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Sunday, May 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Robert Fulton, whose car could fly, dies at 95

The Washington Post

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Robert Fulton Jr., 95, who died of congestive heart failure May 7 at his home in Newtown, Conn., was coy about his family's relation to the steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton. But he insisted that by name (his middle name was Edison) and creative temperament he was suited to become one of the more intriguing inventors of the 20th century.

He devised an early form of combat-gunnery simulator, a flying car that climbed to 12,000 feet and got reasonable gas mileage, and an inflatable balloon meant to aid stranded spies and military personnel. The Skyhook, as that contraption was called, was featured at the end of the James Bond film "Thunderball."

"The main thing is to see the need for something and then fill it," he told The Washington Post in 1967. "Most people go through life looking but not really seeing."

Mr. Fulton was born in New York, the son of the president of the Mack Truck Co. He graduated from Harvard University and received a master's degree in architecture from the University of Vienna.

At a London dinner party, Mr. Fulton reportedly told other guests that he planned to return to New York via the Orient to see great monuments — maybe by motorcycle. "You don't see much architecture through a steamship porthole," he said.

The boast was met by a dare from a diner who owned the Douglas Motorcycle Co. He refitted a motorcycle for Mr. Fulton with an extra gas tank and protective devices, including a steel underplate and a hidden compartment for a gun, just in case.

Mr. Fulton left England in 1932 and traveled through dozens of countries on the way to Japan. He then sailed to San Francisco before heading home to New York in time for Christmas 1933.

He recorded his journey with a 35-millimeter camera and wrote a book, "One Man Caravan" (1937). Decades later, he told CNN he was struck by the superstitions from village to village in the Middle East.

"They were always warning me about the next place to go, and the next place to go was warning me how lucky I was to get through the last one," he said.

He was a self-taught pilot, training on his first wife's Luscombe seaplane, and was an aerial photographer for Pan American World Airways in the 1930s.

Bracing for the war in Europe to reach the United States, he invented the flight and combat gunnery simulators by taking a panoramic view of the sky from the Empire State Building. He placed the photo in a fake Corsair cockpit with a working instrument panel. The Navy bought 500 aircraft gunnery simulators, called the "Gunairstructor," for $6 million.

He began work on the Airphibian flying car out of frustration with traveling to remote parts of the country for his military work. Taxi drivers, concerned with wartime gas rationing, would not take him from an airport to a far-off military installation.

In 1945, with a group of assistants based at Danbury Airport in Connecticut, Mr. Fulton fashioned a two-seat vehicle that attached to a rear fuselage with high-set wings and a tail.

The Airphibian could travel 110 mph in the air and 55 mph on the ground. It got 20 miles to the gallon.

In 1950, he flew the craft to Washington National Airport and then drove it to the Civil Aeronautics Administration headquarters in the District of Columbia for certification. Although the CAA ordered several planes at $7,500 each, Fulton ran out of money for the project and sold his controlling interest. The Airphibian, a hit at air shows, soon faltered.

In the 1950s, he began work on his favorite venture: the Skyhook aerial-rescue system, which reportedly has been used for clandestine rescue missions.

It worked this way: A plane parachuted a package containing a special suit; a 500-foot, high-strength nylon line; a large inflatable balloon; and a tank of helium. The person on the ground would put on the suit, which was attached to the line, which was attached to the balloon. The inflated balloon would rise 500 feet, and the search plane would hook it with a special attachment, secure it and, after a few more maneuvers, pull the person aboard.

His first wife, Florence Coburn (Sally) Fulton, died in 1996. A son from that marriage, Robert Fulton III, an aerial cinematographer, died in an air crash in 2002. Mr. Fulton's second wife, Anne Boireau Smith Fulton, also died in 2002.

Survivors include two sons, Rawn Fulton of Bernardston, Mass., and Travis Fulton of Snowmass, Colo.; two stepchildren; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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