If Mike Moshier has his way, one of these days we’ll be able to strap on our personal flying machine, zip straight up into the air, and then zoom across the countryside and land just about anyplace we want.
After all, James Bond could do it with his Rocket Belt in the movie Thunderball, so why can’t the rest of us?
That fanciful device used by 007 was only good for a 20-second flight. But that was enough to fuel the imagination of dreamers like Moshier, who have yearned for a personal flying machine that could take off and land like a helicopter ever since the days of Leonardo Da Vinci.
The fact that no one has had much success at it would discourage most folks, but to Moshier, a combat pilot in Vietnam, that just made it all the more challenging. And next month his dream will move closer to reality when NASA begins testing his SoloTrek XFV in the space agency’s wind tunnel at Ames Research Center in northern California.
“When we first started this, I was joking around, asking why somebody hasn’t already done this,” Moshier says.
But after 12 years of thinking about it and four years of hard work, he knows why now. It’s really hard to build a rocket belt.
Helicopter Without Its Skin
So Moshier’s contraption doesn’t look, act, or work like a rocket belt. Instead, it looks more like a helicopter without a skin, and it relies on tried and tested technologies of modern aviation.
The Rocket Belt was developed as a personal aircraft in the 1960s by Wendell Moore, an engineer at Bell Aerospace, but it wasn’t commercially viable. It flew a few times in county fairs, and had its brief moment in the spotlight in the Bond movie. It was powered by hydrogen peroxide that squirted out the jets with a shriek so loud it had to be dubbed out of the soundtrack.
SoloTrek runs on ordinary automotive gasoline, and it’s about as noisy as a lawn mower. Moore eventually got the Rocket Belt up to a flying time of 30 seconds, but that still wasn’t enough to make it practical.
SoloTrek’s 10 gallons of gas should give it a range of about 150 miles and a speed of up to 80 miles per hour. It should be able to remain aloft for an hour and a half.
There’s only one problem. It’s never been off the ground.
“It’s strictly in the development stage right now,” Moshier says, but the project seems to be moving along at a pretty good clip. Moshier’s company, Millennium Jet, located in California’s Silicon Valley, has entered into a formal partnership with NASA to develop the technology.
NASA engineers at Ames “took a liking as to what we were doing, and as they learned more about it they’ve gotten more excited,” Moshier says. “They are not just providing a wind tunnel. They are doing many other things for us that we could never afford ourselves.”
One NASA source says the project is promising, but at this point, very experimental.
The person who has come the closest to flying SoloTrek is Moshier himself, a veteran Navy pilot. In the ground testing phase, the prototype was chained to the ground, and Moshier climbed aboard and strapped himself in. The 110 horsepower engine was started, spinning up the two counter-rotating props, each of which is housed in a protective casing.
One of the things that Moshier and the 11 other employees of Millennium Jet had been concerned about was vibration, but he says they didn’t need to worry.
“It’s as smooth as a baby’s behind,” he says.