In a 1968 musical starring Dick Van Dyke, a vintage racing motorcar takes to the skies with helicopter blades perched on the ends of red and yellow batwings. The musical’s name: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For some reason, those four words popped into by brainpan when I spotted MSNBC’s story about a “flying Humvee.”
Just look at that thing. A Humvee with wings? Vertical takeoff and landing rotors? Wheels that jut from spindling suspensions to accommodate rough set-downs? Kind of fugly-looking, true, but come on, who wants one?
The military, for starters. Yep, it’s for real: a vehicle that’s in the offing courtesy competing designs from AAI and Lockheed Martin. According to Aviation Week, those designs have just passed muster to enter the second phase of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Transformer (TX)” program. That’s “transformer” like the storied Hasbro toys.
Talk about high expectations though: DARPA’s Transformer must be a four-seater (to carry a four-person squad) capable of off-road travel, be able to withstand small-arms fire and include the pivotal ability to metamorphose into a full-on aircraft (in 60 seconds) capable of landing or taking off vertically and traveling up to 250 miles (on the ground or in the air) with a single tank of gas. Also, and perhaps the most challenging checkbox: It needs to be pilot-able without special pilot training.
No, it’s not going to be weaponized and dogfighting with today’s aces—the idea’s to craft a vehicle capable of working around impassable terrain or deadly obstacles (say a minefield or an area littered with IEDs). If the vehicle encounters an area its suspension can’t traverse or a threat too dangerous to chance, it simply turns into an aircraft and overflies things. Alternatively, says Aviation Week, you could use this sort of thing to transport the wounded, or even run it unmanned, in automatic mode, either to deliver supplies, or just the truck itself.
Where AAI’s version looks more like a traditional helicopter—a single horizontal rotor with twin wings extending from the vehicle’s roof—Lockheed Martin’s looks more like various hovercraft prototypes, with twin fans attached to a single wing, capable of tilting to provide either vertical lift or forward propulsion. AAI’s version can do up to 80 mph on the ground and 175 mph in the air, reaching altitudes of 10,000 feet. Lockheed Martin’s is a hair slower, topping out at 150 mph in the air. Both models weigh upwards of 7,000 pounds.
Next up, phase two, with design reviews next year, which could lead to a single designer being selected and actual prototype vehicles going into production. Cost? DARPA’s aiming for $1 million a pop, compared to around $400,000 for a regular Humvee and $4 million for a light helicopter.