HOLLISTER, Calif. – Even from a few hundred yards away, the aircraft made a noise strikingly different from the roar of a typical plane.
“It sounded like an electric motor running, just a high-pitched whine,” said Steve Eggleston, assistant manager at an airplane-parts company with offices bordering the Hollister Municipal Airport.
But it wasn’t only the sound that caught the attention of Eggleston and his co-workers at DK Turbines. It was what the aircraft was doing.
“What the heck’s that?” saleswoman Brittany Rodriguez thought to herself. “It’s just hovering.”
That, apparently, was a flying car, or perhaps a prototype of another sort of aircraft under development by a mysterious start-up called Zee.Aero.
The company, one of two reportedly funded by Google co-founder Larry Page to develop revolutionary forms of transportation, has set up shop in rural Hollister, far from its Mountain View headquarters and the prying eyes of tech-obsessed Silicon Valley.
The secretive company, in its quest for privacy, has found allies in the small San Benito County town.
In Hollister, population 40,000, the first rule about Zee.Aero is you don’t talk about Zee.Aero.
“It was known they wanted their privacy,” said Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, who declined to provide much information about Zee.Aero and its plans. “I just believe in people’s privacy.”
For a while, staff at one airport business said, a guard was posted outside the Zee.Aero building, telling people who approached too closely to back off. When Eggleston first attempted to take photos of the aircraft being towed, its handlers took action, he said.
“They pulled a truck right in front of me,” Eggleston said.
The company has issued no public statements about its work. Bloomberg in June reported that Page had invested more than $100 million in the start-up but had tried to keep his involvement secret. Zee.Aero’s sparse website refers to “a revolutionary new form of transportation.” In a May letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the firm said it was building “an entirely new aircraft that will change personal aviation.”
A Zee.Aero spokeswoman said the firm is “currently not discussing [its] plans publicly.”
However, a Zee.Aero patent issued in 2013 describes in some detail an aircraft capable of the hovering seen by people working at the airport. And the drawings showcase a vision of the future in which flying cars park in lots just like their terrestrial, less-evolved cousins.
With traffic congestion costing the U.S. economy more than $120 billion annually and Americans collectively spending 8 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, according to transportation research firm INRIX, lifting off and cruising above snarled roadways has considerable appeal.
Zee.Aero envisions our means of escape from the bounds of gravity as “safe, quiet, and efficient, as well as easy to control, [and] highly compact,” according to the patent submission from Ilan Kroo, a Stanford University professor of aeronautics and Zee.Aero’s founding CEO and principal scientist. Kroo brought in more than 100 aerospace engineers to work on the flying cars, according to his LinkedIn profile.
The patent depicts a car-sized aircraft, wings at the nose and tail, and along the top eight propellers, driven by eight motors, for vertical lift. Two other propellers on the rear wing would provide forward thrust. The aircraft seen at the Hollister airport appears to showcase a change in design but retains some features described and shown in the patent.
Hollister Councilman Victor Gomez, who commutes to work in the Bay Area, would like to see Zee.Aero succeed.
“Oh, man, how much I would love to find another route other than Highway 101 to get to work,” Gomez said. “It’s exciting to see something that’s so innovative.”