Why Don't We Have Flying Cars Yet? Well, Here's The Thing...
Think of the worst driver you know. Maybe it's the idiot texting while barreling down the highway like a one-man Mad Max murder convoy. Or, the dangerous dimwit who glides across three lanes of traffic to take an exit without breaking eye-contact with the horizon. Now, imagine them piloting the fabled flying car, alongside dozens of other flying cars. Suddenly, the accidents they cause on the ground today are the horrific plane crashes of tomorrow. Oh, look -- another shower of fiery debris and human limbs carpet-bombing an unsuspecting McDonald's/hospital/backyard barbecue!
That hasn't stopped people from thinking the flying car is always just around the corner -- prominent, noncrazy people, even, such as Henry Ford (who was technically sane, except for all the Jew-hating), who once said, "Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come."
Henry "CARS WILL FLY STOP LAUGHING AT ME" Ford.
But, even Ford probably didn't think he would be proven right almost immediately after saying that, when an aeronautical engineer in San Diego named Ted Hall invented a fully functioning flying car -- in the 1940s.
Hall worked for Consolidated Aircraft Corporation (later Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, or Convair), an aircraft manufacturer that made everything from commercial airliners to fighter jets to bombers to NASA rockets. They designed and manufactured thousands of planes for the U.S. military's aerial effort during World War II. During the war, Hall came up with the idea for a new kind of plane to be used for special operations. It was a plane that could, say, land behind enemy lines like a flying Rambo, shed its wings like a termite, and then become a car like a freaking Transformer. He began development on a combination commando/insect/robot prototype in 1939, on his own, without the help or financial backing of Consolidated, who probably thought Ted should stop sniffing model glue and get back to work on planes that killed people thanks to bullets and bombs, not because of midair fender benders. But, after the war finished, Ted quit his job and dedicated his life to making a car fly.
Ted's flying car wasn't like the DeLorean in Back To The Future or anything in Blade Runner. The car and the plane sections weren't part of a solid whole. They were separate modular pieces. The idea was that you would drive around town in a weird looking three-wheeled car, failing to pick up any chicks, and when you wanted to fly, you would head over to the airport and attach a set of wings to the roof and a propeller to the hood. In Ted's long-term, extremely rose-tinted plans for mass distribution, customers would only own the car and would have to rent the wings at an airport.
"So, I'm buying a flying car without the flying part? Son, do you think I'm an idiot?"
As he improved his design and started seeing promising results, Ted's flying car slowly gained a reputation for maybe not being the tremendous hunk of shit most attempts at making flying cars had been up until that point. The second model, the 118, was featured in a 1946 newsreel:
And it even received a mention in the April 1946 issue of Popular Science. It was creating buzz before it even came out. Imagine it like this: What if the hype surrounding the Oculus Rift was because it could actually make you fly, instead of whatever this is:
Seriously, what the fuck is this?
When Consolidated, now called Convair, saw Ted's incredible flying car, they came crawling back like an ex who left just before his or her partner won the Powerball. They bought the rights and got to work getting it ready for retail. This meant more test flights.
In all, it had 66 successful test flights. It worked so well that, with just a few minor adjustments, the Model 118 would obviously go on to be a huge success, which is why you should be reading this while stuck in sky traffic in your very own flying car. But, you're not. And it's all because of one man. One guy ruined Ted Hall's dream. One dude denied you the glory of the flying car. That gentleman's name was Reuben P. Snodgrass.
This isn't him. I don't know who this is.
Reuben P. Snodgrass was the test pilot for the Convair Model 118. Mr. Snodgrass was an amazing pilot. At least, I hope he was. Anyone would have to be really good at something badass to overcome that name. By this point, Ted Hall's flying car was this close to beginning production. Convair had bought two smaller aviation manufacturers to produce the flying cars, and Ted already knew what he would charge for them: $1,500. In today's money, that is roughly $6 trillion. I'm not very good at inflation calculations.
On November 1, 1947, Reuben P. Snodgrass took the Model 118 out for its first test flight. It flew over San Diego for a glorious one hour and 18 minutes before landing safely. But, on the second test flight, he ran out of fuel within an hour. It didn't make sense. He had checked the fuel tank before he took off. But, Reuben had messed up royally: Since the car and plane were different sections, they had different fuel tanks. Reuben had checked the car's fuel level when he should have checked the plane's during his preflight prep. He wasn't going to make it back to the landing strip, so he crash-landed the 118 in a marsh near the San Diego Bay.
Somehow, Reuben survived. But, the crash decimated the 118 and killed Ted Hall's dream of a flying car in every garage. A third test flight using salvaged parts from the crash went off without a hitch only weeks later, but the damage was done. The bad press shook Convair's confidence, and they scrapped the project.
So, nearly 70 successful test flights wiped away because of one brain fart. But, props to Ted Hall. Whatever he did, it clearly worked. So, if I wanted to make a flying car, say, 30 years later, why not pick up where he left off? Try really hard to avoid moments of unbelievable stupidity and BAM! -- you're a billionaire flying-car tycoon. In the early 1970s, a group of engineers attempted to do just that. Their version was called the AVE Mizar.
Henry Smolinski was the founder and president of Advanced Vehicle Engineers, or AVE for short, a company based out of Van Nuys, California, that was created in 1968 with only one goal: to create a flying car that could be sold to the public. See if his idea sounds familiar: a set of detachable wings that could be attached to a regular car. Whenever you wanted to fly, put on the wings and take off. He even planned on a "rent-a-wing" system, just like Ted Hall.
Ease of use was a big part of the design philosophy, as Smolinski said in 1970:
It would be so easy to use that even the feeble subspecies of man known as women could snap it together, assuming they didn't let their turbulent vaginal emotions render them so stupid they mixed up the fuel tanks or something.
The plane part of the Mizar was going to be made from the modified wing and tail sections of a Cessna Skymaster, a small twin-engine plane with a reputation for being a pain in the ass to fly. The car part is where it gets interesting: It was going to be a Pontiac Firebird, aka the car driven by Burt Reynolds in Smokey And The Bandit.
Prime Burt Reynolds outrunning the law in a flying Firebird. Did someone read my dream journal?
Unfortunately, that badass plane-car combo was not meant to be, because AVE suddenly ditched their plans to use the Firebird. I couldn't find a reason why, but I guess because the Firebird was too heavy for flight or because the awesomeness of a flying Firebird was simply too heavy for people's minds to comprehend.
Regardless of the car beneath the wings, the Mizer was destined to be a flying piece of shit. It was poorly designed and poorly built. During a test flight in June 1973, a propeller broke 1.5 miles after takeoff. Luckily, its pilot, Charles "Red" Janisse, landed it safely in a field. The next month, Smolinski and his business partner, Harold (Hal) Blake, ran into a problem Ted Hall had never encountered with his flying car 30 years earlier: The detachable wings were detaching midflight. Shockingly, this did not result in the car plummeting straight down like Wile E. Coyote after he realizes he has stepped off a cliff. Once again, Charles Janisse saved the day. The wing detached from the body, and he realized that if he tried to turn the plane in any direction, the wings could completely tear away. So, he continued straight and managed to land safely in the middle of a bean farm. Charles Janisse was a good goddamn pilot is what you should be getting from this. He singled-handedly saved the project from its creator's mistakes twice, putting his own life on the line in the process. Having anyone else behind the flight stick would be stupid, right? Good. I'm glad we agree.
Like Ted Hall's Convairs, Mizars were on the brink of production. They had price points worked out (between $18,300 and $29,000), manufacturing was scheduled to begin the following year, and a local Ford dealership was already lined up to distribute the flying car nationally. The dealership was called Galpin Ford, and this is the strangely ominous, slightly off-putting promotional video they made to get people excited about the vehicle of the future, the AVE Mizar, or as it became better known, The Flying Pinto:
If you know anything about the Ford Pinto, you know where this is heading. It earned its reputation as one of the worst cars of all time because of how easily it would explode. Its fuel tank was sandwiched between the rear bumper and the differential housing, which had four sharp bolts sticking out if it. If it was rear-ended at 30 mph or more, the gas tank would crush on one end and tear at the other. One spark and it all goes up in flames. There was also a chance that an accident could make its shitty doors jam, trapping passengers inside. As if buying a Pinto wasn't shameful enough, now you get to be burned to death in it.
If it were a person, he would always try to show you the rebel flag he engraved on his pistol.
A test flight of the Flying Pinto was scheduled for September 11, 1973. Charles Janisse couldn't make it. Probably wise to just go home then, right? Relax, watch some Kojak. No, not if you're Henry Smolinski and Hal Blake. They hopped in the Mizar and took off. Two minutes in, the wing broke loose the same way it did for Janisse. Smolinski tried turning back, only making it worse. The Mizar crashed into a farmer's pickup truck and spun out into a tomato field where it exploded. Smolinski and Blake were killed. The project was shut down.
Still, it's exciting to know that Ted Hall got pretty damn close to perfection, even by the standards of today's flying cars from companies like Terrafugia, AreoMobil, and Moller International. If they all fail, a new generation of engineers will pick up where they've left off. That's how innovation works. There will always be people trying to immortalize themselves not as the inventors, but as the perfecters of the flying car. Their work has given us so many moments when we've almost had flying cars. But then, our stupidity got in the way. We can blame Snodgrass for checking the wrong gas tank, and we can blame Ford for making a car with a gas tank made of matchstick heads, but ultimately we can only blame oursel- actually. No. Wait ...
Gas tanks! Blame gas tanks. Everybody, say it with me...
Luis is double checking the gas in his flying Firebird. You can find him on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.
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