Non-Test Pilot Flight in Terrafugia's Transition®: "I used my blinker to exit the active..."

4:05 PM

Terrafugia's Vanessa Blakeley was one of the first
non-test pilots to fly their Transition® roadable airplane.
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

Recently, the test flight phase of bringing Terrafugia's Transition® roadable airplane to market reached another milestone, when the company let non-test pilots fly it for the first time from the left seat. One of those lucky few pilots was Vanessa Blakeley, Terrafugia's Corporate Communications Lead, and she agreed to virtually "sit down" with Airplanista to tell us about those few minutes at the controls of this craft.

Blakely has been flying since she was certificated at 17-years-old, and is part of a growing team at Terrafugia working on bringing Transition® to market. She leads internal and external communications for the company, and creates and manages original content including video, newsletters, web content, print materials, events, merchandising, and social media. She also supports flight operations, training, recruiting activities, and future programs.

What follows is a verbatim interview with Blakeley, presented - I believe - not from their "Corporate Communications Lead" but from a pilot who is justifiably excited about the Transition®. Sure, technically, this can't really be called an " unbiased opinion," but it is a serious look at what it feels like to fly Terrafugia's roadable airplane, from someone who is not a professional test pilot.

AIRPLANISTA: Bring us up to speed on Transition®. Do you know precisely how the idea developed and when? Was a bar napkin involved?

BLAKELEY: I am going to defer to CEO/CTO Carl Dietrich, who said “Terrafugia is an MIT spin-off founded in 2006, by three engineers from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and two business school students from the Sloan School of Management. We were all pilots very aware of what was going on in the general aviation industry at the time, who saw that there were some rule changes happening that opened a window of opportunity to do something fundamentally different in general aviation, a very well-established industry.  So, we said, what could we do as a small group? MIT is a mover and shaker kind of environment that has the potential to have a very significant impact on the evolution of general aviation. And we came back to the very old idea of the flying car, a concept that has been around for more than 100 years. It’s not a new idea, but what we do have today, is a new environment and new technologies to bring to bear on this very old problem. We put together a business plan, and we entered it into the MIT $100,000 Entrepreneurship Competition, and in 2006, we were the runners-up, as judged by a panel of 27 entrepreneurs and Venture Capitalists. We decided to take it to the next level and see if there really was a market for this.”

AIRPLANISTA: Let's start with the interior. Describe the fit and finish, how it feels as a pilot, the creature comforts. Would you say it feels more like an automobile or an airplane?

BLAKELEY: Being flight ready, it felt more like a plane. Once I started on the checklist for engine start, all of the car aspects went unnoticed. As a multi-purpose vehicle, the Transition® could potentially become cluttered and overwhelming. The engineers have remained focused on a clean and simple interior design, making it easier for new and experienced pilots alike to learn to operate. 

AIRPLANISTA: When inside the Transition® in airplane mode, with propeller turning and engine set for takeoff...what is the interior noise level like? Do you wear headsets, or can normal conversation be enjoyed with the engine producing takeoff or cruise power?

As this was a test flight, all of the necessary precautions were taken, so I was wearing a safety helmet for the duration of the time the engine was on. With my helmet and headset, the noise was consistent and comparable to that of other aircraft I am used to.

AIRPLANISTA: Take us through the takeoff. Once lined up on the numbers, what is the acceleration like? And does it leap into the air or sort of drive itself fast enough to eventually begin flying?

BLAKELEY: I have to admit I was a little nervous once we lined up on the numbers. The only thing our test pilot couldn’t do from the right seat was steer the plane, and it felt like a lot of pressure at the time! But once I pushed the throttle forward, take-off was a breeze. The steering wheel affords you precision taxiing, and once you have your speed, you transition your left hand from the steering wheel to the stick, rotate, and you are off. This was maybe the biggest surprise to me about the flight: the vehicle really hopped off of the runway and started climbing, as if the Transition® really wanted to fly. Since first seeing the Transition® on the ramp at Lawrence Municipal in 2012, I had been wondering what it would be like to fly it, and there I was. I involuntarily let out a little “Wooooooo” and Phil mirrored my enthusiasm. It was really unbelievable.

AIRPLANISTA: In climb, does the Transition® feel perky, lethargic, or somewhere in between?

BLAKELEY: The climb was normal, and in line with that of other LSA airplanes. our Chief Test Pilot, Retired Air Force Colonel Phil Meteer, coined the term “remarkably unremarkable” in describing flying the Transition®, meaning it flies as you would expect an airplane to fly, and everyone that has flown it agrees.

AIRPLANISTA: Is there any sensation of yaw, or any obvious and noticeable by-product of being an automobile that is flying?

BLAKELEY: Not that I noticed. I think the key difference for me here was intention. As a pilot your training kicks in once you start pre-flighting, and I treated the Transition® like a plane. The wings were unfolded, I was in flight test gear, communicating through a headset, and on the ramp and it felt very much like an airplane. However, when I was able to participate in drive testing and the configuration was that of an automobile with the license plate down, side mirrors out, and prop locked in place with my sunglasses on, it felt like a car.

AIRPLANISTA: What is the view like while flying? Do the windows provide adequate view in all directions, and does the view look/feel more like a car or airplane?

BLAKELEY: To me this was the most obvious way the Transition® displayed itself as a car. The visibility was outstanding! Because it has the frontward profile of a car, the sight picture was almost unrestricted. At 5’5” I frequently have trouble seeing over the nose of GA planes, and have grown accustomed to making due with limited visibility. In the Transition®, it was a treat to see everything in front of me on the ground and in the air. Phil had trained me prior to flying to take a good look at the straight and level sight picture as a reference, and once I did that I had no problems. In addition to the flight, my function on this deployment was to survey first time Transition® pilots and capture their experience for design review and posterity. Visibility was inevitably one of the first things that everyone commented on: the view is awesome! I have never been able to see so much from a cockpit in a fixed-wing aircraft!

AIRPLANISTA: As the passenger, did you think the test pilot was having an easy time flying the Transition? Did it seem like an airplane with pesky or tame flying characteristics?

BLAKELEY: To my benefit, Phil is an exceptional instructor in addition to test pilot, and walked me through the flight procedures from taxiing to landing, so I was able to fly the majority of our time in the Transition®. I found it to be stable, intuitive, and very simple operationally. Having trained in Cessnas, I am very inexperienced with flying a stick, but after a few S-turns I was very comfortable with the vehicle.

AIRPLANISTA: How was the final approach and landing? Describe the exact moment when the Transition returns to the runway.

BLAKELEY: Phil had me fly it all the way down. I flew a normal pattern, with the intention of Phil taking over on short-final, but our speed, attitude, and descent was all even, and before I knew it I had landed. I was prepared for an unusual landing, and there is no flare, but otherwise it was a non-event. Once you are wheels down, you are steering again with the steering wheel and feel very in control. I used my blinker to exit the active, and the flight was complete!

Working in communications for Terrafugia, I talk to people about the Transition® all day via email, on the phone, etc. , and I admit sometimes I have treated the Transition® like any other plane. But, to be in a vehicle that I have watched come together, seen design reviews about, talked about endlessly, pushed, pulled, driven, had lunch next to; really done everything except fly, being aloft was so special. It was surreal. This vehicle is going to make history.
The Transition is the product of such persistent and intelligent work, and in that flight, I really was amazed with our team. As we continue with finalizing designs on the Transition® production prototype and initiate work on the TF-X™ program, I remain impressed with all of the talent within the Terrafugia team. It makes my job of communicating with the world for Terrafugia so rewarding and exciting (even though my work is typically done from my desk and not the left seat of a flying car!).

Until the next flight!

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