Picnickers at Novosibirsk, Siberia’s premier picnic spot were startled one-day last summer when they spied a large balloon flying overhead with a car body attached where the gondola should be. Some observers found the sight to be intriguing; however, Russian aviation officials were not amused.
Novosibirsk transport prosecutors fined balloon pilot Alexandru Barshentsev 6,700 Russian rubles ($117 US) for his antics and threatened to take his pilot’s license away.
Barshentsev justified his actions in making the flight by claiming his vehicle was a “flying car” rather than an aircraft. Further, he claimed that since an anchor rope was attached to the contrivance at all times, “. . . it would have simply fallen back onto the empty field . . . from which it was launched.” Estimates of the top altitude reached by Barshentsev’s automotive balloon vary from 75 to 100 feet.
Prosecutors were unconvinced by his arguments, saying that “. . . the [vehicle] could have fallen down at any moment. Such a flight within the city borders threatened the life of not only the owner of the balloon but also other aircraft.”
Novosibirsk is the capital of Siberia, located in Southwest Russia on the Ob River. It is Russia’s third largest city, with a population of over 1.4 million people.
The balloon-car flight received wide publicity as a result of a video broadcast by Garage 54, a website on YouTube created by a group of car bloggers. The video – which is narrated in Russian — generated over 455,000 views during the first two months of its posting.
Does the balloon-car combination created by Alexandru Barshentsev actually support his claim to building a flying car? Descriptions and video images of the vehicle bring that claim into question. While the “balloon” constituent is clearly real and seemingly airworthy, the “car” has been stripped of many of those components that would make it “roadable.” It has no engine, interior seats, powertrain, glass or roof.
So, while Barshentsev’s contraption passes muster as a flying machine, it cannot be construed as a “car” except in jest. Rather, it is a balloon with a metal gondola on wheels.
No information is available about the weight of the final version of the “car,” though paring it down to a minimum was clearly a compelling factor. The size of the balloon looks right for a 2-5 person load. With a heavier weight, the balloon would have to be much larger.
Why did the car-balloon flight attract so much attention? Here are two possible reasons:
It was a great piece of theater. The fabrication looked like the balloon was carrying a full-fledged car. Onlookers had no reason to suspect it was anything else.
The balloon-car flight calls out to a deeply-embedded fantasy. Long before the Jetsons and their flying car made their TV debut in 1964, Glen Curtis, Henry Ford, Igor Sikorsky and other early pioneers of flight and motor transportation were dreaming, designing and scheming about combining airplanes with autos. Here are some examples:
Curtiss Autoplane, 1917
Ford “Sky Flivver,” 1926
Waterman Arrowbile, 1937
Fulton Airphibian, 1946
Vultee ConvAirCar, 1947
Piasecki VZ-8 Airgeep, 1957
Taylor Aerocar, 1960’s
Barker Sky Commuter, 2008
Terrafugia TF-X, 2013
Moller Skycar M400, 2015
Only two from this list have yet reached commercial production, for reasons ranging from lack of capital to negative flight test performance to prohibitive cost. According to an article by Kevin Bonsor in howstuffworks.com, “These pioneers [have not yet] managed to develop a viable flying car. . . However, they proved that a car could be built to fly, and inspired a new group of roadable aircraft enthusiasts.”
In 2004, there were approximately 80 registered patents for flying cars on record. Some of the coolest designs are “concept” auto-planes that have been crafted for public relations and marketing reasons as much as for manufacture and distribution. Though destined for a museum, they sport sleek, futuristic designs and use exotic materials.
While Alexandru Barshentsev’s recent car-balloon stunt offered little to advance the aeronautical sciences, it did radiate a funky, free-spirited, initiative-taking attitude that has broad appeal to the do-it-yourself set.
With almost half a million views, the balloons pilot Alexandru Barshentsev has gotten a lot of people thinking. Who knows what will result in the field of car-balloon design?