Experimental Aircraft: Coming Soon to a Garage Near You?

PHOTO: Experimental Flying Machines

The soaring silver balloon that captured the country's attention for hours yesterday also captured its imagination.

As the police investigated the apparent disappearance of 6-year-old Falcon Heene, the young boy initially believed to be trapped in a 20-foot-long "homemade flying saucer," authorities and onlookers pondered the purpose of the out of control floating aircraft.

VIDEO: Boy found safe after flying saucer scare

Was the silvery balloon meant for weather forecasting? Recreation? Travel?

Falcon's father, Richard Heene, a former weatherman and amateur scientist, said he built the mushroom-shaped aircraft for commuter travel.

"We were working on an experimental craft -- I call it the 3D LAV, a low-altitude vehicle for people to pull out of their garage and hover above traffic for about 50 to100 feet," Richard Heene said later. "It's still the very early stages of the invention."

Richard Heene: Experimental Aircraft for Commuting

VIDEO: Richard, Mayumi and their sons explain what happened with the helium balloon.

Experimental aircraft experts doubt Heene's balloon could actually be used for the purpose he described, but they say several other individuals and companies have made headway in introducing George Jetson-type personal travel technology.

Glen Moyer, a spokesman for the Ballooning Federation of America, said balloons are purely recreational vehicles, and didn't think Heene's could ever make for a practical commute.

"A balloon just isn't practical for that type of use," he said. "You can only steer a balloon to whatever degree the wind on any given day allows you."

If you want to go from east to west on a day when the winds are blowing north to south, he said, "It's just not going to happen."

But ballooning aside, experts say there are others out there working to turn everyday ground-based vehicles into ones that could take to the sky.

"Certainly, I think in a legitimate sense that there have been people who have been working on powered cars ever since there has been powered flight," said Dick Knapinksi, a spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association.

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There are significant challenges in combining the technology necessary for a good car and the technology necessary for a good flying machine, Knapinski said. But some have persevered.

Among the leaders, he said, is Terrafugia Inc., a Woburn, Mass.-based aircraft company working on a vehicle that would be equally comfortable on the road and in the sky.

In March 2009, it completed the first flight of its Transition Roadable Aircraft and plans to start delivering its "flying cars" in 2011.

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The "street-legal" vehicle reaches 115 mph in flight, according to the company, but its wings retract so it can fit into a home garage.

But though the proof-of-concept vehicle has impressed people around the world, the price is likely to intimidate. At $194,000, it's likely not going to find its way into the average American home.

Moller International, a company founded by a University of California at Davis professor, has been working to develop a flying car for more than two decades.

In September 2008, it announced that it had completed the design of a hybrid two-passenger flying car capable of lifting off vertically and flying for about 15 minutes. But the company has not reported progress since.

Called the Autovolantor, the vehicle is designed to fly at up to 150 mph for short distances and then drive on the ground for 40 miles or more.

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