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.
“We’re either lucky or good,” he adds. “I’m not sure which, but it’s a smooth running machine, and we spent a lot of time making sure that would be the case.”
The first flight of the vehicle will come sometime after the wind tunnel tests, if that proves successful.
The obvious applications for the machine are military and law enforcement, but that won’t be enough to satisfy the folks at Millennium Jet, who have dug into their own pockets to finance the venture.
“The really big market is folks like you and I who would want one of these machines and be able to get one,” Moshier says. “That’s longer term, but that’s the ultimate direction.”
Moshier won’t even venture a guess as to when that might be, or what it will cost for us to each have our own personal flying machine in the driveway. And even he admits he’s a little concerned about the vision of zillions of these things ripping across crowded skies, carrying each of us on our merry way.
“But I would remind you that 100 years ago when they were introducing cars to replace horses, that same discussion popped up,” he says.
The cars, in case you haven’t noticed, won that battle.
Helmet and Warm Clothes Required
Yet to be demonstrated are a few minor points. Is it practical, does anybody really need it, and is it safe?
The twin props are positioned above and behind the operator, so to get a hand stuck in a fan, “you would have to do it on purpose,” Moshier says.
The operator would have to wear some protective clothing, like a motorcycle helmet and gear similar to what is worn for snowmobiling.
“You wouldn’t want to be standing out there in your shorts,” Moshier says.
But why, one might reasonably ask, would these folks, operating on a shoestring budget, succeed where so many others have failed. Moshier says it’s because of the entrepreneurial spirit that gives the little guy the edge over the giants.
“Boeing could never take this on,” Moshier says. “Their shareholders would say, you want to do what?”
Still, it’s not a venture for the faint of heart.
“It’s scary in many ways,” Moshier says. “But we believe in what we are doing. Even NASA is quick to point out that it’s not a question of whether it will work. It’s a question of how long will it take to debug whatever shows up when we actually do the flight testing phase.”
If it’s anything like SoloTrek, it will be an awkward looking contraption that will bring the dreams of Da Vinci to life.
Eat your heart out, 007.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.