Friday, January 16, 2009

A group of daredevils set sail on the ultimate magical childhood dream adventure today, traveling in a flying car for a 42 day journey from London to Timbuktu — a place that’s had a mystical, “middle of nowhere” reputation for decades. The ‘Parajet Skycar’ can change from ground to flying mode in a mere 3 minutes, and will make the epic 3,600-mile (5,800-kilometer) journey by both land and air.

The “world’s first road legal bio-fuelled flying car” is essentially a 1,000lb (480 kilo) dune buggy with a fan motor and paragliding wing attached. It can reach altitudes of up to 15,000 feet (4,570 meters), with a normal cruising height of 2,000 to 3,000 feet (600 to 900 meters), and a flight range of 185 miles (300 kilometers).

Skycar runs on the ground on a biofuel-powered 4-cylinder, 1,000cc engine, accelerating from zero to 100 km/h in 4.5 seconds flat, has a top speed of 110 mph (180 km/h), with a range of 240 miles (306 kilometers), and an independent 4-wheel suspension to cope with the toughest terrain

A special nylon wing is unpacked from the trunk before unfurling the parachute on the ground to the rear and takes barely 3 minutes to convert into an aircraft.

Its powerful rear fan’s thrust propels the buggy forward and provides enough lift for the “ParaWing” to take off at just 45 mph (70 km/h), from any “airstrip” longer than 650 feet (200 meters), and once in the air it can fly at speeds of up to around 70 mph (110 km/h), cruising at 600-900 meters with a paraglider-style canopy holding it aloft.

Once airborne, the driver uses pedals in the zero-carbon vehicle’s foot well to steer it by tugging cables that change the wing’s shape. Should something go wrong, the pilot can launch an emergency parachute, which should allow the buggy to safely drift gently back to ground, the descent slowed by the wing.

The 2-seater Skycar was designed by engineer and inventor Giles Cardozo, from Dorset, in just 18 months.

Led by pilot Neil Laughton from West Sussex who served in the SAS, the team took off in the vehicle that can “drive like a car” and “fly like a plane” from Knightsbridge, London to begin its journey.

The expedition will travel through France, Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara and the desert city of Timbuktu in Mali, with plans to drive the Skycar where there are roads, and fly over the Straits of Gibraltar, the Atlas mountains in Morocco and the trackless wastes of the Empty Quarter of the Sahara.

Their goal is to reach Timbuktu on February 20th, with a supporting group of up to 13 people following on the ground in all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes.

The team had hoped to fly the Skycar over the English Channel but were prevented by Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations. A spokesman for the CAA said there were no regulations prohibiting the Skycar from flying across the Channel, but since it doesn’t have full European certification, permission would also be needed from the French authorities.

The CAA had worked with the Skycar team to help get a permit to fly, he added.

Laughton admitted the car had not yet been tested to any “distance, heat or endurance” and that there was an element of “mad Brits” about the adventure.

“Clearly the reliability of the car is crucial. We’re going to have to cope with wind chill temperatures as low as -30C (-22F) and blistering heat up to 50C (122F). But it’s been fully tested at a secret location and it 100% works.”

Laughton said he was particularly looking forward to visiting villages in West Africa.

“I just can’t wait to see their faces when we fly in and start playing football with them.” he said. “I don’t think they will be able to believe somebody in a flying car has just visited them.”

The team is keenly aware that it’s is not just the natural barriers which could prove hostile. Neil Laughton said the journey through the Sahara posed some serious dangers.

“Sadly the political situation in some areas on our route is not good and there are some unsavory people about so we must be careful.” said Laughton.

The annual Paris-Dakar rally was cancelled in 2007 amid reported threats from Islamic militants in Mauritania.

“We have been following the Foreign Office advice on the political situation in the area northwest of Timbuktu. There is a significant kidnap threat in that area so we will be choosing our route very carefully and not publicizing it too widely.”

The vehicle will have to negotiate a minefield in Mauritania – “I might fly that one.” said Laughton. An estimated 40% of the journey will be by flight.

Giles Cardozo — dubbed the “boy genius” by Laughton — will join the expedition as co-pilot for the African leg of the Skycar’s maiden voyage, which is backed by famous British explorer Ranulph Fiennes.

Even Laughton — who’s scaled the highest mountains on 7 continents and trekked at the North Pole — admits his latest “boy’s own” adventure is a little eccentric.

“I like variety and thought this would be an interesting challenge.” he said. “Also Timbuktu is an iconic and quirky destination.”

Cardozo’s Wiltshire-based firm, Parajet, manufactures the industrial paramotors that propel the Skycar once it’s airborne and has been dreaming of creating a flying car since childhood.

“The inspiration came from realizing we can drive and we can fly, so why can’t we do both? The problem all along has been the wing technology, which we think we’ve cracked with the Skycar.” said Cardozo.

The self-taught engineer built and co-piloted the powered paraglider which took British TV survivalist Bear Grylls over the summit of Mount Everest in 2007.

With the help of sponsors, the team has invested about $380,000 (£250,000) developing the vehicle.

He plans to sell Skycars to the public for “beating congestion, or providing a low-cost method of reaching remote regions” at $76,000 (£50,000) each if it can prove its mettle on the Timbuktu mission.

But the expedition isn’t only about proving the viability of this unique vehicle. The team plans to raise more than £100,000 for a number of charities, including Alive and Kicking, which distributes footballs bearing health advice in Africa.

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