A leap of faith
It's testing time for an inventor's obsession: a compact personal flying machine
Michael Moshier is 54 now and still chasing a dream that took root when he was a teenager: to build a tidy flying machine he could park in the driveway and use to flit around town. As a high schooler he built would-be flying contraptions in the family garage. He sketched designs through engineering classes at Western Michigan University. The idea ate at him as a Navy carrier pilot and through a lucrative business career.
Of course, jet packs and flying suits have been a fantasy for decades. In the 1960s, Bell Aerospace built an earsplitting rocket belt that worked fine for the 30 seconds its fuel lasted. But nothing has proved practical so far.
In 1996, Moshier surrendered to his fixation and set up a company, Millennium Jet, to build a flying machine with aeronautical engineer Robert Bulaga. Their version would be lofted by ducted fans--compact propellers inside shrouds--which are small, relatively quiet, and efficient. Today Moshier faces the crucial question any serious inventor must face, but more literally in his case than most: Will the idea fly?
Soon, he'll know. The test-bed, dubbed SoloTrek, is a 350-pound assembly of struts and panels with stirrups, hand controls, a pair of fans, and a 120-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. So far, it mostly sits in a tidy workroom in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Twitchy. It did get off the ground, barely, in tethered flights late last year, once with Moshier at the controls. A video shows him hovering about a foot above the company parking lot. "Look at my right hand!" he exclaims. It twitches constantly at the controls. "Not good. I was working way too hard just to stay in one place."
Engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center warn that this instability is a tough problem. "It's one thing to hover, and another to actually have a machine safe enough to fly," says Robert Ormiston, an Army helicopter engineer at Ames. "But it should be doable."
Now Moshier is building a version with improved computerized controls to tackle the instability and a lighter engine. His main funding is more than $5 million from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which thinks a strap-on flying device could be just the thing to put infantry atop buildings in urban warfare.
This summer, Moshier plans to try a real flight. Then, he hopes, investment money will flow in. The craft should have a range of more than 100 miles and reach 8,000 feet, he says, and the market should extend well beyond the military. For now, he has sleepless nights. But at home, 14 miles from the office, he has a concrete expression of confidence. "Out back, I built a landing pad, 20 by 30 feet," he says with a grin.
This story appears in the February 11, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.