What Could Go Wrong With Putting Wings on a Ford Pinto?

As much as we enjoy the comforts provided by the 21st century, our biggest disappointment is the lack of flying cars. Every traffic jam brings daydreams of being able to push the “Vertical Takeoff and Lift” button on the dashboard and rising far above the tangled mess on the roads.

Although there have been some advances in flying car technology, most of us can point to a good reason why society has yet to embrace the concept. It would mean that the crazy people currently on the roads would be buzzing around in the skies. If that weren’t enough to make you worry, take a look at the sorry state of repair of many of the vehicles you encounter. Can you imagine what would happen if any of them had wings?

Perhaps the biggest reason you don’t have a flying car in your garage is because of what happened nearly half a century ago. A bold venture to commercialize flying cars left an indelible stain on the pages of aviation/motorist history by putting wings on one of the most dangerous automobiles ever produced.

Henry A. Smolinski and Harold Blake loved cars and airplanes. They wanted to combine the two and make aviation easily accessible for the masses. In 1968, they founded Advanced Vehicle Engineers (AVE) in Van Nuys, California. In 1973, their brainchild was born — an automobile/airplane hybrid called the AVE Mizar. It is better remembered by its nickname, the Flying Pinto.

AVE Mizar.

Even the most casual student of automotive history knows that the Ford Pinto was not the posterchild of safety. It rolled off the assembly line in 1971 in answer to rising gas prices. It was small, lightweight, and fuel-efficient. It had another feature that tended to outweigh its practicality: it spontaneously burst into flames and exploded. Ford faced at least 117 lawsuits related to the car’s explosive nature and in 1981 became the first U.S. corporation to be charged with reckless homicide.

When Smolinski and Blake began working on the AVE Mizar, the Pinto’s abysmal safety problems were still in the future. All they knew was that it was a lightweight vehicle that would be perfect for their purposes. They envisioned combining the Pinto with the wings and support structures of a Cessna 172 Skymaster.

In announcing their plans to make the Mizar available for the public, Smolinski summarized the company’s philosophy. “Our plan is to make the operation so simple that a woman can easily put the two systems together—or separate them—without help,” Smolinski told reporters.

We assume he intended to say that the material would be light enough to lift without effort. At least, we hope he wasn’t suggesting that the process needed to be dumbed down so ladies could understand the steps. Given the way this story ends, we decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It took about two years, but Smolinski and Blake were ready to put theory into practice. By mid-1973, they completed two prototypes and had begun work on three more. They named the vehicle the AVE Mizar.

They took it on test flights and invited the press to watch. Cameras captured the sight of the inventors unfolding the wings atop a white Pinto and transforming the car into a single-engine airplane that took off and landed effortlessly.

The August 26, 1973 edition of The Oklahoman newspaper reported:

It’s finally happened. A car that flies. Called the Mizar 210, the vehicle is a two-door, four-seater 1973 white Pinto with detachable wings. It was developed three years ago by Henry A. “Hank” Smolinski, aeronautical engineer, founder and president of Advanced Vehicle Engineers of Sepulveda, Calif.

“Let’s say you want to go to Disneyland,” explains Hank. “You can get into your car and take the freeway and get hung up in traffic for a few hours. You could also fly over and land at an airpark—a kind of freeway off-ramp for small aircraft—and then you could rent a car, or call a cab, or wait for a friend to come and get you.

With the Mizar, all of that is eliminated. You fly to the airpark, land, remove your wings, move the automatic shift from neutral to drive, and take yourself to Disneyland.

It appeared that the future had arrived. Production was scheduled to begin in 1974, with prices expected to range from $18,300 to $29,000. Excited aviation enthusiasts began making plans to purchase Mizars as soon as they could roll off the assembly line.

This video, narrated in German, demonstrates how the Mizar worked.

The hopeful future of the Mizar came to an end, almost as quickly as it began. The day after the optimistic article from The Oklahoman was published, test pilot Charles “Red” Janisse flew the Mizar from the Camarillo Airport. Shortly after takeoff, the right wing strut base mounting attachment failed. Janisse was able to safely land in a bean field and drive the car back to the airport.

There was clearly a design problem. It is not known what, if anything, was done to address this problem. Two weeks later, it was time for another test flight. Janisse was unavailable, so the aircraft’s inventors decided to take the controls.

On September 11, 1973, Smolinski and Blake took the Mizar for a flight at the Ventura County Airport. No sooner did the engineering marvel leave the ground than smoke started to billow from the aircraft.

Witnesses who thought they were being treated to a demonstration of the future of travel watched in horror as the situation deteriorated. An air traffic controller watched through his binoculars as the right wing strut base mounting attachment failed. This time, there would be no emergency landing. Less than two minutes after takeoff, the Mizar careened into the ground. In proper Pinto fashion, the vehicle exploded on impact. Both of its inventors were killed.

The Sacramento Bee reported the incident the next day:

The two developers of a flying automobile have been killed in the flaming crash of the craft only minutes after take off, officials report.

Known as “the flying Pinto,” a combination of a Ford Pinto auto and a Cessna airplane, the prototype plunged to earth about a mile from Ventura County Airport late Tuesday afternoon.

Killed were Henry A. Smolinski, 40, Santa Susana, and Harold Blake, 40, Los Angeles. They were the founders and top two officers of Advanced Vehicle Engineers, launched at nearby Van Nuys in 1968.

The “flying Pinto” had been scheduled for a 40-city nationwide sales promotion tour.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that bad and inadequate welding on the struts and poor and inadequate design of the aircraft were the likely causes of the crash. Although the Pinto was a light car,

There was a fatal design flaw in using the wings and supports of a Cessna Skymaster. Although the Pinto was a lightweight car, even without fuel or passengers, its weight exceeded the certified gross weight of a Skymaster. The stress of being overweight, coupled with the inadequate welds meant the Mizar was doomed before it even left the ground.

Five years after the tragic crash of the Mizar, Ford recalled the Pinto. In the air and on the ground the Pinto had become synonymous with horrible, fiery death.

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