Carl Dietrich invented an airplane that’s also a car. “It’s great,” he says, “because if there’s bad weather in the air, you can just fly to a local airport and finish the rest of the trip on the road.”

Dozens of pilots across the world are already interested in Transition, Dietrich’s Personal Air Vehicle, and several distributors are eager for a chance to sell the $148,000 aircraft. It has already interested hundreds of customers and investors and it’s not even built.

It’s a cross between a small car and an airplane. It can be driven on any road and you need only a sport pilot’s license to fly it, which you can get with only 20 hours of instruction.

The aircraft has a 27-foot wing span and weighs 1320 pounds. It will fly 135 miles per hour and can carry two people and their baggage up to 500 miles on one tank of premium unleaded gasoline. At MIT, Dietrich studied aeronautics and astronautics and earned a bachelor’s in 1999 and a master’s in 2003. He is now a doctoral candidate who plans to earn a Ph.D. this fall.

Prof. Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, who teaches aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, recommended Dietrich for this year’s Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for invention, which Dietrich won — along with a $30,000 prize. He says of Dietrich: “In my 30 years as a teacher, I cannot recall a clearer exponent of the Edison mindset.”

NOT THE JETSONS

“I’ve been thinking of this idea a long time,” Dietrich says. “I’ve loved flying as long as I can remember.”

A native of Sausalito, Ca., he grew up watching his Dad build model airplanes on the dining room table. One of his Dad’s planes, a Red Baron tri-plane, hung from Carl’s bedroom ceiling. At eight, he began saving money for flying lessons, and he became a pilot at 17.

Recently, Dietrich and four MIT colleagues launched Terrafugia, a start-up company to develop the aircraft and bring it to market. “We’re not anticipating that this is going to be like the Jetsons, where everybody is going to fly one, but we think there’s definitely a sizable market,” says Dietrich, adding that there are 600,000 private pilots in the United States. And what most people don’t realize is that there are over 5,000 public-use airports around the country.

“Because it’s designed with folding wings, a pilot can store the plane in a garage, rather than paying $500 in hangar fees. It’s really much more convenient and efficient,” he says. “That’s one of our big selling points.”

This past summer, Dietrich began taking orders and deposits. It’s good timing for his invention, he says, because since 9/11, door-to-door travel speed has gone down because of greater airport security and greater road congestion.Dietrich’s wife, Anna Mracek, ‘04, is Terrafugia’s chief operating officer.

Her grandfather, Milo Mracek, was an engineer at McDonnell Douglas Corporation for 37 years before he retired. There he was chief design engineer and built wing systems for military missiles and fighter aircraft. Recently, the couple cajoled him into joining their company.

OTHER INVENTIONS

In addition to the car, Dietrich has invented a low-cost rocket engine, a desktop-sized fusion reactor, and PickProd, a hand tool for people to remove landmines in Third World countries. He holds one patent and has five pending.

Dietrich wrote his Ph.D. thesis on another interest of his — fusion energy. In the future, he says, “I would love to do something about the energy problem in the world. It’s the biggest problem on the planet.

“Our roadable aircraft may not seem like a big piece of that, but we’re getting 30 miles to the gallon at 120 miles an hour. When you look at it, if we have a new product with a new platform that’s appealing to people, we’ll also have a way to help solve the problem. Fifty years down the line, I hope that I will have been able to help the world.”