The 'Wernicke Flying Car'
FLYING CARS - the dream of any driver stuck in a traffic jam and all sane pilots facing a dark and lowering sky.
Wacky inventors by the crate load have tried to design them, a few have actually built them and some have died trying to fly them. Yet despite all our modern technology, the production of a practical, safe and affordable flying car is still remote.
The main challenge is that almost everything you want in a road vehicle is the exact opposite to that required for a successful airplane. Cars need weight to stay on the road, they feature heavy, complex gearboxes and large wheels, with the designers avoiding aerodynamic lifting profiles like the plague and actually designing downwards thrusting profiles to make a car heavier, the faster it goes.
Airplane designers conversely shed surplus weight from their designs with a fanaticism that has to be seen, don’t include complex gearboxes and use only small wheels to save weight and drag. The wings and body shape profiles of an airplane are also at every turn designed to provide maximum lift and these are just some of the issues that arise without taking into account that normal wings are just far too wide to travel on roads.
Many years ago, imaginative and airplane mad, eleven-year-old Kenneth Wernicke from Texas, dreamed of making a flying car. As happens in life however, other pressures soon crowded in to smother the inventive young dream of achieving the impossible. Years of study, a career in helicopter rotor head design and the responsibilities of raising a young family, all took their own priority. In the process the dream was forgotten – or was it?
Years later, driving down the freeway with his own eleven year old son beside him, this remarkable engineer suddenly recalled his dream. As the length of the journey grew, so did his determination. This time, he knew that whatever it took, this time, he would follow that forgotten eleven-year-olds dream from way back. To our benefit, so was born the unique Sky Technologies ‘AirCar’ (SkyCar).
Examination of existing designs showed that almost every attempt relied on long, thin conventional wings. These not only give rise to the perpetual problem of ‘where can you land safely’ with such a wide wingspan but also what to do with the wings when landed. This is particularly important as most peoples idea of a flying car is to be able to take off and land almost anywhere you want to, or might be forced to in bad weather etc.
Some designs fold the wings up over the top like an elaborate ladies hairstyle, some take them off to drag behind like a trailer and yet others unbolt the car and leave the wings at the airport. All are complex and delicate procedures, with varying degrees of success.
Enter Ken Wernicke with a uniquely imaginative approach, rooted in his vast knowledge of the characteristics of flight. He realised that conventional long, thin wings were not the only way to obtain lift. You could alternatively (please forgive me Ken but most will understand this description), have short fat ones. Both will provide the lift you need but each has it’s own characteristics. The breadth and depth of a wing are referred to as the ‘aspect ratio’.
He reasoned that if by using this type of short wing design, a flying car with a fixed wing could be constructed to fit into a parking space, at a stroke the problems of where to land and what to do with the wings would be overcome. It would simply drive on the road in the same configuration as it flew.
The gearbox problem he solved by fitting a specialised hydraulic system to power the propeller or the road wheels by moving just one lever. The overall solution being far less complicated, more reliable and considerably lighter than having two gearboxes.
This left the design of a highly unusual wing. With little research available for this type of design, Ken progressed from model to model, testing and improving the design as he went. Many hours of wind tunnel tests, recalculation and new wing profiles lead ultimately to a one third scale flying model fitted with video cameras to monitor the flight characteristics from a screen on the ground, thus enabling a pilots eye view.
Short wings have several performance characteristics peculiar to them, one being that they are naturally unstable in roll. Everyone will remember the ‘Red Baron’s’ Fokker Triplane of WW1, specially designed with three short wings in order to produce a highly manoeuvrable (if sensitive to fly) fighter plane.
One of the reasons for the instability is that air flowing over short wings, constantly tries to escape off the ends, rather than smoothly flowing over them. To beat this problem, Ken cleverly developed the large drooping winglet design below and the twin tails above to counter the problem of rocking and instability. The winglets have the additional benefit of streamlining the undercarriage and wheels at the same time.
The second characteristic of this wing design is high levels of drag. Things like this are treated as facts to be taken into consideration, rather than problems in themselves when working with such specialised design criteria.
In this case, whilst there might be a slightly higher fuel consumption, the main design consideration is that if the wing were to stall at heights below 500 feet, it could prove impossible to regain flying speed.
Ken believed that he had the answer to this problem and so the AirCar prototype was built to obtain funding. It is no mock up but the actual thing that working models and kits would have been taken from, with a superb quality of build.
Aviation authorities have always expressed a fear of being inundated with inexperienced flying car drivers zooming around and crashing everywhere. Highway authorities are also wary of drivers trying to take off and land on their roadways at high speeds. Because of these issues, it is likely therefore that however good any flying car design might prove to be, regulatory barriers would simply be raised if there were ever to become a serious possibility of mass production.
When potential financiers become aware of this, the possibilities of obtaining commercial finance for production dries up.
Lack of funding has alas proved the ultimate barrier that so far prevents production of the unique, creative and highly professional AirCar design, despite Ken having conquered every design challenge. This leaves production hopeful only if James Bond, or the military become sufficiently interested.
We believe the AirCar to be one of the finest, most inspirational and practical designs of flying car ever produced and for this, we have to thank that eleven-year-old Kenneth Wernicke of Texas. Long may the youngsters of today follow his example and take their dreams of today, into tomorrow.
Research into the AirCar gave rise to several technical engineering papers, making in the process a unique contribution to the technology and performance characteristics of this type of wing. Papers 942156 and 975603 are available from SAE INTERNATIONAL (The Society For Advancing Mobility Land Sea Air and Space)
- Design speed on land 55 mph
- Design air speed - engine as prototype 216 mph
- Design flight duration - 2 people 720 miles
- Stall 70 mph
- Takeoff distance 500/750 ft
- Gross weight 1,400 lbs
- Fuel load 40 gallons
- Wing loading 15 lbs/sq ft
- Amphibious Option Available
It is said that you can’t keep a good inventor down and certainly in this case, Ken Wernicke and his son Keith Wernicke have gone on to design many unique things, with their latest project being the amphibious, all terrain ‘Fastrack’. This is a unique high-speed tracked machine that travels on land and passes seamlessly onto water at amazing speeds.
Our gratitude for the unique AirCar forming part of our collection, goes to Ken Wernicke himself, Keith Wernicke and everyone at the of Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas, who generously passed it on to us from their own amazing historic flight collection. Find out about them at www.flightmuseum.com