IT STARTED IN THE CHILDREN'S SECTION of the San Francisco Public Library. I was leafing through a recent issue of Boys' Life, looking for a particular link to my past. There, in the middle of the Gifts and Gimmicks sectionright between "Build Your Own Robot" and "Two Stick Fires: Guaranteed"was the exact advertisement I remembered from 27 years ago, when I was 13. The ad featured a picture of a little boy gazing at a funny-looking triangle mounted on three circular pods. "FLOAT ON AIR AROUND YOUR HOUSE OR SCHOOL!" the copy read. "EASY TO BUILD! POWERED BY AN ORDINARY VACUUM CLEANER MOTOR! LOW COST!"
I'm not the only person who remembers this pitch. Most anyone who became a Scout in the past 92 years got Boys' Life as part of the deal, and the Air Car ad is seared into millions of memories. Doctors, lawyers, scientistsI've seen their eyes come alive at the mention of it. And, sure, between our proctology finals and corporate takeovers we might forget about futuristic conveyances for a while, but the fascination is always lurking. Especially now. We live in a time when grand old visions about personal flying machines are finally starting to seem feasible. When I was a kid, the great flight hope was the Rocket Belt, a backpack-size contraption first developed in the 1950s at Bell Labs in Buffalo, New York. The Rocket Belt ran on hydrogen peroxide, a liquid that, when forced through a mesh of treated silver, generates temperatures of 1,300 degrees, 130 decibels of noise, and an insane plume of steam capable of lifting a man off the ground. But the Belt had a flaw: It burned through its fuel so fast that your ride only lasted 30 seconds.
It's obvious that the world still longs for hovercraft. I think the main reason people got so excited about the SegwayDean Kamen's self-balancing scooteris that for a while there, before he revealed what he was really working on, the rumor mill had it that he was creating a personal flying machine.
That didn't work out, but things are looking lively elsewhere. Large hovercraft that ride on air cushions over land and water are used by the military, law enforcement, and search-and-rescue professionals. Smaller hovercraft are on the market, and more-ambitious personal flying machines could be showing up on the horizon. One currently available hovercraft is the Airboard, a sporty Australian-made gizmo that looks like a flying saucer with handlebars. Airboard riders zip along on an air cushion at 15 miles per hour, and the craft comes with a steerable wheel that engages with the ground, letting riders perform zigzags, spins, and other tricks. But the thing is expensive. Sold through high-end catalogs like Hammacher Schlemmer, its price tag ranges from $8,877 to a whopping $16,300.
Even more interesting are concepts like the Solotrek Exoskeleton Flying Vehicle (XFV), a full-fledged personal flying machine in development since 1996 at Trek Aerospace, an aeronautical-engineering company in Sunnyvale, California. If you locked a troop of Boy Scouts in a room for a month, feeding them only Kool-Aid and Pop Rocks, the XFV is the sort of thing they'd dream up. Picture an arcade-game cabinet with a pair of turbines on top, powered by a 120-horsepower gasoline engine.
The pilot straps himself to this bulky rig in a standing position, controlling it with joysticks during vertical takeoff and landingor VTOL, as we say in the hover biz. Computer simulations suggest that the XFV, which cost several million to develop, will someday go 69 miles per hour and reach heights of 8,000 feet. But for now we're still in could-be mode: The longest test flight, made in December 2002, lasted just over a minute and involved a vertical climb of only five feet.
ALL OF WHICH HELPS EXPLAIN why, a quarter-century after first seeing the Air Car ad, I decided to send off $8.95 for a set of plans. I can't afford an Airboard, and I can't wait for an XFV, which will be out of my price range, too. Inspired by today's aeropioneers, I dropped a check in the mail.
The plans consist of six double-sided pages containing photos and exploded diagrams that show different Air Car models. Some are triangular, some circular. All operate on the same principle: Vacuum motors blow air down through large holes in a plywood platform. The forced air is caught by a drawstringed "skirt" that creates a low-friction zone underneath. The platforms are roughly four feet in diameter, with a seat in the middle. Forward propulsion is provided by your little brother, where available. Range: as long as all the extension cords you can swipe from Dad.
It took me a couple of weeks to get my alpha model together. One night early in the process, working in the basement of my house, I invited my friend Eddie over to consult. Eddie is the author of Arty the Part-Time Astronaut, a children's book about a kid spaceman, so he's no stranger to airborne fantasy. But Eddie wasn't much help. He spent most of the evening doubled over in laughter after I revealed I'd stayed in the Boy Scouts until I was 18. His conniptions only intensified when he turned to page nine of the plans and read, "CASTERS ARE A MUST!" I tried to explain that casters are just the landing gear, but he was howling too loud to hear.
THE POSITION OF mocking-guy-on-the-sidelines is an easy one to adopt for nonpioneers. As a positive next step, I decided to confer with the boys in the hangarserious inventors who are taking personal flight off the drawing board and into the sky.
My first call was to Trek Aerospace, whereafter a fair amount of beggingI was patched through to Michael Moshier, the company's 56-year-old founder and chief executive. Moshier grew up in suburban Detroit, not far from the headquarters of the Williams Research Corporation, whose engineers were performing outdoor tests with the Rocket Belt in the mid-sixties, when he was a teenager.
"We used to drive by there all the time," Moshier told me. "I wished I could go in and be their test pilot."
The flight bug drove him to study aerospace engineering and serve as a Navy pilot in Vietnam. He made a pile of money in a range of flight-related industries, but, as he put it, "the love of VTOL never stopped festering in the back of my brain." He took his cash and started Trek Aerospace to do something about it.
Moshier told me his ten-person company has gone through an "incredible odyssey" to get their contraption off the ground. They had to design every piece of hardware, and the software to control it. They had to test everything at full power to make sure the various pieces wouldn't misbehave at the "ridiculously high speeds" at which they would move.
For a while after the Treksters started having successful test flights, it seemed as if the hard part was over, that all they would have to do was raise a little cash and polish their machine. They were already getting funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the R&D branch of the Pentagon, to the tune of $5 million. For that reason, the first production models were slated to go to the military, but it's not hard to imagine the outdoor fun you could have with an XFV. You could pogo from spire to spire in Monument Valley. You could hop across Micronesia without getting your feet wet. You could tote a snow cone to a friend halfway up the face of Half Dome.
But, sadly, there's been another glitch. Just before Christmas 2002, the follow-up test model of the XFV crashed after achieving a flight of five vertical feet. The craft's tether was sucked into its fan blades and blew out the engine. And though the pilot walked away unhurt, the mishap set Trek back on its DARPA contract, so the company has lost its funding. As of January 1, Trek had been forced to cut its payroll, at least for now. As Moshier recently put it in the company newsletter, good old Trek had "entered the New Year without a clear picture of its future."
TO GET A TASTE OF HOVERING, I would have to go elsewhere. So I traveled to Sebastopol, California, to visit the fine people at ZAP, a West Coast scooter retailer that has a couple of Airboards in stock. Inspired by the flying skateboards of Back to the Future Part II, the Airboard is the invention of Kevin Inkster, a 51-year-old Aussie who rode one around the Olympic stadium at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Games in Sydney.
The fiberglass shell of the Airboard shone like a Corvette, but I could see that underneath its slick exterior it relied on the same physics as my homely Air Car. Under a five-foot circular hood sat a small gas engine, and around its circumference was a rubber skirt. When I pushed a lever, a fan attached to the motor exerted a downward force and lifted me four inches. I pulled on another lever, which engaged the drive wheel, which reached down to the ground at the back of the deck and sent me rolling across the parking lot. The Airboard did everything it promised, yet with its modest speed and primitive handling, it rode more like a municipal street sweeper than a flying saucer. For 15,000 bucks, I expected something that elicited stronger panic from my reptile brain.
So I plunged back into the construction of my own vehicle, settling on the plan with maximum payload, a circular model that uses two vacuum motors. A quick call to a local Electrolux repair shop secured a pair of dump-bound 1205s, the Rolls-Royces of canister vacuums. With a little strategic tinkering, I was able to install their motors and reroute the exhaust to the desired direction: down. I bought plywood and random support lumber. I attached the motors to the platform; I installed a plug salvaged from a dead VCR. The trickiest part was the skirt, which had to be made from material that was both flexible and airtight. I found an old tent in the basement, tore it apart, and cranked up my ancient Sears sewing machine to stitch it together.
The entire assembly weighed about 35 pounds and looked like a wooden pizza with a tutu. Eddie and I loaded it into the back of his Jeep Cherokee and hauled it to the gym where we play hoops every Tuesday morning. While my basketball buddies looked on, I plugged it in. The motors whined, the disk levitated on the hardwood, but when I sat in the saddle, I instantly lost that floating feeling. Eddie was able to push me hard enough that I glided to the end of a 50-foot extension cord before the plug yanked out of the wall. Then I came to a deflated stop.
My friends were philosophical. "Little kids like being disappointed," said Eddie.
"This is an important lesson for children to learn," said Sam, who has three of his own. "Don't trust adults."
But I was not easily consoled. In my frustration I worked up a new teaser for the old Boys' Life come-on:
"FLOATS ON A THIN LAYER OF DISAPPOINTMENT!"
DAVID ROSS IS STILL surprised when kids manage to track him down. "I don't know how they get my phone number," he says. "The magazine must give it to them."
Actually, the inventor of the Air Car is still listed in the Orange County, California, telephone directory, and I doubt that he gets many people asking him to share the fascinating history of his hovercraft empire. A 74-year-old retiree, he spends most of his time watching TV and stuffing envelopes for the Air Car orders that still trickle in.
A photographer by trade, Ross was shooting in-house for the defense contractor Philco-Ford in the mid-sixties when the company unveiled its first experimental hovercraft, a huge thing powered by two jet engines that ran six downward-thrust propellers. Ross witnessed a few promising tests, but the craft came to grief when it crashed during a test flight. "It was a complete failure," Ross says. "A beautiful failure. A magnificent failure."
Cut to the late sixties. Ross was still working for Philco-Ford when the proverbial lightbulb came on in his head. He bought a few vacuum motors, bolted them to a piece of plywood, lashed on a skirt, and voil: He had created the Air Car. He built a few variations, gussied them up with silver neoprene skirts, then took out his first ad in the April 1974 issue of Boys' Life. "My wife told me I was nuts," he recalls, "that I'd never make a cent."
He should have bet her. The first orders arrived in such numbers that Ross had to pry them out of his mailbox. He hasn't kept an exact count, but estimates he's received 3,000 orders per year since thensome 90,000 in all. These days he's netting $1,500 in a good month, $1,000 in a bad one. Every few months he gets a nasty letter from some irate parent saying the Air Car is too hard to build, and one time a kid knocked on his door, waiflike, looking for tech support.
On that score, as long as I have him on the line, I feel it's my duty to bust his chops a bit on behalf of crestfallen kids everywhere.
"Well," he says, "I never expected kids to complete the project entirely on their own."
But what about the injustice of charging nine bucks for plans that haven't been updated since the heyday of the Chevy Vega?
"I don't think it means that much," he says after a pause. "Kids have more money than they know what to do with. And they'd better have, because I need money to pay for that damn ad."
I DIDN'T COME THIS FAR to admit defeat. Late one night I went to the basement and tightened screws and caulked for leaks. I sewed another skirt, this one with wider material. I fired up the dual 1205s, and when I sat in the saddle I experienced a shiver of delight at the clear, unquestionable sensation that I was floating on a cushion of air. If you're an engineer, you might suspect that the increased height of my modified skirt would cause handling issues. And you would be right. It took all my concentration just to remain balanced on the higher air pocket, as if I were balancing a surfboard on a beach ball. Then there was the noise factor. The air escaping beneath the skirt produced a great thunderous farting that shook my house's foundation with such force that it woke my housemate, two flights up, from his midnight slumber. When he came downall bleary-eyed in his boxer shortshe did not share my giddiness.
The following week, by the time I test-drove my third skirt, I started to sense diminishing returns. Then my 100-pound girlfriend came over and rode my Air Car for the first time. She said it was fun, that she thought little kids would love it, and that she was impressed I'd built it. (God, she breaks my heart sometimes.) We agreed that I would donate it to a local Scout troop. As an act of closure, I called David Ross again, to tell him that I'd gotten airborne and was retiring from the biz.
He was philosophical, too.
"That's when you know you've really succeeded," he said. "When you quit."