’re attempting to reinvent how people travel with the Transition, a road-ready, drivable aircraft. The prototype they’re now flight- and road-testing features fold-up wings, runs on unleaded gasoline (instead of pricey aviation fuel), and fits inside a residential garage (alleviating hangar costs). In the event of bad weather, pilots will simply drive the Transition where they need to go.
That’s the plan, anyway. The MIT grads — Carl, age 35, is CEO, and Anna, 30, is COO — have spent six years to bring this vision to market. Today their company has 24 employees, a waiting list of more than 100 potential buyers, and a prototype that in June completed its first round of test flights. (There are five more, plus six rounds of road testing.) What they don’t have is any ability to say when they’ll deliver their first craft. “Everybody wants it now, but this is the reality — this takes time to develop,” says Carl, who sounds weary of hearing questions that begin with the word “when?”
Airplanes that can also be driven — or, if you prefer, cars that can also be flown — are not a new idea. Inventors have filed patents and tinkered with machines since at least 1917. Between the late 1940s and mid-1960s, an inventor from Washington state named Molt Taylor even built a handful of working models and won government certification for his Aerocar. He planned to build 1,000 Aerocars if he could get 500 customers to put down deposits — but he fell short, and the advent of Nader-era federal auto safety regulations increased development costs to a forbidding level. “[Nobody] has been able to crack the nut and get into this niche market, but Aerocar came the closest,” says Boeing engineer Jake Schultz, who wrote a history of the craft and once took a flight in one. Schultz says the concept’s enduring appeal is clear to anyone who watches birds: They couldn’t survive if they lacked terrestrial mobility. “It just makes sense. You see the airplane, and it’s a great way to get around, but when you land, then what do you do?”
Since childhood, Carl Dietrich has asked the same question. Raised in California, he earned his pilot’s license at 17 and chose to attend MIT because it boasted the nation’s top-ranked aeronautical engineering program. He wound up staying for 12 years, earning bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees. He began seriously exploring the idea of a drivable plane after 2004, when the FAA instituted new regulations for “light sport aircraft” that dramatically cut red tape (and costs) for manufacturers who want to sell small, simple planes. He carefully studied a 2002 research project by MIT professor John Hansman, which surveyed private pilots and found the biggest obstacles to flying were potential bad weather, cost, and mobility at destination — all obstacles a drivable plane would help overcome. By the end of 2006, Dietrich had won the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, taken second place in an MIT business plan competition with the early Terrafugia team, and shown initial designs at Airventure Oshkosh, the sport-aviation industry’s largest trade show. Customers began handing over deposits. By early 2007, a few investors had signed on, and the Dietrichs began building their prototype.
It soon became clear the challenges were bigger than the Dietrichs expected. Early on they’d planned to sell the plane for $150,000, but today estimate a base model will cost $279,000. “At $150,000 you could sell a whole lot of these, but at $279,000 you’re at a different price point,” says Schultz. “That’s a concern.” At the same time, the global recession put a big dent in consumer demand for private planes, and a few potential buyers pulled themselves off Terrafugia’s waiting list.
Tough times made the hunt for investors a bigger challenge, too. Dietrich admits that only especially brave venture capitalists would “go out on a limb for a company like this.” Still, today Terrafugia has 70 outside investors, not all of whom are aviation buffs. (The CEO declines to discuss the company’s financing, except to point to market research suggesting it could sell 400 planes a year, which could mean annual sales above $100 million.)
So what’s the Transition like? I can’t say for sure. Terrafugia is preoccupied with testing and tired of curiosity seekers asking to kick its tires, so Dietrich declined to let me anywhere near it. Instead, we talk over club sandwiches at a nearby Bickford’s, where Dietrich says the interior feels more like a plane than a car, and, at a takeoff weight of 1,430 pounds, handles like a car on the road. By comparison, a base model 2012 Mini Cooper weighs 2,535 pounds.
What’s it like to fly? Surprisingly, Dietrich can’t say for sure. He hasn’t flown it, to avoid imperiling the company if something went wrong. “We have serious people who’ve put up serious money to make this real, and it’s my job to make sure this company succeeds,” he says. “If that means I have to wait another year or two . . . that’s OK.” (Until then, the company relies on a retired Air Force colonel as a test pilot.)
“In the meantime, I don’t need to do my joy riding,” Dietrich adds. “I’ll have plenty of time for that later.” Until then, he’ll stick to piloting his Honda — and sit beside the rest of us on the tiresome weekend schlep up the interstate.