Flying Car Takes Off at New York Auto Show

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- If you are going to build a street-legal airplane, it pays to have good insurance.

Insurance is Richard Gersh's thing. I met the 22-year veteran of the insurance business, an affable risk and policy wonk, on the floor at the New York International Auto Show on Wednesday. He was getting a kick out of the media horde tweeting, posting and shooting his latest exercise in risk management -- the Terrafugia Transition.

A plane that's a car. And a car that's a plane.
The first road-ready personal flying car, the Transition by Terrafugia, is shown off at the New York International Auto Show on Wednesday.

"I was at a lunch for a local flying club back in 2006 and a couple of MIT grads stood up and described this marvelous idea they had for a plane that can also drive down the road," Gersh said. "I walked up to those MIT engineers after the meal and said, 'What are you going to do about insurance?' And here I am."

Gersh was the first non-engineer hired by the 25-person firm based in Woburn, Mass. Terrafugia creates what is probably the world's first "roadable aircraft." This hybrid car/plane is without question the most exciting, innovative and downright daring idea here at the auto show, and it stands in stark contrast to the pathetic "me-too" engineering from Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan and the rest.

Gersh is adamant that Terrafugia's kind of grand-scale thinking is what will solve the world's problems.

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"We are the little company living the big American Dream," Gersh said. Forget Spare Tires, Try Parachutes

As the vice president for business development at Terrafugia, Gersh does the gritty regulatory blocking and tackling to make sure that a plane that's also a car is legal both in the sky and on the road.

It ain't like selling life insurance. The Transition is an airplane whose wings fold, the same way the F-14s in Top Gun do on an aircraft carrier. With wings retracted, the Terrafugia drives down any street, gets 35 miles per gallon and can reach 65 miles per hour. Though a performance car it is not. Once at the airport -- you do need about 1,700 feet to take off, so sadly there is no just popping the wings and flying over traffic -- the wings unfold. And off you go for about a 490 mile flying range.

It's all powered by a single engine -- a Rotax model that many planes use -- that drives both propeller and wheels. There is a cockpit with both a steering wheel and a stick shift. And then there is finessing the weight: The plane carries up to 470 pounds of passengers, gas and bags.

"I tell people, you do the math," Gersh says. "It carries 23 gallons of unleaded premium gas, at 6 pounds a gallon. It's a weight-sensitive vehicle. But real adults can use it."

There's one feature that lets this former insurance exec sleep soundly at night: a parachute. From under a hood upfront, a chute deploys in a worst-case scenario. I asked Gersh if this was meant to address the "John Denver Syndrome." The American folk singer and avid pilot died flying a similar aircraft in which he didn't have a backup chute.

"You got it," Gersh nodded emphatically. He quickly added that this plane highlights the process of managing the problems that pure innovation creates.

This cheaper road to the skies is opening flight to a new generation of amateurs. Terrafugia competes in the entry-level plane category with established plane makers such as Cessna and its Skycatcher, and smaller makers like the Airplane Factory based in Johannesburg, South Africa and Italian maker Tecnam.

But only Terrafugia had the daring to mix the American love of the road with the dream of flight.

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Making the plane road-ready solves so many problems for the user, says Gersh. "This vehicle is re-energizing the aircraft and automotive industries." Not the Model-T

Gersh told me flatly that this plane will "not be the Model-T." The Transition runs $279,000, which is in line with entry-level planes. The company has 100 orders, even though financing options are not yet available. Gersh sees it as the perfect club, school or co-op aircraft.

Like all American dreams, the Transition needs capital. Terrafugia has just finished its latest round of test flights and the business has come to New York to capture some media love -- and investor interest. Gersh says the company needs some $5 million to get the Transition into mass production.

"More would be better, but we have a clear path to profitability," Gersh said.

I asked him: Could his operation be the poster child for an American recovery?

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"It changes the equation of the personal flight," nodded Gersch. "It's exciting to watch a good idea become a good business."

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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