The Flying Pinto That Killed Its Inventor

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Image credit: Doug Duncan

The flying car has been invented over and over again. The problem is, each iteration has fallen somewhere on the line between amusing failure and outright disaster. Perhaps the most infamous example was the AVE Mizar, a.k.a. the “Flying Pinto,” which killed its inventor on an early voyage.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machine

Henry Smolinski was born in 1933, one of eight children in a Polish American family living in Cuyahoga, Ohio. After attending the Northrop Institute of Technology's aeronautical engineering school, he began his career at North American Aviation as a structural engineer working on jet engine and aircraft design. In 1959, he joined Rocketdyne as a project engineer, working on their missile development and aerospace programs.

After a decade at Rocketdyne, Smolinsky left to form his own company with his friend, Hal Blake. They founded Advanced Vehicle Engineers in Van Nuys, California, in 1971, expressly to design and build a flying car. Their first and only model was AVE Mizar (named after one of the stars that form the Big Dipper’s handle). The idea was simple enough: take a regular car and a small airplane and modify them both, so a person could drive the car to an airport, fit the car and the waiting airframe together, take off from the runway, come down a few hundred miles away at another air strip, detach from the airframe and then drive the car away.

Image credit: Curbside Classic

The prototypes of the Mizar were made by sawing up a Cessna Skymaster and a Ford Pinto and fitting them together. The Skymaster’s cabin and front engine were removed and the rest of the plane attached to the Pinto, with the wings sitting over the roof and the pusher engine snuggling up against the hatchback. The Pinto was backed into the airframe and four high-strength, self-locking pins were used to hook everything together. The driver’s controls were adapted so that in flight the driver/pilot could control the airframe’s ailerons by turning the steering wheel right or left, and the elevator by pushing and pulling the wheel. Pedals to control the rudder were also installed, and all the flight controls inside the car were attached to the airframe via connections that ran underneath the driver’s side of the car. The Pinto’s dashboard was outfitted with flight instruments like air speed and rate of climb gauges, an altimeter, a directional gyro, fuel pressure gauges, a throttle, and radio navigational equipment.

The Mizar could use both the car engine and the aircraft engine during launch to shorten the takeoff roll. Once in the air, the craft had a cruising speed of 130 mph, a range of 1,000+ miles, and a ceiling of 12,000 feet. Upon landing, the car’s brake system would stop the craft on just 530 feet of runway.

On an early test flight conducted by pilot Charles "Red" Janisse in 1973, the right wing strut’s mounting attachment failed not long after takeoff. Red knew turning the craft would put too much stress on the unsupported wing and might rip it clean off, so he had to put the Mizar straight down in a bean field and drive the wounded vehicle, airframe still attached, back to the airport. AVE got great publicity anyway. The Mizar became a hard-to-ignore sensation and Galpin Ford of Sepulveda (now known as North Hills), California, signed on as a national distributor.

Smolinsky wooed the public with sales pitches and press conferences, promising a vehicle that was simple (“A woman can easily put the two systems together - or separate them - without help”) and affordable enough ($15,000 at full production, divided roughly to $4,000 for the car, $5,500 for the air engine, and $5,000 for the air frame) for anyone to take to the skies.

Disaster

One of Smolinsky’s press conferences foreshadowed tragedy, though. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “…the room was full of skeptics and some technical questions were not fully answered. The aircar people acknowledged there are problems. ‘But we feel we have the answers,’ they said.”

In the summer of 1973, another prototype with a different plane engine was unveiled and taken for a series of taxi and flight tests over a span of three months at the Ventura County Airport. On September 11, Jannise was not available for a scheduled test flight, so Smolinsky and Blake took the Mizar up themselves.

According to Mac Grisham, the airport manager, the men had made an agreement with the airport that they would notify him before each flight, so he could alert local police and fire officials. For some reason, Smolinsky made no contact with Grisham that day, and after watching the Mizar take off, Grisham ran to the air control tower to radio the craft.

As he neared the tower, he heard the airport’s crash horn shriek, and turned to see a column of thick black smoke rising up from below where the Mizar should have been.

The alarm had been hit by Danny Edwards, an air traffic controller in the tower, who had been watching the Mizar through his binoculars. About two minutes after takeoff, he saw the craft’s right wing fold in. The Mizar twisted and then fell, with various parts and pieces flying off. Another witness was on his lawn and watched the craft fall, strike the top of a tree, crash onto a pickup truck parked in the street, and burst into flames.

Smolinski and Blake were both killed instantly, according to the local coroner, though he wasn’t able to determine if whether they died from crash injuries, burns or from smoke inhalation.

After their investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that this particular version of the Mizar had several problems. For one, even though the Pinto was not a large car, the Mizar was just too heavy. It was already over gross weight without passengers or fuel. They also found loose parts and an earlier problem that reared its head again. A bad weld had resulted in the right wing strut attachment failing where it met the body panel of the Pinto.

With the death of its inventor, the Mizar project was shelved and AVE shut down. Hindsight being 20/20, it's easy to say that a Pinto, a car famous for being a death-trap on the ground, should never have flown. But Smolinsky did make it fly, even if just for a few moments, when so many others could never get their own flying cars off the ground.

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July 30, 2012 - 8:03pm
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