A flying ambulance heads to a remote airfield somewhere in the Pacific. With or without a pilot behind the controls, it's able to land vertically, like a helicopter, near a base where troops are under attack. A wounded service member boards and straps into wearable technologies that monitor his condition, and the aircraft takes off to a site where his injuries can be treated.
It's a scenario that Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, envisions for the service's "flying car" effort. That initiative, while in the nascent stages, has the potential to save lives or deliver critical equipment, all while decreasing the service's carbon footprint, he added.
"I could see a time in the future where high-speed vertical takeoff and landing aircraft are very useful," Hinote said in an interview last week with Military.com.
Flying cars -- known by the Pentagon as "organic resupply buses," or ORBs -- could be used stateside to transport VIPs or for National Guard missions including firefighting, personnel recovery, search and rescue, and aeromedical evacuation, Hinote said.
Aircraft takeoffs and landings will have to look different in the future, he explained.
"Runways are always going to be targets, and this is the problem with what we call the dual-use runway," Hinote said. "You're going to be generating combat power off of that runway, and there's also going to be what would generally be protected status missions being done off of that runway -- so, evacuation of noncombatants and aeromedical evacuation.
"I can't guarantee you that our adversaries of the future will respect the difference," he said, adding that fixed-wing aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules will be vulnerable as they deliver supplies or transport personnel.
In Hinote's vision, the flying cars will be very fast and made of a composite material, giving them a low radar cross-section to decrease detectability. That will make them useful to troops in a near-peer conflict who "need to get [to] a certain part of austere airfields to deliver parts, for example," he said.
Electric- or battery-powered flight "has the potential to be a game changer for us," the general said, "because fuel is heavy and carting around fuel is not logistically sound."
Earlier this month, the Air Force Research Lab's AFWERX innovation program announced that it had granted its first airworthiness approval to BETA Technologies' manned electric ALIA aircraft to begin flight tests. The company is partnering with the service for its Agility Prime program to develop a flying car for a range of missions. Joby Aviation, also working with the service on Agility Prime, received its first military airworthiness approval in December.
In March, ALIA made its first interstate flight. It also set a new range and altitude record that month of 130 nautical miles and 8,000 feet, according to a service release.
"This is why you're seeing us look at things like flying cars, vertical takeoff and landing, and new energy sources [because it] has an effect on climate change as well, which we're also very happy about," Hinote said.
Selling the Message
He said the Air Force will push experimental campaigns throughout 2021 that will help the service turn its ideas into reality.
"These are all ideas that we're researching, we're putting research and development money into, but these are not necessarily things that we're ready to make fielding decisions on," Hinote said.
Last year, Dr. Will Roper, then-assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said service plans to have 30 electric airborne vehicles by the end of the decade.
But lawmakers have not been quick to back concepts like flying cars and other innovative solutions such as the Advanced Battle Management System, a state-of-the-art program that focuses on combined intelligence sensor data from weapons, since they aren't visible signs of warfighting strength -- like planes on a flight line
Hinote said the service is about to try again to sell Congress on its plans for the future of airpower in its upcoming budget request. He said he has seen a willingness from lawmakers to listen to some of the service's ideas, especially if the U.S. wants to put itself on a trajectory to compete with China.
"I see the concerns about China rising to the point where people are beginning to get as concerned with China as they are about change; the discussions are having an effect," he said.
"There won't always be an 'iron for iron' trade," Hinote said, meaning there may not necessarily be an aircraft or equipment solution immediately available for bases slated to retire older platforms. National Guard units that have C-130 transport missions, for example, may transition to flying cars or some other type of unmanned aircraft in the future.
"We're going to keep having the discussions, and we're going to keep learning and growing," he said. "And every [budget] year, we go back with more detail about the way that we're going to evolve."