First Look: PAL-V Liberty flying car
- Credit: Philip Whiteman
Well-funded Dutch company PAL-V has come up with a new concept for a carefully targeted kind of customer – the car that converts into an autogyro | Words: Colin Goodwin - Photos: Philip Whiteman
Airfields and airports are almost always irritatingly far from your final location. The town and lovely harbour of Honfleur in the Pas de Calais is one of my favourite places to visit but it’s an maddening six miles from Deauville airport and an equally annoying €25 taxi ride.
The obvious solution is an aeroplane that doubles as a car. It’s simple: drive to the airfield, unfold the wings and take off. At the other end you reverse the process and drive to where you want to go.
The fantasy of the flying car is almost as old as flight itself, and throughout the history of aviation eccentrics, dreamers and engineers in sheds have been attempting to turn the dream into reality. “Mark my word, a combination airplane and car is coming. You may smile but it will come.” That was Henry Ford in 1940.
Audi, Airbus and Italdesign are jointly working on an alternative take on the flying car and had a mock-up at this year’s Geneva motor show. It’s like a giant drone that picks up a passenger pod, flies it around and then can place it back on a set of wheels so that it can drive around as a car. It’s called Pop Up.
But there was another flying car at Geneva this year that caught my eye, a rather unusual one. Tucked away in a corner of the hall was the PAL-V Liberty, a Dutch creation that combines autogyro and three-wheel car to make a rather interesting proposition.
I like autogyros. You might remember that in 2010 I wrote about flying the Rotorsport MTOsport in Pilot, and I was charmed and intrigued by the sensation. A few years later Pilot editor Philip Whiteman and I went to the pub with the high priest of the autogyro, the late Ken Wallis. His enthusiasm was infectious.
The PAL-V has two Rotax 912iS engines, both of which are used for flight but only one for driving on the road. (If you’d asked me to guess, I’d have said that it would have two engines for driving and just one for the flying bit.)
You can see from looking at the Liberty that it looks seriously top heavy once the rotors are folded up for the road. “It is,” says PAL-V head of training George Tielen, who was manning the company’s stand at Geneva, “so much so that we realised straight away that the machine would tip over in corners even at low speeds.”
The solution is crafty?and Dutch. If you’re a car enthusiast you might remember the Dutch-designed Carver leaning car from the early 2000s. Jeremy Clarkson drove one on Top Gear in 2009 and loved it. A three-wheeler, it had a conventional steering wheel and all the controls that you’d expect to see in a car including a gearchange.
Several hundred were sold before Carver went bust. We’ll come back to this unusual machine a bit later. Anyway, PAL-V has bought the patent for the Carver and incorporated the system into the Liberty, a tilting three-wheel car that flies. I’m intrigued…
So much so that Whiteman and I jumped into Dumbo (my RV-7 that is used as Pilot’s executive transport) and flew to Breda airport in Holland where PAL-V carries out its pilot training. Annoyingly it’s an hour’s drive from the firm’s factory and headquarters, so Tielen has to drive us there in his Toyota, thereby demonstrating the limitations of the conventional aircraft and the handiness of a flying car.
The set up is impressive; a lot like a smaller version of an F1 team’s premises. Already around €35m has been invested in the Liberty and, as yet, only the proof-of-concept has flown. Ultimately PAL-V is aiming to get the Liberty certified by EASA (the European Aviation Safety Agency) and that’s going to take at least another year.
Tielen is already training twelve customers at Breda, none of whom is already a pilot. He’s using an Italian Magni M24 Orion. I’m sure you’re familiar with the workings of the autogyro, but just in case you’re not I handed over the Editor?who is an autogyro virgin?to Tielen for a flight in the Orion to get a feel for this unusual form of flight. (See ‘A taste of autogyro flying’, p.34.)
Why two motors in the Liberty? Because it’s heavy. The Orion weighs 285kg empty and the Liberty 664kg. You’d think fitting turbocharged Rotax engines to the latter would make sense if the more power the better is the case but apparently there isn’t room for all the extra plumbing and a pair of intercoolers.
Now to driving the PAL-V. Thanks to the joys of the internet I managed to find a Carver no more than twenty miles from home. Its owner, Howard Brooks, is both generous and a subscriber to Pilot so of course is a very good egg. Brooks has only owned his Carver since Christmas but already is in love with it and was more than happy to take me for a blast.
Three wheels, a three-cylinder 660cc turbocharged Daihatsu engine in the back (from the Copen supermini), and a body that tilts?it’s an incredible machine, quite different to anything that I’ve ever been in. There are a few similar road vehicles: the tandem straddle-the-driver seating position is like the Light Car Company’s Rocket and the view out is a bit like that of the BMW C1 enclosed scooter.
But nothing compares with leaning into a corner in the Carver. It doesn’t actually feel like leaning on a motorbike. Oddly, and ironically, it feels like banking an aircraft?particularly a high performance aircraft with a good roll rate.
The movement from a left-hand turn to right-hand one is virtually seamless, even more so than on a bike. I found it absolutely joyous and the feeble output and weedy tone of the 65bhp Daihatsu engine almost irrelevant. And here’s the interesting thing about the PAL-V and why I think it might have a chance of being successful. It combines a very different flying experience with a very different driving experience.
The oft-quoted argument that for the price of a flying car - which is almost always high - you could buy a nice car and an aeroplane is hard to argue against. The initial ‘First Edition’ Liberties are priced at €500,000, and even the standard ones to follow will cost €399,000. For that money you could buy a new Porsche 911 and an RV like mine, which will do 200mph to the PAL-V’s 100mph.
But here we come back to my opening point – that with an aeroplane you are always an annoying distance from your final destination. Also, you need to return to where you first took off from, because that’s where you left your car. It’s a right nuisance, and I’ve had it happen many times, returning due to wonky weather to an airfield that’s not the one at which I left my car.
There’s another reason why the PAL-V Liberty might just be a goer. The company has the right approach to teaching people to fly it. I suspect, like the first twelve customers already being trained by Tielen, that most buyers will be new to the world of flying.
There are many very rich people in the world to whom half a million Euros is nothing. We know this from the number of people who own more than one Bugatti Veyron (somebody owns eight). But from my experience very wealthy people have limited patience. They’re not going to take easily to forty hours of training and nine exams.
Tielen isn’t calling his course intensive training; he’s calling it Boot Camp. And here’s the cool bit: as well as holding Boot Camps in Spain and Florida, there’s also one in the Dutch Caribbean Island of Aruba. Your family enjoys the West Indies while you learn to fly an autogyro in perfect weather. That’s not such a hard sell.
One of the other novel features in the Liberty that will appeal to new flyers is what Tielen refers to as a virtual co-pilot. You’ll be able to press a button that will link you to an expert who’ll be able to help with any technical issues, navigation dilemmas, or even fill you in on the weather or possible diversion airfields.
This sounds convincing as?particularly when the mass media writes or discusses flying cars?the complexity and risks involved in flying a light aircraft in our climate are vastly underestimated. And as you and I know, the phrase ‘time to spare go by air’ is often all too frustratingly apt.
A huge amount of testing and paperwork has to be done before I’ll be able to fly and drive the Liberty, but if it’s anything like the experience of flying an autogryo and driving a Carver it’ll be a buzz worth waiting for.
A taste of autogyro flying
During the Pilot visit to PAL’s design office in Holland, Head of Flight Training George Tielen introduced the Editor to autogyro flying with a flight in the Magni M24 Orion the company is currently using to train prospective PAL-V Liberty owners and pilots.
On the ground, the Orion handles like a fixed-wing aircraft, its nosewheel steering being linked to the rudder pedals. Taxying downwind on a day it was blowing quite hard requires a bit of brake pressure to contain the speed, this being applied through a hand lever neatly mounted on the throttle lever.
You don’t need to worry about the stationary rotor flapping around because for taxying the stick is restrained by a wire strop.
It all becomes rather less conventional when you line up for takeoff, when the rotor must be run up to a minimum of 150rpm. This is done by engaging a power take off from the engine (the Liberty will use an electric motor mounted up in the masthead to do this).
In the Orion, after unhooking the restraint wire, the stick is held back and pressure applied to an operating lever – for all the world like a motorcycle brake lever – on the left-seated P1’s stick. Rotor speed is displayed on a large LCD display, set high up on the panel by the warning lights, and close to the pilot’s line of sight through the screen.
An autogyro neophyte, I am not invited to attempt the takeoff but observe closely as George feeds in the power while keeping the stick back to get as much air as possible flowing through the rotor, accelerating it further.
Once we are off the ground, after a run of fifty or sixty metres or so, he feeds in forward stick, holding the aircraft just above the runway as air- and rotor speed build up (as a number of YouTube videos reveal, one trap for the unwary is attempting to climb away before the rotor has reached its normal operating speed of 300rpm or so, putting the aircraft on the back of its considerable drag curve and tending to roll uncontrollably to the left).
As soon as we are established in the climb at 100km/h, George hands over to me. The immediate impression is that while the rudder force feels normal, the stick is so solid it feels like it could be set in a block of hard rubber – a characteristic of Magni autogyros, I am told.
It is not that the response to pitch and roll input is absent, just that you have to lean pretty firmly on the stick to obtain it – something to which I quickly find I adjust. Partly this is down to the autogyro’s inherent stability.
My fixed-wing instincts have me over-ruddering a bit and George tells me to let go of the controls to see how the machine flies itself. This is an impressive demonstration – you don’t feel so much that you fly hands-free to study a chart as settle down to read a book. Trimmed correctly and left to its own devices, the Orion gives every impression that it could bimble along all day – or until the fuel ran out.
This afternoon, though, we are flying circuits and George has me turn the Orion on to base leg and then final with the same positioning and ‘picture’ I would have with my Cub. Indeed, the approach speed – 100km/h – is much the same. So is the landing technique, although feeling that I am about to scrape my low-seated backside on the ground, I hold off a couple of feet too high and feel a gentle nudge on the stick from George to settle us on the ground smoothly.
Again, George flies the takeoff and hands over to me once we are climbing. This time he wants to demonstrate an engine-off descent and asks me to continue climbing so that we will arrive over the runway threshold at 1,500 feet.
As we do so, I find myself studying ground features like the pretty nineteenth century windmill I have spotted just after takeoff. It is a tribute to the autogyro’s stability and easy handling characteristics that I am sightseeing on only my second circuit in what is an unfamiliar aircraft completely new to me.
Here we go: having announced his intention to the Tower, George takes back control as the end of the runway comes under the nose. Reducing power to idle, he feeds back the stick until our groundspeed falls to zero and we begin to descend vertically, as if under a parachute.
We still have plenty of control – George demonstrates by swinging the nose from side to side – and by further reducing our airspeed we can actually travel backwards over the ground, thanks to the twenty-knot headwind. It feels as if we could land like this, but a glance at the VSI reveals that this is a false impression, as we are actually coming down at over 1,000fpm.
For this reason, as we pass through 300ft, as briefed George pushes the stick forward to build up some forward airspeed and energy for a landing, flaring and then touching down normally for a ground run of only a few metres. I thought my own Cub was a nifty machine for putting down easily and safely after engine failure in confined space but cannot imagine anything easier and safer than an autogyro. Very impressive!
Opening up for one final circuit, George hands over to me as we start the climb-out and this time more or less leaves me to my own devices, save for some sage advice at the moment critique as I round-out for landing.
Showing admirable restraint – or perhaps misplaced faith – he doesn’t make any control input as I woodenly hold off at Cub eye-line level (something like a metre too high) and drop the poor little Magni onto the deck in an arrival that both makes the point this is a robust flying machine and that I’d have been better off actually listening to his counsel, rather than witlessly following instinct. Ah well, lesson learned and no harm done…
After landing, the rotor is braked to a halt before taxying in. We hop out and George demonstrates one further advantage of the autogyro by manhandling the very light machine (300kg empty weight) into the tiniest space by the hangar wall.
If the prize is for ease of operation, a great view of the landscape below, hands-off stability, immunity from the usual fixed-wing hazard of stalling, no fear in the event of engine failure and the ability to get into the smallest field, it really is game, set and match to the autogyro! Philip Whiteman
Why three wheels?
Why did PAL-V’s engineers choose three wheels, always an eccentric layout, slightly mistrusted by the majority of drivers? The answer is perfectly simple: by going the three-wheel route the Liberty doesn’t have to jump through anything like the number of testing hoops that it’d have to if it had four wheels.
In EU parlance the Liberty is classed as an ‘L5e’ vehicle. That means that it’s a ‘powered tricycle’ with a running weight of under 1,000kg which can carry no more than five people or two if it’s being used commercially.
This is the same class into which Morgan’s three-wheeler falls, also avoiding prohibitively expensive crash- and safety testing. The requirements for an L5e vehicle are massively less onorous and are limited to having proper front and rear structures and be of sound construction-that’s about it.
If PAL-V had gone the four-wheel route it would at least have been able to take advantage of European low-volume type approval as used by companies such as Caterham and Ariel, which would also have saved money.
However, even a quartet of wheels wouldn’t have changed the physics of having that heavy rotor assembly high up on the vehicle and with it the associated high roll centre. Three wheels and the tilting Carver system was still the sensible way to go.