Designed by Robert Fulton Jr., the Airphibian in 1950 became the first roadable aircraft approved by the Civil Aviation Administration. It could fly to an airport and then, after disengaging wings, tail, and propeller, become a car. Other roadable aircraft, such as Waldo Waterman's Arrow/Aerobile and William Stout's Skycar (both in the Museum's collection), had been built but none earned certification.
While a technical success as a flying car, the Airphibian did not become a marketable design due to the inherent compromises of air and car technologies and financial difficulties. A former company officer donated the Airphibian in 1960 and Robert Fulton III restored it in 1998.
In 1950, the Fulton Airphibian became the first roadable aircraft, an aircraft designed to be used as a car or an airplane to be certificated by the Civil Aviation Administration (CAA). Other roadable aircraft had already been built, for example Waldo Waterman's Arrow/Aerobile and William Stout's Skycar, both of which are in the NASM collection--as well as other designs, but none won certification.
Robert Fulton Jr., developed his Airphibian as a flexible means of business and personal transportation. During World War II, he flew his own aircraft around the country for government contract work, and quite often he had been left at airports with unreliable or inadequate means of transportation into towns. The roadable aircraft would be flown to an airport and, with the disengagement of the wings and tail, it would become a car, capable of being driven to the final destination. Fulton designed the Airphibian as a high-wing monoplane, similar in appearance to a Stinson Voyager but with a distinctive four-wheel landing gear with fairings/fenders. It had a conventional fabric-covered steel-tube aft fuselage and empennage, straight tapered cantilever wings of metal rib and fabric construction, and a semi-monocoque forward fuselage that detached and converted into a car.
Following Fulton's desire for secrecy, Army Air Force Captain Frazer Dougherty piloted the first flight of the prototype off of a remote grass strip near Middleburg, VA in the spring of 1945. Dougherty and Fulton had met at a dinner party at avation entrepeneur and engineer Grover Loening's New York home and Dougherty soon became the company test pilot. Engineers Ted Polhemus and Franz Alverez and veteran mechanic Wayne Dasher were the technical team that worked on Fulton's aerial gunnery simulator and also built the Airphiban prototype. To acquire the funding for design, certification, and production, Fulton formed Continental, Inc. at the Danbury Airport, Danbury, Connecticut.
The first production prototype test flight was May 21, 1947. Ground handling was considered excellent in both the roadable and airplane configurations. Normal turning of the steering wheel provided steering on the road. The right rudder pedal provided normal brake operation, the left pedal operated the clutch, and an accelerator provided power. The engine drove the rear wheels through a torque converter, drive shaft, combined transmission and differential, and universal joints. All four wheels could be braked for ground operations; only the rear two wheels could be braked for taxiing. Normal speeds were 110 mph in the air and 55 mph on the ground.
The propeller, rear fuselage, and wings were removed for road operations. Attachment to the aircraft was accomplished by backing the car to the fuselage, leveling the tail and wings, moving three locking levers that inserted and locked large pins into fittings. The spar and tail parts slid into horizontally-inclined U-fittings. After locking into place, the two outrigger wheels that support the wings and the retractable tail wheel were cranked up into storage position. The propeller was removed from its bracket on the side of the fuselage, the prop spinner was removed, the propeller screwed on with a built-in wrench, and the spinner replaced again. The engine would not start if everything was not properly connected. The design is actually composed of seventeen different inventions.
In December 1950 the CAA approved the FA-2 with a strut-braced wing and 150 hp electric drive engine. The first production model, FA-2-101, N74153, flew in 1950. It had an Aircooled Motors 6A4150-B-3 modified engine. A cantilever wing model, the FA-3 was certificated by the CAA in June 1952 and the production model, FA-3-101, was flown shortly thereafter. This aircraft, N74154, is NASM's aircraft. Robert Fulton received an order for eight production models, to be used by CAA inspectors themselves, and they were built but not delivered. Instead, several company officers felt that that they were not getting enough of a return on their investment in the certification process, so, in 1953, they pulled out of the deal, taking the financial backing and several Airphibians with them.
In 1960, Joseph J. Ryan, a former Continental officer, donated N74154 to the Museum. Three other Airphibians remained near Charlottesville, Virginia, for many years but were returned to the Fulton workshop in Connecticut; one went to Europe, and one is in New Jersey.
The Airphibian represents a technical success as a flying car, but, despite being a media favorite during public demonstrations around the U.S. and in Great Britain, no commercial sales were forthcoming. And although the prototypes were driven over 200,000 miles and made more than 6,000 car/plane conversions some judged the process to be too complicated and lengthy. In essence, combining aviation and automotive technology into a marketable form of transportation proved to be elusive for Fulton and Continental, as it has been for many others. Nonetheless, the Airphibian was the first aircar to receive CAA certification and only the Taylor Aerocar, which was inspired by the Airphibian, received certification as well. The search for a practical and marketable flying car continues unabated in the 21st century.
The Museum received Fulton Airphibian FA-3-101, with a Franklin 6A4-165-B3 engine. The car portion was briefly displayed in the new National Air and Space Museum's General Aviation gallery in 1976 and at the Pate Museum of Transportation in Arizona. In 1997 and 1998, Robert Fulton, Jr.'s son, Robert III, restored the Airphibian at the family home in Newtown, Connecticut. Robert Fulton, Jr. and his Airphibian were the centerpiece of the 1998 Louis-Vuitton Car Show at Rockefeller Center in New York City. The Airphibian was then displayed at the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa, Ontario for several years before being installed at the Udvar-Hazy Center in 2009.
Before designing the Airphibian, Robert Fulton, a trained architect, bought a Luscombe and taught himself how to fly. He began his career in aeronautics as a motion picture photographer recording the progress the Boeing Clipper flying boats across the Pacific Ocean in a film for Pan American Airways entitled Trans Pacific; Pan American’s New Horizons Magazine also featured Fulton photography.
When the United States entered World War II, Fulton conceived of a ground flight trainer with controls that tilted and swung a horizon on a screen, the Aerostructor. It failed to gain support, but was transformed into the Gunairstructor for gunnery training. The U.S. Navy ordered 50 of these trainers.
The Fulton Skyhook Air Rescue System and Aerial Recovery System, also in the Museum collections, are perhaps his most unsung but bold aerial successes. The U.S. Air Force, from the Korean War through the Vietnam War and beyond, used the Air Rescue System for the retrieval of personnel from covert maneuvers or crew downed in hostile territory, day and night, land and sea. Dr. William Leary’s Operation Cold Feet tells the story of this critical life saving device for deep reconnaissance missions. Before the heavy lift helicopter, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army used the Skyhook Aerial Recovery System for the retrieval of equipment and materiel. Characteristically, Fulton invented seven separate components that were integrated into one single effective system. The ingenious system was based on the inflation of a small blimp that was dropped or carried by personnel. Aircraft spotted the blimp to which was attached a nylon rope and the personnel in a harness. A wide hooking device attached to the nose of the aircraft, either an HC-130H Hercules or AC-1 Caribou, would snag the line and begin the lift and reel-in process at the back of the aircraft. Skyhook evolved into derivative retrieval systems including: Skyrange (recovery of objects in the air), Searange (recovery of items lying on the water), Seasled (high-speed recovery of quantities of persons in the water with a boat) and others.
Robert Edison Fulton was a Renaissance man whose life transcended one technology or one career. As a young man, he rode around the world on a motorcycle using a 35mm motion picture camera to document the individual cultures and societies of the inter-war years (early 1930s) and produced a film, One Man Caravan. He established the Robert Fulton Company on a hilltop in western Connecticut, complete with a grass airstrip. His home revealed his architectural talents and he also pioneered aspects of sound recording technology, electric pianos, and modern glass panes. Overall, Robert Fulton held a minimum of 70 patents. Later, in his 90s, his artistic career continued to flourish in sculpture and photography and he even had a one-man show in a New York City art gallery. He died in 2004 at age 95.
Fulton’s dream of a roadable aircraft was impossible for him to bring to reality, and it might even be considered a bit impractical, however, the idea lives on and the potential is appreciated. The Fulton Skyhook system was a highly successful retrieval system that is a hidden success. Used for several decades, it nonetheless remains one of those unknown marvels of technology that do not make the headlines or are not widely marketed. The importance of the system can be attested to by those whose lives have been saved and by the operations that were completed but, unfortunately, many of these operations were covert and thus truly unknown. The Gunairstructor was an early flight simulator and a progenitor of today’s video displays and games.
His Airphibian, though seemingly whimsical, tugs at our desire for better air and ground transportation and provides a practical starting point for future designs. His willingness to work with the military to improve and produce new systems reveals the depth of the man serving his country and using his immense imagination and technical skill for the greater good. All inventors bubble with ideas and we depend upon these ideas to improve our lives and take us to the future. His son remarked that perhaps his father’s legacy might not be understood “because he makes everything look too easy. There is no evidence of effort. There is only clear and severe application.”
Wingspan: 10.2 m (34 ft.) Wheel Base: 1.8m (72in)
Height: 2.34 m (7 ft. 8 in.) 1.5m (5ft)
Length: 6.76 m (22 ft. 2 in.) 3.8m (11 ft 6 in)
Weight: Empty 680.4 kg (1,500 lb) 496 kg (1100 lb)
Gross: 947 kg (2,100lb) 510 kg (1700 lb)