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Kickstarting: Engineer Seeks Cash For Family-Sized, Low-Cost Airplane

Kickstarter is a new model in funding ideas, but is the sky really the limit?

John McGinnis may or may not be a little crazy.

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He’s a designer, a manufacturer of composite products, and a self-proclaimed expert in fluid dynamics. But beyond a few profiles on experimental aviation sites, the only resume he’s offering the world is the Synergy, his aircraft that promises “10X the economy of a bizjet with greater range, at 10% the price.” It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter.

As a kit plane, the Synergy wouldn’t be such an anomaly, except that it bucks conventional aircraft design: It doesn’t actually have wings. Instead, the Synergy deploys McGinnis’s own invention, a “double box” tail that he calls a “modern magic carpet,” promising groundbreaking reduced drag to create “a big, fast, roomy airplane with double the usual speed or triple the usual economy.” This is no ultralight. McGinnis says the final product would be roughly the size and cost of a luxury SUV, but the plane would actually get better gas mileage. It’ll run on diesel.

“There are millions of pilots and millions more who’d like an excuse to [fly every day]. Flying an airplane is the easy part, and it could be a whole lot easier if we weren’t 90% occupied with nursing our obsolete tech through the air,” McGinnis tells Co.Design. “Think about what [aviation would] be like if we went back to 1973 and put airplanes on the same track we put our telephones on.”

To McGinnis, that track is a plane in every garage, the Jetsonsonian future we all long for, the thus far fruitless desire that squeezes at least one flying car on the cover of Popular Science each year.

There’s just one catch, and it’s the catch we always see in this industry: The plane hasn’t been built yet. Right now, McGinnis has a ¼ scale R/C model in the air, and he’s raising money to build a full-scale prototype. And while there’s at least some debate as to whether or not his concept could actually work as advertised, there is no one to confirm nor call BS on the design (Kickstarters are no more aerospace engineers than Co.Design writers.)

Yet the idea is resonating all the same. The project has already raised half of its $65,000 goal. And most interestingly, McGinnis is raising funds, not from people who expect to land a five-seater plane for a $250 deposit, but from enthusiasts–dreamers, even–who are are willing to just give away their money to see such a plane developed. A $10,000 deposit will get you no closer to the cockpit than a $10 one.

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“We’re building a prototype, not taking orders for vaporware,” McGinnis says. “How about we create a company that can live up to unprecedented demand first, that doesn’t beg their customers to front their risks in advance and then never delivers the goods?”

McGinnis’s project is simultaneously inspiring and depressing. On one hand, we’re all drawn to the possibility of a brilliant garage inventor out-designing industry giants. But on the other, what the heck is everyone doing in the aviation industry, if McGinnis’s vision is remotely possible? And should such highly specialized technical designs be up to all of us normal people to gamble on?

If I fund one of Kickstarter’s clever iPhone cases, worst case scenario is that it just doesn’t fit my iPhone quite right. If I fund McGinnis’s plane, worst case scenario is that a plane actually crashes. But I guess, that’s exactly why the Synergy has been designed with a nose-to-tail rocket-deployed parachute.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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