The Tragic Story of the Flying Ford Pinto Ended Exactly How You’d Expect

Taking one of history’s most infamously unsafe compact cars and putting wings on it was never the best plan.

byDec 21, 2021 5:59 PM
The Tragic Story of the Flying Ford Pinto Ended Exactly How You’d Expect
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There are few cars with a worse reputation for safety than the Ford Pinto, which within a few years of its launch became infamous for catching fire when rear-ended. It's a car many people wouldn't be comfortable driving, never mind going airborne in. Perhaps if the Pinto's reputation had soured more quickly, it might have saved the lives of the men who tried to turn one into a flying car, only for their dream to—predictably—crash and burn.

This iteration of the inherently flawed concept that is the flying car was, according to the American National Standards Institute, conceived by aerospace engineers Henry Smolinski and Harold "Hal" Blake, who in 1971 founded Advanced Vehicle Engineers, or AVE. They sought to produce a commercially viable flying car by attaching the wings, pusher engine, and part of the fuselage of a Cessna Skymaster to a Pinto, christening their creation the AVE Mizar (pronounced my-czar).

The way they imagined it, you could drive your Pinto to the airport, mate your car to the airframe, and hit the runway. There, the combined thrust of the car's and plane's powertrains would give it an unusually short takeoff of about 500 feet, per Ford Performance. It could then travel not on the snaking highways, but as the crow flies, cruising at 130 mph before landing. Thanks to its combination of flaps and four-wheel brakes, landing distance was supposed to be short too, at just 550 feet, though total range was anything but. It was intended to travel 1,000 miles without refueling.

Both car and plane were operated by a semi-common set of controls which turned the steering wheel into a full-on yoke. Turning the wheel moved the ailerons to induce roll, pushing and pulling it up and down the steering column actuated the elevators to control pitch, and an extra pair of pedals turned the rudder. (And you thought driving with three pedals was hard.)

While unusual, the controls don't appear to have been the most obtuse to use, and they definitely weren't the Mizar's biggest problem. That'd be weight, as the Cessna Skymaster's airframe was according to Flugzeug Info only rated for a maximum takeoff load of 4,630 pounds, and it already weighed the better part of 2,800 empty. Sure, losing the cabin and puller prop would have reduced that, but adding approximately one ton of Pinto, tanks of fuel, and a pilot would have likely pushed the Cessna airframe perilously close to its maximum takeoff weight.

And that might have been one of two main reasons why the Mizar's maiden flight ended the way it did.

AVE Mizar, Ford Performance and Galpin Motors Archive

The Mizar's timeline of flight testing is hard to parse. Images exist of the Mizar in-flight, and there's even promotional footage of it taking off, though it's not known whether these are scale models or evidence of unrecorded test flights of a full-size prototype. In either case, the first full flight of a prototype is said to have been conducted by a hired-in professional pilot Charles Janisse, who on Aug. 26, 1973, would become the first to fly the Mizar at Camarillo Airport in California according to a highlight by YouTuber toast.

Surprisingly, the Mizar indeed got off the ground, though it apparently didn't remain airborne for long. The wing reportedly began to detach on the right side, forcing Janisse to make an emergency landing in a nearby bean field. The National Transportation Safety Board apparently investigated the incident, and after examining the Mizar issued a damning appraisal, deeming it poorly designed, its airframe overburdened. To make matters worse, build quality was appalling, with bad welds and some loose structural parts—unverified accounts allege the wing strut was attached only by sheet metal screws.

Between the emergency landing and harsh criticism from the NTSB, the Mizar's first flight was not a success as tests go, though by that point, the Mizar's PR push was already underway. Photos of the Mizar appeared in publications nationwide, sometimes depicting it in flight (though again, it's not known if this was a full-scale prototype or not). AVE had even found itself a distributor, the famed Galpin Ford, which reportedly received 34 pre-orders for Mizars, which would've been priced at the modern equivalent of $114,500. It was even rumored to have a role in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, where it was to serve as antagonist Francisco Scaramanga's getaway vehicle in one scene.

But on the third anniversary of the Pinto's reveal, on Sept. 11, 1973, it all came crashing down for AVE. That day, company founders Blake and Smolinski took to the skies themselves to test the Mizar's new, more powerful, but also heavier 300-horsepower Lycoming engine. Accounts of the flight vary slightly, though Makes That Didn't Make It says witnesses recount the Mizar being airborne for two minutes and reaching an altitude 800 feet before the wings buckled under the load of the more powerful engine. The Pinto is said in an account published by the Aviation Safety Network to have separated from the airframe, plunged from the sky, and collided with a tree or truck—possibly both. Blake and Smolinski were killed instantly, and their company—along with the dream of a flying Pinto—all but went with them.

It's unclear what happened to the three prototypes said by Mario the Multipla to have been under construction at the time of the crash, though a second, completed prototype is rumored to have ended up in the collection of the dealer that was supposed to sell it: Galpin Ford. We've contacted Galpin to verify this, though whether or not the Mizar still exists, it serves as a reminder of the foolishness of trying to combine cars and aircraft. They're vehicles designed for navigating dissimilar environments, in the hands of operators of wildly disparate skill levels. Let flying cars remain within the realm of imagination, or we'll have to dodge Nissan Altima drivers in a third dimension too.

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