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Company aims for flying cars in air, on road

LOS ANGELES (MCT) — The Jetsons had one, and Fred MacMurray flew one in "The Absent-Minded Professor." Novelist Ian Fleming included one in his children's book "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." James Bond's nemesis Francisco Scaramanga used one as a getaway vehicle in the film "The Man With the Golden Gun."

Now, a Massachusetts company hopes to commercially market a flying car — although "driving plane" might be a more accurate description.

At last week's New York International Auto Show, Terrafugia Inc. of Woburn, Mass., unveiled the Transition, a two-seat aircraft with foldable wings. Pending regulatory approvals — which by no means are assured — the company plans to sell the contraption by 2013 for $279,000.

"You can pull out of your garage, fill up with 91 octane at a gas station, drive to the nearest airport, unfold your wings, perform a preflight check and take off," said Terrafugia Chief Executive Carl Dietrich.

So far, he said, about 100 people have put down $10,000 deposits to be among the first buyers.

The idea of a flying car may seem like a pipe dream, but the company says modern technology, such as GPS devices, air bags and high-strength composite material, has made the Transition safer for the consumer. The company even offers a vehicle parachute system.

Terrafugia is an aerospace company founded by pilots and engineers from MIT. The company name is Latin for "escape the earth." Terrafugia now has 24 employees.

Dietrich said he had dreamed of developing the technology ever since childhood when he saw George Jetson zoom to and from his job at Spacely Space Sprockets in a flying car on the television cartoon show "The Jetsons."

It became a reality last month, when a production prototype of the Transition completed its first successful flight for eight minutes at Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Terrafugia isn't the first company to try to get a car off the ground. For more than a century, daredevil aviators and freethinking engineers have attempted the concept.

But the development of a flying car — some even backed with well-heeled resources and financing — has been fraught with disappointments.

"Yeah, the track record isn't so good," said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. "If something goes wrong on your car, you can ease to the side of the road — not so much if something goes wrong in the air."

Under current FAA regulations, the aircraft falls under a "light sport aircraft" designation.

"These are small, simple, low-performance, low-energy aircraft that have a number of operating limitations," a spokesman for the agency said. "The FAA must determine if the Transition can be safely flown by a sport pilot."

The designation lowers the barrier for entry, Dietrich said. Getting a sport pilot's license is much cheaper and takes less time than getting a private pilot's license.

But the flying car has to meet aviation regulations and federal motor vehicle safety standards. So Terrafugia's Transition must win approval with the FAA for airworthiness certification to fly. It also has to thread through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to obtain authorization to operate on roads.