By Aaron Karp|February 2024
Will we ever own aircraft the way we own automobiles? Market forecasts, a proposed rule from FAA and recent test flights suggest that personal air vehicles could be coming. Aaron Karp tells the story.
On a cloudy day last November, test pilot Robert Moehle climbed into the cockpit of a sleek vehicle that had never before been flown. He waved to his colleagues and taxied the “flying sports car” toward its inaugural takeoff.
Such are the moments in the budding “personal air vehicle” industry. NASA coined the term 20 years ago to describe a future in which average people own aircraft as they do automobiles, opening up new transportation possibilities that the agency believes could be transformative. Concepts have come and gone, and as we all know, that future has yet to arrive. My interviews with executives and industry watchers suggest that this time could be different than past attempts to get PAVs out to consumers. Companies have crafted creative business plans, FAA is in the midst of modernizing a relevant regulation, and interest is growing among consumers, based on aircraft preorders.
Proposed PAVs come in two distinct varieties. Some, like the Switchblade vehicle built by Samson Sky that Moehle climbed into outside Moses Lake, Washington, are meant to be driven around town or on country roads until the operator decides to turn onto airport grounds, where the car would rapidly turn itself into an aircraft. Some developers have aspirations to empower their customers to go airborne from clear roadways to avoid traffic jams, though that’s a long way off — if it is feasible at all. The other variety of PAV concepts consists of vehicles that would not be “roadable” but rather would be flown from driveways or be carted in the backs of SUVs to takeoff and landing spots. This genre includes the $98,000 single-person, open-cockpit Jetson ONE from Jetson Aero of Stockholm, Sweden, whose design was inspired by desert buggies. Unlike Switchblade, which was gasoline powered for the inaugural flight — with plans to go hybrid with electricity for the production version — Jetson ONE and its handful of cohorts would be powered only by electricity from the start. All can be thought of as small eVTOLs, electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles.
Regardless of the design distinctions, Moehle’s job on this day was to place Switchblade among the PAV concepts that have been flown, as distinct from short preparatory hops. The tower at Grant County International Airport outside Moses Lake cleared him for takeoff. He took the Switchblade down the runway, accelerating with a hand throttle and steering with rudder pedals. The craft’s steering wheel, designed to function conventionally on the road, became Moehle’s link to the Switchblade’s flight control surfaces once airborne. He turned the wheel to move the ailerons and elevators to bank and raise or lower the aircraft’s nose. He flew over the airport grounds and surrounding countryside for about six minutes, reaching an altitude of 500 feet, before landing and being greeted by Samson CEO Sam Bousfield and others.
“It was one of those moments where you go, ‘Wow, did you just do this? I can’t believe it,’” Bousfield tells me.
He started drawing up plans for Switchblade in 2008 and envisions owners keeping the three-wheeled, two-passenger vehicles in home garages as their day-to-day cars and flying them from airports for longer trips. In the version that goes to market, the wings will fold out from under the vehicle as the tail rises. The process will involve moving two switches so that a driver “cannot just accidentally push a button and it changes,” Bousfield says.
There was no need to demonstrate that transition in November: “We had worked out the wing-swing and tail-fold mechanisms many years ago as part of the run-up to first flight,” he explains. “We were just testing flight characteristics and took the safest route for that.”
According to the Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association, Samson Sky is one of about eight companies developing vehicles that would be both a drivable car and a flyable aircraft. Others include California-based Alef Aeronautics, which debuted its Model A flying car at the Detroit Air Show in September.
NASA, in a 2022 report, predicted that PAVs will ultimately be “flown from the local street, eventually replacing much of ground transportation and scheduled commercial air traffic.” That would mean “many millions of flying things in controlled airspace versus the current thousands,” and “much would change regarding human society.”
Flying cars were the first PAVs to be envisioned, well before NASA came up with the phrase. Waldo Waterman flew the Waterman Arrowbile road-air combination vehicle in 1937. But past efforts by Waterman and others to develop flying cars have only produced a handful of models at most, with funding and technology hurdles dooming them.
If societies from the United States and elsewhere are indeed on the cusp of a PAV revolution, a question is whether it will be flying cars or small eVTOLs that lead the way. Right now, the only certainty is that there are trade-offs.
In contrast to Switchblade, whose owners in the United States will be required to have an FAA pilot’s license and will typically register their vehicles for ground mode as motorized trikes, Jetson ONE has been designed to meet FAA’s Part 103 ultralight criteria. This means the company is not waiting for any documentation from FAA, and its U.S. customers won’t need a pilot’s license. In fact, they will only be required to complete a training course that will take only hours.
Little training is needed because of how automated the design is. “It literally takes minutes to learn how controls work,” says Tomasz Patan, the aircraft’s inventor and the company’s chief technology officer. “In our case, it is just one joystick that operates pitch, roll, yaw and altitude.”
Jetson ONE is being flight tested in Italy, where the government treats the design as an ultralight and is permitting remotely piloted flights in uncontrolled airspace. Ultimately, Jetson expects customers to fly the aircraft in the U.S. as ultralights. Its empty weight is about equivalent to that of an adult man (86 kilograms), placing it well below the FAA’s empty limit of 254 pounds (115 kg) for ultralight aircraft. These aircraft can be flown in uncontrolled airspace, steering clear of airports, densely populated areas and cities.
“It was very important for us to use the existing regulations and build a vehicle that is extremely safe and fun to fly today, not in a few years time when some new regulations will be in place,” Patan says via email.
The company says it has 350 preorders, and Patan tells me the company could start delivering aircraft to customers by the end of this year.
Dave Dunning, the General Aircraft Manufacturing Association’s director of global innovation and policy, points to the simplified flight controls and automation of most PAV concepts, including Jetson ONE, as among the “overarching umbrella of technologies that enable safer operations” that he believes will give regulators confidence in the vehicles.
Computerized control technology “makes it nearly impossible for an aircraft to enter an unsafe attitude, et cetera,” Dunning explains. Having a purely electric concept lowers maintenance cost and time and eliminates the worry about fuel igniting in an accident. Taken together, these attributes unlock “a form of aviation for a whole new range of people that may not have been interested or able to access aviation previously.”
Both Jetson Aero and Samson Sky have designed their aircraft so FAA type certification will not be needed. The companies contend that this will lead to a clearer path to in-service flight than developers of larger air taxi eVTOLs navigating an extensive type certification process, most of which are designed to carry four passengers.
While there is an obvious recreational aspect to these PAVs, Jetson is promoting the ONE as a vehicle for short commutes and other utilitarian uses.
Samson Sky, meanwhile, is seeking a special airworthiness certificate for the Switchblade in FAA’s experimental category. This would enable the aircraft to be flown in controlled airspace by newly minted private pilots without a type certificate and also allows for flexibility in tweaking technology. Bousfield sees those and other advantages over the proposed eVTOL air taxis.
“You’re going door to door without ever leaving your vehicle, and you just went up to 500 miles,” he says.
Bousfield says Switchblades will be designed as kit-built aircraft under FAA’s experimental category. To comply, Switchblades will have to be 51% built by their owners, who will travel to a Builder Assist Center operated by Samson. The building process is “easy because it’s repetitive,” Bousfield says. “It’s simple. There is a supervisor checking on it to make sure that everything’s perfect. There’s a guy that’s watching the supervisors to keep everybody safe. And it’s something that people can do inside of a week and make their 51%.” An assembly line staffed by professionals will then complete the vehicle.
Samson Sky says it has 2,300 “reservations from 57 countries” for preorders for the Switchblade, which are being priced at $170,000 each.
But how much of a market will there be for PAVs, particularly in this decade? Bousfield believes both roadable flying cars like the Switchblade and smaller electric aircraft such as the Jetson ONE will be viable and have great appeal to consumers. GAMA’s Dunning believes that within one to two years, a limited number of PAVs — fewer than 100 — will be operating globally.
“Then, as technology advances and public acceptance increases, that may grow to hundreds of vehicles in the next two to five years and potentially thousands of vehicles beyond that,” he says.
To have the sweeping impact predicted by NASA, the vehicles will have to be seen as more than curiosities by a wide swath of the public.
“Most aviation enthusiasts would look at something like this and say, ‘You know, I’d love to have one, and I’d love to fly one,’” he explains. “But then, for most people, the question that really matters is going to be how does this vehicle enable me to get from point A to B? It has to become a utilitarian mode of transportation, more than just a joy ride.”
The “light-sport” category is getting modernized
A regulatory change is in the works that won’t immediately affect Jetson Aero, the maker of the single-person Jetson ONE, or Samson Sky, the maker of the Switchblade flying sports car, although both applaud it.
In January, FAA finished taking public comments on a proposed rule, Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certification, or MOSAIC. This rule would expand the light-sport aircraft category — the size category above the ultralight standard — to allow for electric aircraft to be flown by a pilot with half the training hours that are required for a private pilot license, with one passenger allowed.
Tomasz Patan, Jetson’s chief technology officer, believes this change could be highly beneficial for the company in the future. “This is a great move and will definitely open new possibilities for us developing different versions and adding some great features to the ONE and future products.”
Samson CEO Sam Bousfield says the new rule would not apply to its business plan, aircraft design or operations, but he does believe it will open new possibilities for personal air vehicles. “Aviation is becoming increasingly expensive, and this rule can help expand aviation with minimal risk and with the potential to reign in prices.”
Under FAA’s proposal, the definition of a light-sport aircraft would be changed, eliminating the 1,320-pound (600-kilogram) weight limit and replacing it with a stall speed limit of 54 knots (100 kph). This would allow an aircraft as heavy as 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) to be considered a light-sport aircraft, so long as it has safety features and highly automated flight controls that “do not require excessive pilot skill or training,” according to the notice of proposed rulemaking. Automated fail safes would allow the aircraft to be controlled even if there were a failure in the propulsion system, FAA says.