Cars and commercial jets aren't the getaway craft they once were. Every year, Americans spend $78 billion dealing with traffic alone. Meanwhile, the "friendly skies" don't seem so nice anymore. Commercial aviation is so crowded that NASA is already researching ways to restructure air traffic on a point-to-point model using small regional airports. Compare that with the current state of the private airplane. Gas efficiency is already on the order of cars -- the new Icon A5, a light-sport aircraft on sale next year, will get 25 miles per gallon. And learning to fly has never been easier. A typical pilot's license costs about $10,000 and requires 40 hours of training. But in 2004 the FAA created a new designation for light-sport planes: those with one engine, a flight ceiling below 10,000 feet and a top speed of less than 138 mph. Light-sport certification takes half as long as usual. In response, entrepreneurs are rushing forward with intriguing ideas and options.
Few cities or suburbs can fit the long runways that even light aircraft require. So, the thinking goes, you need either a flying car or a hovercraft to make personal flight truly convenient. One of the most novel ideas out there is the Sarus [left]. Designed by Boston-based firm AeroCopter, the plane is ringed by a 21-foot rotor, which lifts it off the ground. In flight, the rotor tilts 87 degrees and then switches power to the rear rotors to propel it forward. Inventor Siamak Yassini has built a scale model and is now seeking funding for a full-scale prototype.
LISA, a French manufacturer of sport planes, has paired with solar-cell maker Trina Solar to create an electric airplane, dubbed the Hy-Bird, whose 65-foot wings will be covered in flexible solar panels. Stocked with the sun's energy, batteries will power the plane during takeoffs and charge all the instruments. Once aloft, the plane's electric motor will run on a hydrogen fuel cell stored behind the pilot's seat. The company has built a scale model of the plane and hopes to have a full-scale model ready for flight by the end of the year.
If you can't afford one of the fancier planes, you can always buy a kit and build a single-engine puddle jumper for about $60,000. But an extra $50,000 gets you a big upgrade: MySky's new MS-1, a sleek two-seater with a single 120-horsepower motor set to debut in August. Like the light-sport Icon A5, it's easy to fly, with two sticks for steering and throttle, and a top speed of 138 mph. It's about $30,000 cheaper, though, and boasts better views -- an enormous bubble canopy lets pilots see straight down and all around.
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