Terrafugia skips Sun ’n Fun for auto show

March 7, 2012

Terrafugia

Massachusetts-based Terrafugia, founded by MIT graduates, hopes the two-seat, street-legal LSA prototype dubbed Transition will catch on at the New York International Auto Show. Photo courtesy of Terrafugia.

Call it a transition in the marketing strategy for Transition.

Terrafugia, the Woburn, Mass., company working to deliver the world’s first roadable production aircraft, or street legal airplane, is striking out into new territory with a debut at the New York International Auto Show April 6 through 15.

The company will skip one of general aviation’s annual rites of spring, Sun ’n Fun, in Lakeland, Fla., this year to prepare for the introduction of its street legal aircraft, the Transition, to the automotive world. Production could begin as early as this year, though flight testing of the latest design has yet to commence, and previous timetables proved too ambitious.

CEO Carl Dietrich said the company, and the Transition, its first prototype, were made possible by the creation in 2004 of the light sport aircraft category and sport pilot certificate, and many early adopters were not pilots before they laid eyes on the folding-wing Transition, which first flew just above the runway in 2009. It has yet to stray from the runway environment.

“We’ve actually gone out and created new pilots already,” Dietrich said. “We know that this product will be attractive to a significant demographic.”

Dietrich said that while active GA pilots are expected to comprise the majority of Terrafugia’s market, there will be a number of customers who never before considered GA a practical means of personal travel.

“What we don’t know is how many of those are out there,” Dietrich said, adding the auto show will give an indication. “That’s a big part of the reason why we want to go there. It’s not what we’re betting the business on right now, but we don’t want to ignore it.”

Though only two prototypes currently exist, the company holds nearly 100 deposits for a two-seat, folding-wing airplane capable of highway speed on the ground, and a pokey 105 mph (93 knots) cruise in the air. The estimated price tag has climbed to $279,000, nearly twice the early estimates. That is primarily the result, Dietrich said, of the need to utilize a higher proportion of high-cost, low-weight materials to keep the air-road-craft under a 1,430 pound weight limit (including an FAA waiver that increased the typical land-based LSA limit of 1,320 pounds).

“It does cost more than we expected that it would,” Dietrich said. “Very few of our early customers have backed away. We’ve lost a few, but nowhere near what I expected that we would.”

The Transition’s appeal has survived multiple price hikes—and the fact none have yet been delivered—based on its ability to utilize roadways or airways for travel and eliminate the need for instrument flight by driving. Regardless of forecast, the Transition pilot can still plan to get where he or she wants to go, no instrument training required.

“The value proposition of this aircraft is still very attractive,” Dietrich said, noting the Transition will outperform many higher-priced aircraft in door-to-door travel time for many trips.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.