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.
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
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.
Flying Cars, Motorcycles and More Take to the Skies
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.
Terrafugia Flies Car That Could Be Parked in Garage
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.
However, in a statement released at the time, the company acknowledged that questions remained regarding how the vehicle would be used, and whether regulations and licensing would allow its use in major cities around the world.
"The Autovolantor is technically possible, but flying it in U.S. cities is not going to be politically acceptable until it has been deployed successfully in other roles and environments," said Dr. Paul Moller, the company's founder and president. "Practical or not, it excites the imagination to think about being able to rise vertically out of a traffic jam and just go!"
But though Moller's work has apparently stalled, others have come closer to delivering flying vehicles.
Earlier this year, a British team traveled from London to Timbuktu in their SkyCar, a road-legal flying car.
British SkyCar Crosses Strait of Gibraltar
Led by Giles Cardozo, 29, the team designed a two-seater, bio-fueled flying car that can travel up to 112 mph on the road and 68 mph in the sky. In flight, the vehicle resembles a dune buggy hitched to giant sail.
As part of the journey, the team sailed over the Strait of Gibraltar.
Neil Laughton, a 45-year-old ex-Royal Marine and soldier, piloted the crossing and said to the U.K.'s Telegraph, "The take-off is always a real buttock-clencher but when we had set up the canopy correctly, the SkyCar was a dream to fly -- very smooth take-off, progressive ascent, gentle foot and hand steering controls."
Though the team doesn't plan to deliver the SkyCars until late 2010, people can start placing orders for the $81,500 (£50,000) vehicle now.
In February, The Butterfly LLC, based in Carter, Okla., announced the maiden flight of its flying motorcycle, the Super Sky Cycle.
On the highway, Butterfly says it reaches 55 mph and in flight it can reach up to 85 mph. In a press release issued at the time, the company said it had completed 30 production kits that are available for purchase.
And those who want to experiment with an even more Jetson-esque type of technology can explore another option: Hovercraft.
Hovercraft ride on a cushion of air created by a system pumping air into a chamber under the vehicle. Universal Hovercraft, based in Rockford, Ill., added wings to a regular hovercraft to build a machine that can cruise 2 to 6 feet above land and water and can jump to 20 feet to clear larger obstacles.
Although it can travel in the air, the Hoverwing doesn't require a pilot's license to operate and is registered as a boat.
"It's like a four-wheeler and a jet ski all wrapped into one," said Ryan Springer, the company's media director.
For military, survey or rescue use, the company assembles and sells a version that costs $85,000. It also sells at-home assembly kits for recreational use that cost upwards of $24,000.