In the early 1970s, Henry Smolinski, a California engineer formerly employed by North American Aviation and Rocketdyne, believed he had the solution to the intractable problem of how to combine an airplane and a car in a single vehicle.
Rather than start from scratch, he thought, why not take the wings, rear engine, and tail from a Cessna Skymaster and attach them to an existing car in such a way that they could be conveniently disconnected? The Skymaster, Cessna’s attempt at a twin that would be easy to control after an engine failure, had a high wing, engines at both ends of the fuselage, and tail surfaces supported on booms projecting aft from the wings. It seemed tailor-made for Smolinski’s scheme, as did the Ford Pinto, an inexpensive, low-slung compact that was lighter than most American cars.
With the irrational optimism that often afflicts great dreamers, Smolinski announced that his auto-plane hybrid, dubbed Mizar after a binary star in the Big Dipper, would be available in 1974 for under $30,000—less than the price of the airplane that had to be cut in two to make it. He arranged for the Mizar to be sold by a Sepulveda, California Ford dealership.
I was building an airplane at the time, and Smolinski sold me the Skymaster’s front engine to use in it, so I followed his progress, though with considerable skepticism. I heard he had obtained a larger, three-blade propeller for the remaining engine, which was having a hard time dealing with the weight of a complete car and three-quarters of an airplane. After some taxi tests at Van Nuys Airport, Smolinski and Harold Blake, his partner on the project, moved the Mizar to Ventura County Airport in Oxnard.
On September 6, 1973, I flew my airplane for the first time. The ex-front engine of Smolinski’s ex-Skymaster worked nicely.
Five days later, I learned that things had not gone so well for its sibling. As the Mizar climbed through 400 feet on a test flight, the strut securing the right wing had broken free from the Pinto. The wing went up and the rest went down, killing Smolinski and Blake. I heard a report that the strut had been attached to the sheet metal sill below the car’s door with cheap commercial blind rivets or sheet-metal screws, but it seems hard to believe that a professional engineer like Smolinski would use such inadequate fasteners. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report mentioned a bad weld, which is a little more plausible. Although the Mizar project, like most flying cars, seemed just a bit ridiculous, there was a grain of sense in it. The regulatory obstacles to an airplane-car hybrid are as formidable as the technical ones, and obtaining government approval for even conventional airplanes and cars is a long, costly process. It was logical to use already-approved components. Whether the hybrid could ever have obtained Federal Aviation Administration certification, however, is doubtful. Neither the car nor the airplane could have been used in their original configurations; the Cessna’s wing was not designed to support something as heavy as a Pinto, and the Pinto’s structure and controls did not lend themselves to convenient integration with an airplane. Smolinski must have hoped that a few successful flights would whip up additional investment so he could work out a happy marriage between two machines that were, in engineering terms, natural enemies.
Thirty years later, Smolinski might have found in a Smart Fortwo or in the original two-seat Honda Insight a more suitable mate for that cruelly amputated Skymaster.
Peter Garrison is a frequent Air & Space/Smithsonian contributor.