Inventor Sam Bousfield figures he’s heard nearly every Jetsons reference out there, and every wisecrack about the carnage that would surely unfold if the average driver could take to the skies.
But he’s not about to let the skeptics put him off his dream of building a flying car.
Bousfield, 58, is the force behind Samson Motorworks, a Prineville company that’s aiming to have a prototype of its three-wheeled, two-passenger “Switchblade” ready for its first test flights next spring. Wednesday night, he visited the Bend Airport with members of the Bend chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association to bring members up to speed on his invention and field questions on the technical aspects of his design.
An architect by trade, Bousfield, of Redmond, was dabbling in aviation design about 15 years ago, when some of his ideas caught the attention of engineers at Boeing’s facility in Long Beach, California. After three years working with Boeing, he got to thinking that maybe the time was right for the flying cars that people have been talking about throughout the history of aviation.
“It is something people have expected in the future. They know it’s gonna happen — it’s just a matter of when,” he said. “And in our case, it’s now.”
Technically speaking, the Switchblade — so named for the way the wings fold under the body for ground travel — is not a flying car, but a flying motorcycle. Bousfield said aviation design and motorcycle design are much more similar to each other than either are to car design, as both are largely focused on minimizing weight.
Getting a motorcycle — flying or otherwise — approved for use on a public street is a far easier task than doing the same for a car, he said.
“A car, the regulations are 3 feet thick,” Bousfield said. “In a motorcycle, there’s really nothing that’s mandated safetywise — just turn signals, mirrors and things like that.”
Bousfield said despite the comparatively lax safety standards, he expects the Switchblade will be a relatively safe vehicle on the ground, with crumple zones, side impact beams in the doors, and airbags as found in modern cars. In the air, the Switchblade will come with a parachute that can be activated in the event of a mechanical emergency or the incapacitation of the pilot, allowing the entire vehicle to return to earth safely.
For now, the Switchblade exists only as a series of models and incomplete prototypes. Scaled-down versions of the vehicle have been tested in the wind tunnel at the University of Washington to develop a better understanding of its airworthiness, and a full-size model that can drive but not fly resides at the company’s Prineville facility. However, within the last month, workers in Prineville have built the first full-sized wings in anticipation of next year’s first test flight.
If Bousfield can bring the Switchblade to market, he expects it will be sold as a kit plane, where the buyer assembles the parts provided by his company. He’s estimating a ready-to-build Switchblade will run somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000.
Bousfield said he doesn’t expect vehicles like the Switchblade will ever be as prevalent as cars are today. He views it as a best-of-both-worlds option for an experienced pilot. Fly to Portland or Seattle, and drive directly to your final destination. If the weather turns nasty when it’s time to head home, just drive, or drive to the nearest airport where it’s possible to take off safely.
Bousfield said he actually agrees with the doom-and-gloom predictions of those who fear the day the average driver is allowed to take flight. However, he doesn’t expect that day will ever come. Getting a pilot’s license is much more difficult than getting a driver’s license, he said, and the authorities have little tolerance for reckless pilots — even if mischief is the first thing that comes to people’s minds when he tells them about his flying car.
“Folks ask me, if the cops are chasing me, ‘I can just open up the wings and take off?’” he said with a laugh. “If your license plate is 007, you might get away with it, but everybody else goes to jail.”
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