A car that turns into an airplane? An airplane that turns into a car?
Perhaps the stuff of fantasy. Until now.
The Woburn-based firm Terrafugia, (Latin for "escape the earth") is turning fantasy into reality with its Transitional Roadable Aircraft.
And, Lawrence Municipal Airport had a role in the development of the aircraft, called the "Transition."
The firm has been conducting tests on the Transition at Lawrence Municipal Airport.
"We've been doing high-speed taxi testing," said Cliff Allen, a veteran pilot and Terrafugia's vice president for sales.
The Transition got up to 90 mph, minus its folding wings, he said.
"We took the wings off it, we didn't want it to fly," Allen said.
He said taxi and ground testing are nearing an end, and actual flight testing is expected to begin within the next two months in upstate New York.
Some later flight testing may be done at Lawrence Airport, he said.
"We'll start pretty rigorous flight testing that should take us through the summer into next fall," Allen said. "And if all goes according to plan, the company should be able to start shipping production models early next year."
The prototype, with its rear-mounted pusher propellor will make its debut at the 2012 New York International Auto Show April 6 through 15 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.
"One of the reasons for going to the New York International Auto Show is to put it in front of an audience and gauge the interest," Allen said.
"We are marketing it as an airplane. It is an airplane that is street legal," Allen said.
The two-seater has a maximum airspeed of 120 knots and has a price tag of $279,000.
It has a maximum range of 450 air miles and a range of 600 miles at 35 miles per gallon, when used as an automobile.
It is powered by a 100-horsepower engine. It is made of carbon fiber and titanium components, Allen said.
The propeller is at the rear of the passenger cabin between twin tail booms. The wings fold up for automotive operation and unfold when the pilot wants to take to the air.
The project was made possible by a 2004 change in FAA rules governing the development of new airplanes, Allen said.
The FAA added the "light sport" rule, which changed the economics of developing a new airplane, Allen said.
Under the old rules, the requirements were the same whether manufacturers were trying to certify a small plane or a corporate jet, usually at a cost of $50 to $100 million and testing for six or seven years, he said.
Allen said the company has deposits from 94 people who want to buy the plane and of those, only six do not have pilot's licenses.
But the FAA has addressed the licensing issue as well, creating a "light sport pilots license," which is a step below a private pilots license.
It allows the holder to fly during daylight hours and in good weather.
The beauty of the craft is that if the pilot encounters bad weather, he can punch a button on the GPS in the cockpit to get the location of the nearest airport, fly there and land, and continue the journey on the ground, Allen said.
The plane will be equipped with all the radio equipment necessary to communicate with the airport tower, Allen said.
"What Transition offers to the pilot is the ability to go places and if the weather deteriorates, they can land and continue their journey," Allen said.
He said the company would be training the pilots, that in the event of deteriorating weather, to GPS the nearest airport, land, and continue the journey
Allen said three things made the Transition possible — the FAA rules changes, the availability of carbon fiber and lightweight materials used in the manufacturing and the revolution in technology inside the cockpit.
The Transition has all the radio equipment needed to fly, and a moving GPS map in the middle of the instrument panel, he said.
The concept for the aircraft goes back to two MIT professors, Carl Dietrich and Sam Schweghart, who were working toward their doctorate degrees in engineering, Allen said.
"One of them wanted to do something entrepreneurial," Allen said.
And after seeing research someone had done with regard to barriers to using planes to travel due to weather, they began working on a design for a folding wing about 2005 and then founded the company in 2006, Allen said.
They then began taking their designs around to airshows to gauge the interest, and there was a tremendous amount of interest right from the beginning, Allen said.
In a release issued by Terrafugia, auto show director Alan Liebensohn said they were thrilled to have Terrafugia and the Transition at the show this year.
"The Transition is a truly unique vehicle that represents an enormous step forward in how we vide personal transportation and individual freedom."
Anna Mracek Dietrich, chief operating officer of Terrafugia said the New York event was selected for the rollout of the Transition because of the value the show brings in terms of exposure to future owners, investors and partners.
The show "is a venue from which we can show the first practical street-legal airplane to the world while meeting the people who will be part of its commercial success in the years to come," Dietrich said.
Terrafugia is a growing aerospace company founded by pilots and engineers from MIT and supported by a world-class network of advisers and private investors.