Stephen P. Cook has ideas for a pilot project that he believes will take off with anyone looking to cut down travel time.

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Cook someday wants to make Utah a center for the development and production of parts for flying cars, also known as "roadable aircraft." He's trying to raise venture capital for his and two other companies' flying-car concepts and believes it's only a matter of time before people start to drive the friendly skies with vehicles that quickly convert between road and air use.

"Mark my words: Ten or 15 years from now, you'll actually be able to take off nonstop from an off-ramp parallel to the freeway and then fly and land at a destination and then merge seamlessly back into the freeway without even getting out of your car," said Cook, group vice president for CFC (short for "Cook Flying Cars") LLC in Salt Lake City.

The concepts developed by Cook and the two other companies — San Francisco-based Haynes Aero and Texas-based LaBiche Aerospace — lie somewhere between "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and the soaring DeLorean of "Back to the Future."

The LaBiche FSC-1 ("Flying Sports Car") looks like a high-performance car, but wings sprout from the sides, the spoiler converts to a V-shaped tail and dual propellers emerge from the back, with power from a 6-cylinder engine. The Haynes Skyblazer looks like a corporate jet, with wings that likewise fold out of the way when taking to the road. CFC's Falcon, not as far along in the development stage, looks more like a minivan with wings that scissor out from its roof.

Each would hold about four adults and sport retractable wheels. The Skyblazer and Falcon would use jets for flight and then electricity on highways. Altitudes would be more than 25,000 feet in pressurized cabins. Top speeds would approach 300 mph, and range would reach more than 1,000 miles.

LaBiche, a "kit" vehicle, is expected to cost a sky-high $175,000 to start, and the company is saying it expects deliveries of production units in 2004 or 2005.

The CFC design is "not as sexy, but a lot simpler to build than LaBiche's," Cook said. He's also hoping the price eventually will glide down to as little as $50,000.

Although he's trying to land $2 million in venture funding to get a working prototype ready in two years, the Falcon likely wouldn't hit the market until 2010 or so. But his ready-to-fly vehicles would have an advantage on kit transportation, he said.

"Nobody wants to sit in their garage for 800 to 2,000 hours and assemble it and hope it works. And it's a sure-fire way to get divorced — you'd never see your wife or kids," Cook said.

Details about the dual-use vehicles can be found at www.labicheaerospace.com and www.haynes-aero.com or by e-mailing Cook at [email protected].

Some may think his head is in the clouds, but Cook insists that the flying cars aren't a pie-in-the-sky idea. He said developments in certain technologies are at the right point to make the flying cars a down-to-earth notion.

"It depends on who they are," he said when asked how people respond to his ideas. "If they're educated engineers, very few will argue the point, because they understand the advances that have come recently with materials science, the composites; with engine technologies, with a Williams turbofan; and with navigation and controls. And they realize that NASA is promoting it, so there's a lot of push for this."

Flying cars are not new, although the most successful venture, the Aerocar of more than five decades ago, resulted in only a handful of vehicles being produced. The two-seater featured detachable wings that could be hauled behind the vehicle.

Obviously, the development of flying cars is not without turbulence. In addition to funding obstacles, driver/pilots would initially need to land and take off from federally approved airports or privately owned strips — no bolting straight out of I-15 rush-hour traffic — and they would need training for a pilot's license.

But Cook believes the rise of flying cars would ease congestion near major hub airports by distributing the load, and that more money would be used to develop automated systems allowing for hands-off flights.

Early users will be business types needing to cover a large district. But people who would be on Cloud 9 to shorten travel time — say, someone looking to get to Lake Powell in less than two hours, compared to more than five hours of drive time — would be the eventual target customer.

The flying cars won't be marketed for inner-city travel. "It's mostly for travel over 30 miles, but anything over 100 to 500 miles, this will beat the jetliners, hands down," Cook said.

He decided to research the flying-car idea a few years ago when he became frustrated while commuting in a Toyota Tercel between Brigham Young University, where he eventually got a degree in manufacturing engineering technology, and a full-time job near the Salt Lake City International Airport.

"I figured, at 90 mph, this little car would fly if it just had enough surface area on a wing," he said.

Research and meetings with flying-car gurus followed. Cook, who worked for Ford Motor Co. in automatic transmission operations and product development, has invited several retired executives of Ford, GM and Toyota to be on his board of directors or help with the flying-car plans.

Utah ultimately would be where components would be built because of the abundance of companies in the state that manufacture the light-but-strong composite materials the vehicles would require. But Cook knows it will be a steep climb in some regards. "Until you actually sell a unit, the idea isn't worth anything."

And he realizes customers won't climb aboard the idea until they have a departure from old-line thinking. He recalled that Henry Ford predicted that a combo car/plane would become reality.

"People used to laugh at his original quadracycle," Cook said of Ford's first cars. "You have to kind of ignore the critics and say, 'Look, I know what the customer wants and I'm going to build it for them.' "


E-mail: [email protected]