Transitioning to TF-X: Interview with Terrafugia's Anna Mracek Dietrich

10:43 PM

Illustration courtesy Terrafugia
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

I have made it quite clear over the years that I'm a big fan of Team Terrafugia, that determined group of MIT grads who are working towards making a roadable airplane a reality. With each passing day, their Transition moves one day closer to certification and deliveries, and I have zero doubt the day will come when we see their creation on ramps all over the country.

Illustration courtesy Terrafugia
Recently, however, Terrafugia announced plans for the next generation of their roadable airplane, a bold vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle called the TF-X. The announcement has produced a great deal of press from both aviation and non-aviation outlets, with a mixed bag of speculation about what the TF-X project means to the future of Transition.

To find out the current status of Terrafugia and how one project relates to the other, Airplanista sat down virtually with Anna Mracek Dietrich, the company's Chief Operating Officer. What follows is a verbatim interview...enjoy:

Airplanista Blog: First, give me a quick overview of the status of Transition...what version of prototype you are flying, certification timeline, order book (and estimated date of first delivery.
Anna Mracek Dietrich: "We are currently testing our second generation Transition prototype.  We expect to have one more prototyping cycle, which will include some basic crash testing to confirm automotive safety features, before finalizing certification and beginning deliveries.  Our estimate for first delivery is between the beginning of 2015 and spring of 2016, depending on how the remaining testing goes. Interest in the Transition remains strong with over 100 orders on the books; Transition owners will be given the first opportunity to reserve a TF-X™ when that time comes."
Airplanista: Walk me through the conception of the TF-X™ idea. Was a bar napkin involved? Who came up with the idea, when was the idea conceived, and how much time has been spent on developing the project to this point of media release?
Dietrich: "Our team has been thinking at a high level about what would be next for the company for a while, taking into account feedback about the Transition, regulatory and infrastructure changes that are happening, and other work that Terrafugia has been involved with. At this time, TF-X™ is still very much a concept, but feasibility and packaging studies have been done to a level where we can be confident that the basic configuration is realistic and that the vehicle is attainable with existing technology."
Airplanista: How many people work at Terrafugia these days, how many assigned to Transition and how many to TF-X™? And what is the percentage of work being performed, how much devoted to Transition and how much to TF-X™?
Dietrich: "There are about two dozen of us currently full-time at Terrafugia and we are currently growing the team fairly rapidly. Transition remains our top focus. As Transition moves into production and engineering resources are released, they will be moved onto TF-X™ development."
Airplanista: I understand the TF-X™ "on-ground" power is all electric, but what is the proposed propulsion for flight mode? Gas or electric, or a hybrid of both?
Dietrich: "During cruise, the main engine will use conventional fuel to power the vehicle and recharge the batteries. The take-off and landing assist power comes from electric motors with a highly redundant system architecture for a higher level of safety and quieter operations." 
Airplanista: Your site says "TF-X™ vehicles will be capable of automatically avoiding other air traffic, bad weather, and restricted and tower-controlled airspace." Can you elaborate in how this vehicle will automatically avoid other traffic and accomplish these mighty tasks?
Dietrich: "This capability is key to making operating the TF-X™ simple and safe with a low barrier to entry. There are new air traffic control technologies coming online, coupled with navigation and control technologies that already exist today, will allow the TF-X™ to be an "intelligent" partner in operating the vehicle."
Airplanista: Your site says "to safely operate a TF-X™ vehicle should take an average driver no more than five hours, but that "Operators who wish to operate in tower controlled airspace (Class B, C, or D) can get additional training." You mention "Licensed TF-X™ operators" so please elaborate on these licenses and training. Are these to fall within current FAA license frameworks, training and restrictions, or do you foresee some sort of additional license or training specific to TF-X™?
Dietrich: "TF-X™ will in many ways be a completely new approach to flight. As such, it will require a fresh regulatory perspective in many areas. We are currently talking with members of the FAA about how best to approach this and other issues. We have been impressed with their willingness to consider new technologies and are looking forward to working with them to craft a mutually acceptable solution set for the TF-X™.  We do not anticipate using the existing pilot categories at this time."
Airplanista: With "Normal TF-X™ operations" conducted only in non-tower controlled airspace (Class E and G) and on the ground, are you afraid pilots will see this as a negative? And how will this airspace restriction effect operators in large cities which sit mostly under B, C or D airspace?
Dietrich: "There's no reason why an operator couldn't receive additional training and use their TF-X™ in B, C or D airspace, but we don't anticipate that this will be necessary for most owners as without the restriction of needing a runway, a lot of uncontrolled and very underutilized airspace becomes quite useful."
Airplanista: With TF-X™ able to takeoff vertically from a level clearing of at least 100ft in diameter, what is your plan for creating these landing zones in large cities? Will there be dedicated areas that are to be used only for TF-X ops, or like the electric car industry building our their charging station networks, will Terrafugia be investing in land and property to create infrastructure for these LZs?
Dietrich: "One of the most exciting things about creating a disruptive technology is seeing how it will change our daily lives and what support industries it will inspire. Look around -- where would you want to land your TF-X™?"
Airplanista: Let's jump out to 2025. Your TF-X™ has been a mega-hit, and hundreds of thousands have been sold. How exactly to you propose these vehicles will avoid each other...who provides separation services...ATC, ADS-B or the operators through see-and-avoid?
Dietrich: "The groundwork is in place for the vehicles to separate themselves."
Airplanista: Since Transition has yet to be certified or delivered, are you at all concerned that the public will see your work developing TF-X™ as a departure from your promise to deliver the Transition? Have their been any internal discussions to determine if TF-X™ will be a distraction from the current Transition goals?
Dietrich: "The Transition is a proof of process for the TF-X™. It is integral to our long-term vision for getting humanity off the ground and we are committed to making it a success for our customers, our stakeholders, and the aviation industry at large. So far the public reaction has been very positive; people seem to be excited to see how Terrafugia will help them do what our name means - "escape the earth".
Learn more about the TF-X™here.

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