Page last updated at 02:33 GMT, Monday, 12 January 2009

By flying car from London to Timbuktu

By Jude Sheerin
BBC News


The world's first bio fuelled flying car. Flight footage courtesy of Mentorn Media/Height and Hazard for Channel 4's Daredevil series

A voyage to fabled Timbuktu in a flying car may sound like a magical childhood fantasy.

But this week a British adventurer will set off from London on an incredible journey through Europe and Africa in a souped-up sand buggy, travelling by road - and air.

With the help of a parachute and a giant fan-motor, Neil Laughton plans to soar over the Pyrenees near Andorra, before taking to the skies again to hop across the 14-km (nine-mile) Straits of Gibraltar.

The ex-SAS officer then aims to fly over the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, above stretches of the Sahara desert and, well, wherever else the road runs out.

But forget Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - this flying machine is based on proven technology.

Touch of a button

Designed by a young British inventor, the Skycar enables its driver to pilot the vehicle at the mere touch of a button as though it were a microlite.

The team behind it calls the Skycar the world's first road legal biofuelled flying car.

Mr Laughton's destination is the west African country of Mali and its city of Timbuktu, a place which has had a mystical, "middle of nowhere" reputation since the heyday of Victorian exploration.

Neil Laughton
I thought this would be an interesting challenge... Timbuktu is an iconic and quirky destination
Neil Laughton

The daredevil 42-day expedition will pass 4,000 miles (6,400 km) through France, Spain and Morocco, head into the Sahara by way of Mauritania and Mali, before returning home via Senegal.

He had also hoped to make the 22mile (35km) flight across the English Channel, but that plan was vetoed by civil aviation officials.

Even Mr Laughton - who has scaled the highest mountains on seven continents and trekked at the North Pole - admits his latest "boy's own" adventure is a little eccentric.

"I like variety and thought this would be an interesting challenge," he told the BBC News website. "Also Timbuktu is an iconic and quirky destination."

The father-of-two says his long-suffering wife's initial reaction to his latest feat of derring-do was "unprintable", but she is now fully behind the charity mission.

Ultimate boy's toy

As he prepares to set off from central London on Wednesday morning, Mr Laughton is optimistic the Skycar's maiden voyage will go smoothly.

Mock-up of the Skycar flying over the desert
Weight: 1,000lb (480kg)
Engine: Four cylinders, 1,000cc
Flight range: 185 miles (300km)
Cruising altitude: 2,000-3,000ft (600m-900m)
Top speed: 70mph (110km/h) airborne; 110mph (180km/h) road
Cost: 50,000 ($76,000)

"Clearly the reliability of the car is crucial. We're going to have to cope with wind chill temperatures as low as -30C and blistering heat up to 50C. But it's been fully tested at a secret location and it 100% works."

With the help of sponsors, the team has invested about 250,000 ($380,000) developing the vehicle.

The brains behind the two-seater Skycar is 29-year-old inventor Gilo Cardozo, from Dorset, who will join Mr Laughton as co-pilot for the African leg of the trip.

The self-taught engineer's Wiltshire-based firm, Parajet, manufactures the industrial paramotors that propel the Skycar once it is airborne.

He has been dreaming of creating a flying car - the ultimate boy's toy - since childhood.

"The inspiration came from realising we can drive and we can fly, so why can't we do both? The problem all along has been the wing technology, which we think we've cracked with the Skycar," he said.

Mr Cardozo built and co-piloted the powered paraglider which took British TV survivalist Bear Grylls over the summit of Mount Everest in 2007.

He plans to sell the Skycar commercially to the public at 50,000 per vehicle, if it can prove its mettle on the Timbuktu mission.

'Unsavoury people'

The team is keenly aware, however, it is not just the environment which could prove hostile.

In 2007 the annual Paris-Dakar rally was cancelled amid reported threats from Islamic militants in Mauritania.

Gilo Cardozo
Inventor Gilo Cardozo is the brains behind the Skycar

Mr Laughton said: "Sadly the political situation in some areas on our route is not good and there are some unsavoury people about so we must be careful."

On the road, the Skycar takes barely three minutes to convert into an aircraft.

The driver unpacks the special nylon wing from the boot, before unfurling the parachute on the ground to the rear.

The powerful fan's thrust propels the buggy forward and provides enough wing lift to take off at just 45mph (70km/h), from any "airstrip" longer than 650ft (200m).

Once airborne, the driver uses pedals in the zero-carbon vehicle's foot well to steer the Skycar by tugging cables that change the wing's shape.

Should something go wrong, the pilot can launch an emergency parachute, which should allow the buggy to drift safely back to earth.

A convoy of support vehicles will accompany the team every step of the way.

What the nomadic camel caravans of the Sahara will make of the flying machine is anybody's guess.

Print Sponsor

Country profile: Mali
18 Jun 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Mauritania
14 Aug 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Morocco
05 Nov 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Senegal
25 Jun 08 |  Country profiles

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