It's been a sci-fi dream for decades, but now the prospect of a road-legal production-model flying car taking to the skies has become a reality. And it's all thanks to British engineer Gilo Cardozo.
"For some reason mankind seems to think that it's got to grips with the idea that we can fly," says Gilo Cardozo. "But for most of us, we haven't gone beyond commercial aviation, flying around in big jets. Most of us think we can fly, but not many of us really do."
Cardozo, who is founder and chief technology officer of Parajet International, is explaining the philosophy behind the personal aviation systems his Dorset-based company designs and manufactures. For personal aviation read paragliding, the adventure sports pastime that involves strapping an engine to your back and powering your own fabric wing. And while paragliders might be the mainstay of Parajet, what's enthusing the 33-year-old today is the launch of his latest invention - Skyrunner, which is nothing short of a flying car.
It looks and sounds as though it is a creation dreamed up for a James Bond movie, but Cardozo plays down such fanciful comparisons, preferring to describe Skyrunner as "ultimately a recreational vehicle, the idea being that you can one minute drive on the road - or off-road crossing deserts on dirt tracks - and then minutes later get yourself airborne and take to the skies". He says that "no one has created a machine that can do those things yet, which makes us the first guys to have done it".
Understandably, he reflects on the achievement as "very exciting. It's been in development for the past four years, having been tested all over the world in different environments and doing all kinds of adventures in it. But now we've got to the point where we can say we've got a real product, we know how to make them, we know what works best, and we can put them into production."
The "real product" is an amalgamation of transport technology. Part all-terrain vehicle and part light-sport aircraft, Cardozo claims it's "the next generation of recreational aircraft designed to make aviation accessible and fun". If you want to order your Skyrunner, it will set you back at least '75,000, but for the money you'll be taking delivery of a machine that, as the publicity material says, "transforms from all-terrain vehicle to lightweight aircraft in a matter of minutes. Open fields, grass strips and secluded beaches becoming the runways of choice."
Cardozo, who in his sheepskin leather aviator's jacket looks every inch the pioneering aircraft engineer, set up Parajet International in 2000 to announce his presence in the field of paramotoring. Specialising in foot-launched personal aircraft, Parajet is one of four engineering organisations that sits in the Gilo Industries Group portfolio, all of which serve military, commercial and sporting aviation applications. The company motto - 'Innovation through Adventure' - neatly sums up what Cardozo describes as "exceptional dynamics and performance combined to make an engaging personal flying experience".
An airborne dream
It's been a sci-fi dream for decades that there might one day be a car that could fly, and so I ask Cardozo why it's happening today, and what's taken the world of engineering so long to come up with a vehicle that can'roll' down roads one minute and take to the air the next. "The reality is that this particular car isn't meant to be the ultimate solution to the issue of making cars that will fly an everyday thing," he explains. "I should make clear this is a recreational machine. But there will be other applications coming out of the woodwork in time, and that's for sure."
The reason it has taken the world of innovation in general "so long to get this right is that it's actually incredibly difficult to pull everything together in one machine". Cardozo goes on to say that the design solution he has come up with is "our take on how to do this in four years, and our interpretation of how to get a car into the sky without spending hundreds of millions to do so. We feel we've answered the question of how to make a road-legal car fly. But you've got to remember that it's not a machine you'll be flying thousands of miles in. It's a hell of a lot of fun and it will pave the way for applications we can only dream of."
Seeing Skyrunner for the first time, its squat skeletal frame resembling a quad bike with a gigantic propeller stuck on the back, the immediate question that springs to mind is simply that of wanting to know how it takes off. "You literally pull the fabric wing out the boot and lay it out on the ground behind the propeller at the back," says Cardozo. "You push a button in the cockpit that disengages the wheels and engages the propeller. After which you put your foot on the throttle, the car lurches forwards, and depending on the wind conditions, within a few hundred yards, you're airborne.
"There are two controls right and left and you literally steer it into the air, while the foot throttle is your altitude controller. In other words, the harder you push the throttle the faster you go up. It could not be easier."
The technology key to Skyrunner is in the engine and transmission design, which is required to power both car and plane. "We're using the very light Ford EcoBoost engine, which has won many awards around the world for its efficiency," says Cardozo. "It's a high-pressure direct injection engine, and integrated into that we have a really special transmission system that we've developed with a British engineering company specifically for Skyrunner.
"It's a rapid gearshift system that makes it very exciting to drive. But at a flick of a switch you can pump 140 horsepower through'the propeller. And that's a challenging thing to do reliably." Cardozo says that you can do this for ten minutes no problem, but to do this for hundreds of hours in a lightweight package is "incredibly challenging".
Although Skyrunner might well be a recreational machine, the fabric-wing paraglider technology from which it evolved, and which forms the backbone of Parajet, is not. Essentially an aerodynamically refined parachute powered by an engine mounted to the back of the pilot in an arrangement not dissimilar to a rucksack, the aircraft is now commonly being used in short-range aerial surveillance in military, coastal, border patrol and police applications.
"It's one of the easiest ways to get airborne," says Cardozo. "And it's much cheaper than a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], which are a few million a pop. Paragliders, on the other hand, are about '5,000 and have a cheaper cost-per-hour by a factor of hundreds for actual time in the air. They're also dynamic aircraft that can be flown in all sorts of conditions. You can fly at low level, and it's not too fast, allowing plenty of time to monitor what's going on, when a conventional plane would just whizz past."
An obsession takes flight
Cardozo's interest in personal aviation systems which was to lead him to become one of the world's foremost pioneers in the field, started by chance. At the age of 16 he saw a photograph in a magazine of a man with a propeller on his back standing in the middle of a field. "I had no idea what was going on. There was no paraglider wing in the picture, and the guy was literally in the middle of nowhere. I immediately realised that I had to find out what was going on. I was so fascinated that I went to great lengths to find out what this man was doing. My research led me to discover there was a company in Japan making paramotors, and that there was also a guy in England making them in his garden shed."
Cardozo's mounting obsession meant that nothing would stop him getting hold of a paramotor for himself. His friend, the musician James Blunt, told Cardozo that his father, who was in turn an ex-Army friend of Cardozo's father, had one: "I got it cheap from him because his wife wouldn't let him fly the thing anymore due to the fact that he'd had a few accidents."
Cardozo recalls how he was "so crazy" about the idea that he taught himself to fly by launching himself off hills. As he became more proficient he was able to take to the sky from flat ground. "That was when I realised that this sport could go much further, reckoning there must be thousands of people who had never seen it, who would love to have a go. And that led me to wondering if I could get into making these machines."
His business really started to take shape when Cardozo, fed up with the quality of engines he was importing from Japan, decided that he would make his own. "They weren't good enough. They were too expensive and they kept on breaking down. So I got together a team of engineers to build our own paramotors. There was loads of mucking around because you're trying to get a lot of energy out of a very lightweight power plant, and it took about two years of experimentation to get anywhere near what we were trying to achieve. That's really challenging, and I learned the hard way."
Highs and lows
In June 2012, recognition for all his endeavours came in the form of an MBE for services to engineering and business, which Cardozo received from the Princess Royal. "It was a fantastic honour. I've been extremely lucky. I started out by working in a shed on my parents' farm with little more than a passion to make the best paragliders in the world and the next thing I know, Princess Anne is giving me an MBE."
But during the intervening time, Cardozo had been noticed by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) who seemed to the designer to be "excited by the progress that was being made by a small company".
In another extraordinary turn of events, it was at this point Cardozo met TV presenter and adventurer Bear Grylls. Between them they hatched a plan to fly over the top of Mount Everest with a paramotor. "The effect of this adventure was to put the sport on the map in a big way. It also got my business more profile. It was probably the combination of these publicity events and raising a lot of money for charity through our adventures that led to the MBE. The flying car project kicked off from the Everest thing and before long I was flying over the Straits of Gibraltar to Africa in a development model of the Skyrunner. The adventure side of things fired the public imagination and that really was the key to getting noticed. You've got to get out there and show people what you can do. All these things seemed to tick the box."
But for all the adventure, accolades and commitment to sheer fun, Cardozo is deadly serious when he says that his main purpose is to fully commit himself to British innovation, design and manufacture. The reason we are sitting in his new production facility is the launch of Skyrunner. "What I'm interested in is getting people into the air in personal machines and making that business grow."
To achieve his dream, Cardozo will be leading Parajet through a period of growth. He says that the company has evolved organically, periodically switching'its attention form paramotors to flying cars'back and forth over time. "We have a'host of exciting projects at various stages'of development," Cardozo says, "which has resulted in growth of the business. As a result of that development process, we naturally arrived at the point where Gilo Industries Group was established to manage'each of the projects'in'a more structured way, through a series of subsidiaries, each responsible for relevant'projects. Skyrunner for example, sits perfectly'with the continued development of Parajet, our paramotoring subsidiary."
Cardozo describes his companies as disruptive. "We want to make a difference to the future of the world of engineering technology. These are exciting times and there are opportunities here for aspiring engineers, who want to express themselves in a dynamic, forward-thinking working environment surrounded by like-minded people with similar ambitions." Does that mean he's actively recruiting to get more flying cars into production? "Absolutely. Anyone who shares my passion for engineering and who wants to make a difference, should definitely get in touch."