Technology

A car that just may fly

An inventor is sure his hovering craft is the answer to gridlock

D’Arcy Jenish June 21 1999
Technology

A car that just may fly

An inventor is sure his hovering craft is the answer to gridlock

D’Arcy Jenish June 21 1999

A car that just may fly

Technology

An inventor is sure his hovering craft is the answer to gridlock

D’Arcy Jenish

Growing up in tiny Fruitvale,

B.C., 400 km east of Vancouver, Paul Molier rarely had time for typical boyhood pursuits like hockey and swimming. He was too busy building things.

Between the ages of 8 and 10, he constructed a two-room shed, which his father Niels, a chicken farmer, used for storage for decades. At age 12, he

built a four-passenger ferris wheel, six metres in diameter and powered by a crank. Three years later, he designed and began building a one-person helicopter. And one day, he saw something that would shape his life’s work— a hummingbird in flight. “I was inspired by its true three-dimensional capabilities,” he says. “It can hover and fly backward or forward.”

For three decades, Molier has been trying to develop a small personal aircraft with hummingbird-like capabilities. At 62, he may be on the brink of

success. Now a resident of Dixon, Calif., outside Sacramento, he hopes next month to make the first test flight of the Molier Skycar, a four-passenger aircraft designed to take off and land vertically and to fly as fast as 630 km/h. Skycar is an improved version of an earlier saucershaped aircraft—which flew more than 150 times and looked like a flying car from the animated television series The Jetsons. With the Skycar, Molier foresees the day commuters will lift off from their driveways and fly to work—a reallife escape from the gridlock of expressways. Certification by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration may be years away, but, he says, “when it gets bad enough, people will start to take the alternatives seriously.”

In fact, some aviation experts already take the Skycar seriously. Henry Lahore, a systems engineer with the commercial aircraft division of Seattlebased Boeing Corp., assessed Möllers technology in the late 1980s as part of a 110-member group that looked at hundreds of future transportation concepts, and he recommended the company consider investing in it. “It was blocked by a vice-president who couldn’t imagine Boeing doing anything less than a

100-passenger jet,” says Lahore.

Another supporter, Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Va., calls Molier “one of the best engineers in the U.S.” The Skycar will become feasible, he says, when satellites, government regulations and air-traffic control systems are in place to permit automatic travel—without skilled pilots at the helm and without the risk of deadly midair crashes. The idea is for groundbased navigational networks to communicate with a Skycar’s onboard computer and with satellites, guiding a vehicle from takeoff to landing. “We’ve looked at alternatives, such as helicopters,” says Bushnell, “and Möllers machine is faster, cheaper and safer.”

There is only one Skycar in existence—the prototype that Molier will fly next month at the company headquarters of Molier International in Davis, Calif., barring last-minute glitches. The craft is 5.4 m long, 3 m wide and weighs 990 kg. It is powered by eight horizontally mounted engines encased in cylindrical structures called nacelles. The engines draw air into the nacelles, and a series of vanes, resembling Venetian blinds, are positioned to

Getting off the drawing board

Skycar

specifications

• Passengers..........4

• Cruise speed.. 565 km/h

• Range....... 1,450 km

• Kilometres per litre. . . 7

• Gross weight ... 990 kg

• Power......... 720 hp

• Size (LxWxH)..........

5.4 mx3 mx 1.8 m

Skycar engines draw air into a chamber, and vanes that resemble Venetian blinds direct the flow downward, providing the thrust needed for vertical liftoff.

direct the air downward, providing the thrust needed for liftoff. The vanes are then repositioned to allow the aircraft to move forward at a speed of up to 630 km/h at an altitude of7,500 m, according to design specifications.

Skycar s inaugural flight is planned to be a modest undertaking. The aircraft will be attached by a cable to an overhead crane about 30 m high to prevent a crash should onboard systems fail. Möller may make a loop or two over his company’s property, which occupies less than four acres, but he will not venture farther afield. If the Skycar meets expectations, Möller intends to fly it for journalists before the year’s end and promises: “Well put on a demonstration that will impress them.”

Even if Skycar performs flawlessly, and eventually receives government approval, it would initially be too costly for the average commuter. Möller says the first versions could cost more than $350,000, although the price could fall to about $45,000 with mass production. He hopes to license the craft to a major auto manufacturer, which would produce and market it. Despite the un-

certainty, 100 would-be buyers have put down deposits of at least $5,000.

Möller estimates that he has spent as much as $125 million on the project since the early 1970s. He has financed his efforts by dabbling in real estate development and producing commercially viable products like a high-performance muffler. As well, he has sold shares in his company to about 400 investors, some of whom have remained faithful for years. “I’m a firm believer or I would have abandoned it a long time ago,” says Kurt Wiesbaum, a retired civil engineer from Port Hope, Ont., who invested $50,000 in 1970, half of which was for exclusive Canadian rights to the technology.

But the first buyers for the Skycar would likely be governments and defence departments. In fact, Möller has delivered nine smaller, unmanned versions of the aircraft to various branches of the U.S. military, who have flown them many times. The air force sees them as useful for remote-controlled assessment of airfield damage in nuclear attacks, while the army tested their effectiveness as an overhead surveillance tool for tank brigades operating in hilly

terrain. And Boeing’s Lahore views the Skycar as valuable for search and rescue operations as well as border patrols.

Those who envision such a future for the Skycar invariably speak highly of the talents and tenacity of the man behind it. Möller acquired an aircraft maintenance diploma from what is now the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, then landed a job with a Montreal aircraft manufacturer, Canadair Ltd. (which was later acquired by Bombardier Inc.). He was allowed to take graduate-level aeronautical engineering courses at McGill University, even though he did not have an undergraduate degree, and wound up with a PhD. In 1963, Möller began teaching at the University of California at Davis, and in his spare time, he started building rudimentary flying machines. More than three decades later, he’s still at it. “He’s a visionary who has pursued his goal with immense energy,” says McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Guitton, who studied with him. “He’s an incredible individual.” And he may revolutionize personal travel in the 21st century. EH]