by John MacNeill

Even though you’ll park it IN your garage, drive it to your nearest airstrip, and pilot it to your destination, don’t think of the Transition as a flying car. Carl Dietrich, the MIT aeronautical-engineering graduate student who is designing the vehicle, prefers the term “roadable aircraft”–meaning a plane that drives, not a car that flies. “We try to steer away from The Jetsons,” Dietrich says. “It’s a step in that direction, but a baby step.”

Still, in an age of hub-centric commercial flights, Dietrich thinks the ability to cruise between two of the 4,800 small airports nationwide and then drive to a final destination, whether your office or vacation home, will be irresistible to amateur pilots. He and his team are finishing a one-fifth-scale model for wind-tunnel tests. They hope to build a prototype within two years and to have the first Transitions rolling down runways by 2010. The projected price tag? About $150,000, roughly the price of a fully loaded Ford GT sports car.

  1. Leaving Home: A fender bender could ruin the aerodynamics of the plane, so the big challenge is to make the Transition both flight- and road-ready. In car mode, the tail folds up, revealing a bumper. The control surfaces of the twin vertical stabilizers fold inward, shielding the propeller from debris.
  2. Driving: With only two seats and no trunk space, the Transition won´t be ideal for trips to Costco. But the 6.5-foot-high car will be able to reach highway speeds, Dietrich says, and could be refueled at any gas station that sells super-unleaded gas. Expected mileage on the road: a not-too-shabby 40 miles per gallon.
  3. Transformation: On the runway, a flip of a switch starts the metamorphosis. The tail folds down, the wings flatten and lock into place, and the control surfaces of the vertical stabilizers line up. A security system, such as a thumbprint scanner, will keep Junior from â€taking off†with the car.
  4. Flight: With an air-cruising speed of 120 miles an hour, the Transition will be able to fly 500 miles on a single tank of gas. Inside the cockpit, “it’s all conventional general-aviation controls,” Dietrich says, “so it should be familiar to pilots.” In bad weather, you could simply divert to the nearest airport and drive the rest of the way.