Over the years, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected from my friend and former NASA colleague, Fitz Walker. I’ve long been aware of his engineering and fabrication talents from projects that I have collaborated with him. Fitz has a secretive side too. The true depth and breadth of his skills always seem to be revealed through random, casual conversations: “That thing? Oh, that’s my RC submarine…I’ve been building them for years.” “What? I didn’t tell you that I built an electric motorcycle?”
Fitz’s most recent bomb was borderline atomic. He confided that he has spent years working with a team to create an honest-to-goodness flying car--which many consider to be the holy grail of engineering challenges! I was able to get him to divulge a few details, and later met with the project’s originator and driving force, Mitchell LaBiche. I caught Mitch just as he was preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign for his project. He provided deep insight into his design as well as the regimented approach that he has taken to avoid the pitfalls that foiled so many other flying car entrepreneurs.
Tested: You call your flying car design “OverDrive”. How did the concept develop?
LaBiche: During my early years of flying, I became stranded or delayed at a few destinations on multiple occasions. One such event was when I became stranded at an airport for three days and could not take off. However, just 50 miles away, the weather was clear. If I could have moved my plane down the road to the clear weather, it would have turned my disastrous weekend into a mere inconvenience. That event got me to start thinking of a better way to own, use, and integrate civil aviation/personal aircraft into everyday life.
During that time, I was employed as an engineer working on the Apache helicopter program and had envisioned that what I (and others) wanted was some sort of vertical takeoff, personal air vehicle. The plan changed when I took a friend’s suggestion to ask a few people what they wanted…and possibly turn my personal project into a money making venture. I invested three years and lots of money in marketing questionnaires which produced over 3,000 data points. From that, I found that what most people actually wanted was a not a vertical takeoff machine, but a personal travel vehicle that could both fly fast and go down the road. That changed everything.
The original R&D project (named the FSC-1, for Flying Sports Car #1 under the LaBiche Aerospace banner) was started to see if a marketable flying car could be designed and built. After nearly 20 years of continuous, low-level development, it was deemed ready to move on to the next phase as a real product in 2012. A new sister company was formed (LaBiche Automotive) and the FSC-1 became “OverDrive” to sell the vehicle under a new name indicative of a product for the advanced automotive market.
The challenge of creating a practical flying car has humbled countless engineers for decades. What does the OverDrive have that those unsuccessful designs were missing? Or what is different about the driving/flying environment today that makes the world finally ready for such a machine?
LaBiche: As I said many times during the FSC-1 research project, “Today, we can build nearly anything we can dream up. The main question is not ‘What can we dream up?’, but rather, ‘What would customers want to buy…What will sell?’ Think like a customer, not an engineer.
The main question is not ‘What can we dream up?’, but rather, ‘What would customers want to buy?'
Without the marketing surveys we performed, we would have probably made the same mistakes as everyone else. Every other flying car design that we know of (and there are literally hundreds) started as someone’s idea of a style or shape for a vehicle that could fly and drive. Relatively speaking, that’s the easy part. No other group carried out the advanced marketing to find out what customers might want in a personal travel vehicle, before they started the design. Most of the attempted vehicles resembled airplanes that could hobble down the road. Even worse are those that had to leave parts behind while driving. This has been the shortfall of all the vehicles attempted to date, except the OverDrive.
Directly from the surveys, we developed the following main design goals:
The vehicle must drive and fly well…as good as the comparable respective vehicles used on the road (Ford, GM, Chevy, etc) or in the air (Cessna, Beech, Cirrus, etc).
The vehicle must convert automatically between car and aircraft in no more than 45 seconds and be controlled from the cockpit by push button or equivalent.
The vehicle must “look good” as a car on the road, as it will be used in this style approximately 85% of time. It cannot look odd or like an “egg on wheels”.
The vehicle must be as easy to maintain as the average car.
The vehicle must use existing infrastructure (existing roads and airports)…i.e. no new verti-ports or other outrageous infrastructure needed.
The vehicle must fly 3 times faster than the average freeway speed limit (70 mph) which equates to a minimum cruise speed of 210 mph.
The vehicle must be a safe and capable road vehicle…especially in any weather condition in which you would probably NOT want to fly.
The vehicle must have 4 or more seats (55% of the survey respondents required this).
If you look at the historical attempts at building a ‘roadable’ aircraft, they did not meet one or more of these major design goals, making them deficient and obviously not very marketable. We are confident that the OverDrive meets or exceeds all of these goals.
We know that the vehicle must be “useful” enough to use on a daily basis, and with a reasonable cost. Otherwise, there is nothing new and you end up right back with the situation we already have…airplanes used as a luxury or a toy. This is similar to the first personal computers or early mobile phones (the size of bricks attached to suitcases with a cord). It is all about practical utility.
What are the basic materials used for construction of the OverDrive?
LaBiche: A wide range of materials are used throughout the vehicle depending on the features, functions, and load requirements. The OverDrive main frame structure is welded titanium tubing. The body is made of aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. The main wing boxes and inner wing panels are aluminum. The canards, V-tails, and outer wing panels are carbon fiber. Aircraft fasteners and other components are used throughout the vehicle.
Does the OverDrive design incorporate many Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) components or is it mostly custom-built?
LaBiche: Approximately 80% of the vehicle is custom built. The OverDrive does use several COTS components including a General Motors crate engine, Corvette transaxle, wheels, tires, brakes, seats, steering wheel, etc. All of the remaining components are custom designed and built.
Can you explain the drive system for each mode?
LaBiche: The OverDrive is designed around the rugged LS-2 engine and Corvette 6-speed, automatic transaxle for propulsion on the ground. This, combined with our custom-designed suspension system, makes the shifting, drive, handling, and acceleration very near the Corvette. The LS-2 is modified with the addition of a supercharger, which increases the power to approximately 450 horsepower at sea level. It holds this rating all the way to 29,000 ft. altitude. Besides being a light weight, water-cooled, aluminum block engine, the LS series uses a dry sump oil system…meaning that this engine is not affected by G forces and can run up-side down for extended periods. The engine is mid-mounted for better center of gravity control while in aircraft and ground mode. This placement also makes the conversion between the two modes much easier.
The OverDrive is pushed through the air in aircraft mode with two, two-bladed, contra-rotating propellers mounted at the rear of the vehicle. The reason for this particular system was to have enough blades to utilize the large amount of horsepower necessary to meet the speed requirements in the original design goals. The second reason for the contra-rotating system was so that the props can be hidden under the tail when the propellers are both stopped in a horizontal position. After trying a number of concepts, this was the easiest system. An added side benefit of this setup is that it eliminates P-factor (unwanted yaw forces from the propeller(s) with varying angles of attack) during high power maneuvers such as takeoff and climb, making it easier to fly with varying power settings. With 450 horsepower, large corrective yaw inputs would be needed with a standard single-propeller configuration.
The drive system for air mode is accomplished with the gear box sandwiched between the engine and transaxle. To engage the propellers, the on-board computer system checks to make sure the tails are raised and locked. Once the transaxle clutch is disengaged, the propeller clutch is engaged and the props come to life. The propeller clutch and brake system ensures that the propellers do not turn while in ground mode and stay locked in place in a horizontal position.
How about the flight testing program?
LaBiche: Initial flight performance development and flight testing of the OverDrive were completed during the FSC-1 research project. During any research project, there are usually a number of unknowns. In order to tackle the challenges with a methodical approach and limited budget, the flight testing program was set up as a step-by-step development program with increasingly more sophisticated and realistic models and systems. This process allowed us to make configuration changes and updates as we learned more about the vehicle.
We used an electric-powered, 1/10-scale RC model (40” wingspan) for initial proof-of-concept flight performance evaluations. We then created a 1/4-scale (100” wingspan ≈ 8’) high-fidelity model attached to a dynamic test rig. This was used to evaluate a number of parameters including; static stability (pitch & yaw), control authority and handling, minimum flight speeds, drag measurements, and lift measurements.
A full-scale, aerodynamically-correct flight simulator was created (using blade element theory methodology). We use the simulator to test things such as loss of power, stall recovery, minimum flight speeds, general flight handling and performance, landing/takeoff performance, and climb rate, to name a few. Of course, our full-scale prototype will be subjected to rigorous flight testing when it is completed.
At each step, the performance values and collected data were compared to previous stage data to verify consistency and repeatability. Throughout the FSC-1 research project, all of the measured performance values, analytically derived values, and calculated values agreed with a high degree of consistency. Additionally, we had performance estimates confirmed through an independent evaluation by aircraft experts from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, using “blind” product specifications. That is, no performance numbers or calculations were transmitted to the reviewers…only raw data such as; vehicle size, wing span, engine power, props, etc.
Independently calculated Flat Plate Area (FPA) drag values agreed with the 1/4-scale model measured values within 3% and flight performance numbers agreed with the full-scale simulator performance within 4%. All of this data has given us good confidence that the full-scale OverDrive Unit #1 will fly and drive as expected.
Are any full-scale prototypes completed or in development?
LaBiche: That requires a multi-part answer. In short: Yes, full-scale prototype #1 of the OverDrive is underway.
We started the FSC-1 research vehicle build as a way to test the full scale development pieces and parts in a real car, in a real world environment. Approximately 50% of the way through that process (in 2010), we reached a point where we wanted to make some changes with the materials, construction, and layout. One major change was switching from a welded 4130 steel frame to a welded titanium frame. While that sounds like a minor change, it had a huge impact due to available material sizes, welding techniques, etc. The major advantages are corrosion resistance and weight to strength ratio. We saved about 35 lbs. on the frame. The cost turns out to be roughly the same. However, titanium is nearly impervious to corrosion and will easily last 20-30 years or more with virtually no signs of corrosion. Early general aviation aircraft were constructed using a welded 4130 steel tube frame (especially aerobatic aircraft like the Pitts Special, etc.), and were prone to corrosion problems, making them an inspection nightmare. We just couldn’t afford to have this problem due to safety.
Since we were making changes, we decided to stop the research and incorporate everything we had learned. That’s when we decided to update the body styling, incorporate material changes, etc. At that point, the vehicle started to shape up as a really polished product. So we changed the name to honor that product maturity and called it the OverDrive vehicle. We have taken as many of the old parts off of the FSC-1 to use with the OverDrive #1 vehicle as possible, but many of the pieces have changed just enough to keep them from being used on #1.
OverDrive #1 will not be a 100% polished, production vehicle with leather seats and full-panel touch screens. It will be a fully-functional flying/driving vehicle with all of the necessary systems and features to show that the vehicle works, i.e. a slightly dressed up, functional, proof-of-concept model. It is highly instrumented for loads and data collection so there are wires and such running throughout the vehicle. We are about at the 55% completion level at this time. The biggest hurdles remaining are to build the more technically challenging (and expensive) parts like the propeller gear box, wheel drive components, new body, etc.
If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, what are the next steps for LaBiche Automotive?
LaBiche: We will complete the prototype OverDrive vehicle within 18-24 months. Then we will drive, and fly it as much as possible…while marketing to potential customers and investors so that we can move on to full scale production. As part of the continuing story, we will build another three pre-production vehicles that will be used for certification and production testing.
And what if you don't meet your fundraising goal?
LaBiche: If we don’t meet the fundraising goal, no problem. We will just continue on as we have for the last few years. At some point, one or more investors will see that we are on the verge of changing aviation history. It will just take a little longer to revolutionize general aviation than we had hoped. But we know we are on to something great and we won’t quit.
The sordid history of failed flying car attempts has trained many of us to point a condescending eye towards anyone audacious enough to think they can do better. It’s as if we are being polite by abstaining from laughing and pointing. But let’s face it, most great technological achievements are founded on the detritus of failed predecessors. Some piles of detritus are bigger than others; but sooner or later, all of the pieces come together.
Many visionaries have a way of ignoring problems and dooming themselves and their ‘great idea’ to obscurity. Yet, in doing so, they also remove one more variable for the next visionary who is astute enough to notice. Mitchell LaBiche definitely seems astute, as does his team. Have all of the variables for a marketable flying car finally been removed? Have all of the right questions been asked at last?
Mr. LaBiche certainly harbors no illusions about the remaining technological and financial hurdles that must be cleared. At the same time, he appears to be no more intimidated by the challenge now than when his idea for a flying car was fresh and boundless. The Overdrive’s KickStarter campaign is now live and will continue until August 27th. LaBiche and Walker will also be speaking at the world’s largest airshow (Airventure in Oshkosh Wisconsin) on July 31st. Stop by and ask them about the OverDrive…or Fitz’s RC submarines.
All photos courtesy of LaBiche Automotive