Boston-bred company making flying cars a thing of the present

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Forty-year-old Carl Dietrich brown bags his lunch or grabs something on the fly at a local Bickford’s between meetings with engineers, investors and FAA regulators. There’s a lot of tweaking to do before the flying cars he and his friends invented go into full-scale production at Terrafugia headquarters in Woburn.

As a little guy growing up in Sausalito, California, Dietrich fashioned space ships from building blocks and made impressive tree fort hangers in his back yard. As he grew, he shared his dad’s passion for flying remote-controlled airplanes. However, it’s the 1985 science fiction comedy “Back to the Future” he credits for sparking his dream to someday engineer a car that can really fly.

By age 10, Dietrich had already begun to imagine the world President Reagan promised the week after America honored the memory of seven astronauts lost aboard The Challenger. In his 1986 State of the Union address, the President said “we should go forward and reach for the stars.” That night, Reagan also quoted a conversation between Marty McFly and Doc: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

The sentiment of the movie and those national remarks stayed with Dietrich while earning his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department of MIT. He spent his time in Cambridge studying fundamentals of space research, electrostatic confinement fusion and propulsion while building award-winning sub-orbital rocket engines, and designing a blast-safe mine detector used in Afghanistan. Co-founding MIT’s Rocket Club, Dietrich also toyed and tinkered with the principles of building flying cars with his friends.

In the 1940s, Henry Ford predicted a combination airplane and motor car was coming. With post WWII enthusiasm booming, more than 5,000 airfields were commissioned across the United States. People earned their pilot’s license expecting to fly autonomously for convenience and recreation. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, in a department the equivalent of today’s FAA, increasing regulations imposed on aeronautic-automotive businesses placed untenable hardships on collaborative innovators. Development of the fledgling industry stalled under the weight of federal red tape. Companies interested in this entrepreneurial enterprise chose instead to focus on manufacturing either aircrafts or cars.

Dietrich, with two other aeronautical astrophysics engineering students and two friends from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, caught wind of a break in the cloud bank of aeronautical regulations in 2006. Together they questioned federal regulators about the legal feasibility of transforming their “Back to the Future” dreams into a reality. They knew, with certainty, that they could engineer a car that could fly but needed assurance their time and money wouldn’t be tossed into the bureaucratic air.

Photo from the first public demonstration of the Transition in 2013. (Photo by John Slemp, courtesy of Terrafugia)

Photo from the first public demonstration of the Transition in 2013. (Photo by John Slemp, courtesy of Terrafugia)

Signing off on the converging vectors of regulation and entrepreneurialism, FAA administrators encouraged the team to fly from theoretical designers of flight into manufactures of a fixed wing, street-legal prototype aircraft. Terrafugia, which in Latin means “escape the Earth,” designed the Transition to fit into an ordinary single-car garage. The road-ready plane is a convenient, safe and uniquely fun transportation option available to be flown and driven by people who have earned a Sport Pilot certificate and a standard driving license. With the touch of a button, within 30 seconds, the car’s wings deploy into flight position, ready to taxi down a short runway and take off to a destination within a 450-mile radius.

Engineered to comply with FAA regulations, the two-seat Transition and its four-seat successor, TF-X, are designated as Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). The Terrafugia team designed the first prototype of these pop-culture flying machines to fly up to 115 miles per hour, and drive on any surface using premium unleaded gas, not jet fuel.

The Transition gets 35 mpg. Once in mass production, these LSAs are expected by Terrafugia executives to penetrate our culture much the same way cell phones have. They anticipate the price will drop from $279,000 to a price something more consistent with that of a luxury car.

On Jan. 6, 2016, the FAA selected Terrafugia, with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Virgin America, and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, to participate in development of appropriate federal guidelines regarding the future of air traffic management and aviation infrastructure. With governmental oversight, these companies have been tasked with the creation of practical, non-intrusive rules designed to regulate and encourage our culture’s evolving reliance on drones and, eventually, LSA.

Until guidelines are in place, Terrafugia’s helicopter car, TF-X, remains in development. The Transition is available to order now, but is limited to driving to airfields for standard take-off and landings. With the construction of those 5,000 airstrips so long ago, even the U.S. government assumed we’d be traveling like Marty McFly and Doc well before “Back to the Future” became a “sci-fi” reality.

Diane Kilgore is a Boston-area blogger.