Automotive/Aeronautic History: The Pinto’s Brief And Tragic Life As An Airplane

(Since this was first posted on 2/27/11, this article has attracted comments from individuals who were associated and affected by the unfortunate end to this undertaking, including the designer’s daughter. My somewhat light-hearted take on the Mizar was not intended to belittle the tragic consequences)

One of the most recurring human follies are the seemingly endless attempts to cross the car with an airplane. Why? The two have such profoundly different purposes and requirements, and there’s so little that they actually share. Can’t dreamy-eyed engineers get past the idea that a passenger cabin and a set of wheels is not really enough to share effectively? Perhaps the most amusing looking but tragic example is the AVE Mizar, an ill-fated attempt to make the Pinto airborne. Maybe a trebuchet would have been much easier.

 

The Mizar was conceived of and cobbled together between the years 1971 and 1973 by a former Henry Smolinski, a Northrop-trained engineer. His brilliant idea was to combine the rear section of a Cessna Skymaster, which was a very innovative design using two engines in the same thrust line, one in the front and one in the back.  By cutting away (the very light aluminum) front section of the Skymaster, Smolinski envisioned replacing it with the not-so-light Pinto.

The rear Skymaster engine was retained, and it was intended to be the sole power plant during cruise. But for take-off and climb, the Pinto’s engine was also going to be called on. Exactly how that was to be accomplished has been lost in the mists of time. Apparently that was never really figured out, as the Skymaster’s original 220 hp rear engine was replaced by a 300hp engine to compensate somewhat for the loss of the front engine, as well as the Pinto’s considerable weight. From the looks of the picture showing the engine attached to the rear of the Pinto, the weight hanging out in the back looks like it’s overwhelming the rear suspension.

And of course, upon landing again, the Pinto would be quickly unbolted and driven away, although with a very heavily burdened dashboard, as that clipping picture above makes all to obvious.

It really did fly, but only very briefly for a couple of times. In a test flight on September 11, 1973, the right wing strut detached, or the wing just folded, based on varying eyewitness accounts. Smolinski and pilot Harold Blake were killed upon the Pinto’s fiery crash. The flying Pinto’s weight was considerably above the Skymaster’s gross maximum certified take-off weight.  One observer reported that the wing struts were attached to the car with sheet-metal screws and that “…everything was really bad.”(source: Wikipedia). The NTSB report of the crash also identified bad welds, along with a bad attachment of the right wing. People have blamed the Pinto for fiery crashes, but they can’t stick this one on on it.

Here’s a promotional video of the Mizar, with some shots of it “airborne”; taxiing tests, apparently. There’s no video of the crash.

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The Mizar was by no means the first “flying car”. Numerous attempts were made, starting back in the 1920s. The 1947 Convaircar shows some similarities to the Pinto, except that the “car” was built very light weight, out of fiberglass, and powered by the equally light-weight Crosley “COBRA” engine. it also look a bit better balanced than the tail-heavy Mizar. It too crashed, killing its pilot.

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“Flying cars” continue to attract considerable development money, and some of the recent examples are leaps and bounds ahead of the Mizar. But whether they will ever effectively overcome the inherent compromises involved, both technically, financially, and operationally, is a very big and still unanswered question.