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What cars gave to general aviation...What cars gave to general aviation

...or did they?

Artist's rendering of Terrafugia TF-X. Courtesy Terrafugia.

Several leaders in aviation were asked recently to name car technology that made its way into today’s general aviation airplanes. We even took a few guesses of our own. The problem was, much of it turned out to be untrue. Take a look.

Inertia reels for seatbelts

Ok, this one is true. Inertia reels are those rollers that automatically roll up the shoulder belt, but stop you if you suddenly jerk on them as in an accident. The first inertia reel appeared in a Volvo in 1968. Some lap belts use a ratchet that will tighten until your bones bend, important when you plan to go upside down, but they don’t automatically retract.


Another true one. Airbags won public support in cars before aircraft seatbelt manufacturers started adding them to seatbelts.

Electronic ignition system

Oops, watch it. The correct answer, according to Klaus Savier of Light Speed Engineering, is yes and no. Electronic ignition was tested in 1948 by Delco-Remy for cars and used by BRM and Coventry Climax Formula One engines in 1962. Early offerings in the field did use automotive hardware, but that was not the full solution. Without getting all techy, airplanes can’t use the same type of electronic ignition as do cars. So yes, electronic ignition sort of came from cars but was also invented by the airplane industry.


Ah, good. An easy one. Back in the 1930s, airplanes did indeed try to exactly imitate cars to make people who were not pilots less afraid of flying. There were even window cranks straight out of car factories that raised and lowered windows. Today’s interiors are made to look like cars because that is what people expect. They may not be afraid to fly, but they’re not impressed by plastic seats out of 1970s airplanes and other crudities; so yes, interiors of small aircraft today are based on car technology including heavy leather seats. Turn on the air conditioner!

Diesel engines

If you are talking ancient history, then car diesel engines came a year or three later than airplane engines. So the answer is no, aircraft diesel engines didn’t come from car technology. If we are talking modern times, diesel engines came straight from the Mercedes-Benz factory to the Diamond factory to be converted for aircraft needs. So the answer is yes. Take your choice.

Flying cars

An obvious choice, car technology contributes directly to efforts to build a flying car and vice versa. The problem is that meeting highway safety standards adds significant weight to a roadworthy aircraft. Airplanes aren’t designed to withstand a highway crash.

Air conditioning for piston-engine airplanes

Air conditioners small enough for cars contributed directly to those for airplanes. It’s a heavy dude and can be draggy, too. So if you want to carry less and go slower, an air conditioner is for you.

Tinted widows

The car industry had it first, so yes, tinted windows are from cars. Don’t take that too literally. If you actually use automotive tinting and adhesive, the window can (1) absorb excessive heat and melt or pop out, or (2) be destroyed by the adhesive meant for glass. So the idea is from cars, but the aviation industry had to reinvent it.

Anti-lock brakes (light aircraft)

Yes and no. While cars didn’t contribute to anti-lock brakes on airliners (it was the other way around), motor vehicles like motorcycles did contribute technology to light aircraft. For example, Beringer Wheels and Brakes adapted a system for motorcycles to small aircraft.


Who knows? This is a benefit that started back in the 1915-17 time period. Race cars needed tougher metals for crankshafts, and those advances remain today in the crankshafts of airplane engines. Who’s to say that crankshaft technology today does not include lessons learned 100 years ago from race cars?

Alton Marsh

Alton K. Marsh

Freelance journalist
Alton K. Marsh is a former senior editor of AOPA Pilot and is now a freelance journalist specializing in aviation topics.
Topics: Flying Car, Diesel, Technology

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