Just about any bleary-eyed commuter trapped in gridlock on I-93 and I-95 has likely wished they could just fly over the sea of cars clogging their path to work or back home.
In an era where the line between science fiction lore and reality is quickly getting blurred, one Woburn company says that rush-hour daydream is months away from becoming a modern-day possibility, as it plans to bring its first flying car to market beginning in 2019.
Earlier this fall, Terrafugia Inc. officials approached Woburn's City Council for permission to expand its Montvale Avenue headquarters to include a small 1,500 square foot warehouse, where a growing staff of flight mechanics and engineers intend to conduct materials testing of the firm's hybrid flying-car components.
Woburn officials, quite excited by the prospect that the city is about to become the birthplace of the world's first mass-production flying car, were more than happy to oblige to Terrafugia's special permit request.
"This building allows us to continue our campaign to bring an innovate product to market and put Woburn up and front as a location of a premiere aviation company," said Terrafugia engineer Anthony Hazlett.
"I think it's wonderful you're in Woburn. It's unbelievable the technology you're trying to make available," later remarked local Alderman Mark Gaffney.
This summer, after flight technicians logged hundreds of flight hours in the skies above New England, Terrafugia CEO Chris Jaran announced the company's first hybrid prototype, dubbed The Transition, would be brought to market beginning in 2019.
According to the company, the two-seat Transition, which meets federal standards for a "street-legal" automobile, can convert itself in less than a minute into flight mode by cranking down its foldable wings.
Powered by a hybrid-electric motor that uses an internal combustion engine and a lithium iron phosphate battery, the first mass-production flying car is small enough for users to store in their home garage. Capable of reaching highway speeds on the ground, the craft in flight can cruise at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. and has an estimated 400-mile range.
"Developing this new technology has allowed us to test several different mechanisms and generate process improvements along the way," said Jaran last July, when he announced plans to bring the hybrid vehicle to market after a near decade of research and flight testing.
"We are at the point where we can implement the best design features based on years of flight and drive testing. This will improve function, safety, and aesthetics for the optimal flying and driving experience," added the CEO, who joined the company's ranks in Nov. of 2017.
According to the company, the first Transition prototype logged just eight hours of flight after its initial takeoff in 2009. Then a small staff of specialists at the aeronautics start-up redesigned the flying car and released its second prototype.
Over the ensuing five years, testing pilots took to the skies and performed an estimated 317 landings and takeoffs under a multitude of weather and wind conditions.
Meanwhile, engineers tried to overcome the various obstacles to creating a hybrid vehicle by repositioning dashboard controls, creating an expanded windshield for road and flight conditions, and improving interior spaces to allow for more cargo storage and more comfortable seating.
"Most general aviation aircrafts have three wheels, which are used for take-off and landing," explained company engineers, when the second prototype was retired in the spring of 2017. The Transition's design to be a [street legal car] includes four wheels."
"This however created a difficult balance when pulling back on the stick for takeoff. For [our newest design], the team adjusted the angle of the wings and the location relative to the wheels to provide a smooth takeoff that does not require strong pilot input…In fact, the transition literally leaps off the ground!"
Terrafugia plans to deliver far more than just one flying car model. In fact, company officials years ago revealed plans to release an even more advanced vehicle, capable of vertical takeoffs and landings.
Though still in the development phase, that TFX prototype will require a 50-foot takeoff radius, run on unleaded gasoline, and be capable of fitting within a standard parking space. Once airborne, it will have a 500-mile range and be capable of reaching speeds of up to 200 m.p.h.
Company officials are perhaps most excited about its TF-2 model, a four-passenger "taxi-style" vehicle that is fully automated. That mass-market vehicle could result in the launch of a flying car service, in which a computer-operated vehicle ferries clients straight from their homes to the front doors of their workplaces.
Also capable of vertical takeoffs and landing, the TF-2, complete with a 1,400 pound-capacity cargo bay area, would load a passenger pod from an automated ground transport straight onto a flight vehicle within minutes.
Tucked behind the Best Western Hotel and Irish pub Waxy O'Connors, those passing by the busy Terrafugia headquarters off of Montvale Avenue near the Stoneham line and I-93 are unlikely to spot the small sign marking the Rainin Road turnoff leading to the flying car company.
In fact, Terrafugia's home, housed within a nondescript, single-story, industrial building overlooking the highway, speaks much to its founding.
Moving to the vicinity of Montvale Avenue in 2010, the small company was born in the basement of a Mass Institute of Technology (MIT) building four years earlier, when five graduates from the distinguished university, including Terrafugia founder Carl Dietrich, dreamed about creating the world's first flying car.
It was a concept that many scoffed at, but soon after moving to its new headquarters off Montvale Avenue, the company had generated millions of dollars in investments, including from 85 would-be flying car owners who plopped down $10,000 deposits for a chance to own the hybrid vehicle.
In the years that ensued, as The Transition's two prototypes underwent test flights, planned production dates were repeatedly pushed back.
However, the company's small but growing workforce, which climbed to 30 flight mechanics and engineers, continued to crank out exciting design plans for even more ambitious flying cars, including the futuristic and sleek TFX prototype with twin propeller engines that made it capable of vertical takeoffs.
Major corporations took notice of those sweeping breakthroughs. In Nov. of 2017, Dietrich's small startup caught its big break when Chinese investment firm Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a Fortune 500 company, acquired the Woburn firm.
The value of the deal was left unspecified by both sides, but according to Dietrich and Jaran, the Volvo carmaker parent company made clear it is serious about producing flying cars.
"We started Terrafugia with a vision to change the future of transportation with practical flying cars that enable a new dimension of personal freedom. Now as part of Geely Holding Group, I am confident that we can reach that vision and subsequent commercial success," said the MIT graduate after the acquisition.
Within months of the deal, Jaran, a former manager at Bell Helicopter, was brought aboard as CEO of the company, while Dietrich was named chief technology officer at the firm. The small firm's workforce also swelled to more than 200 staff members, while arrangements were made to lease a hangar at a Nashua, N.H. airport to conduct flight testing.
"Years ago, we would test our aircraft at an airport and sit hunched over our laptops in a truck on the tarmac," recounted Terrafugia test pilot Phil Meteer. "This next chapter for Terrafugia includes facility upgrades to host several aircraft where we can perform testing on an array of prototypes and production aircraft."