Homebuilt helicopters and gyrocopters (machines with unpowered overhead rotors) already exist, of course, constituting a finicky subset of machines flown by mechanically inclined enthusiasts; the Popular Rotorcraft Association has chapters in 30 states and five other countries. But such devices remain either too difficult to fly or too time-consuming to maintain to be suitable for mass-production and wide acceptance.
This is where Norris enters. After developing a string of inventions-including a linear-tracking phonograph, a forerunner of the sonogram, and one of the first prototypes for cellphone earpieces-Norris, a small-plane pilot, turned to the personal flying machine because, he says, "Everybody I have met seems to have this dream to get off the ground and defy gravity." Norris claims his Henderson, Nevada-based AirScooter Corp. will have its first production machines on the market by early 2003, at a likely price of $25,000 to $50,000-somewhere between the cost of a well-equipped Ford Explorer and a Lincoln Navigator. And, he promises, you can learn to fly it in an hour.
What will you get for the money? No leather seats or plush interior, that's for sure. Norris' prototype AirScooter has a fabric mesh sling seat, the kind you might find on a lawn chair, and handlebars that look like they've been lifted from a mountain bike because they have been lifted from a mountain bike. It has a vertically mounted engine topped by two sets of spindly coaxial helicopter blades-one above the other on two concentric driveshafts-that rotate in opposite directions. And then there are the pontoons, which are specially manufactured by a company that makes whitewater rafts.
If the AirScooter seems stripped down to bare essentials, there's a reason. Its creators wanted it to weigh less than 254 pounds so it could duck most Federal Aviation Administration regulations by qualifying as an ultralight craft. Most important to Norris and his team, this designation means that you won't need a pilot's license to fly the AirScooter (although other ultralight rules do put limits on speed, altitude, and the like). The machine was built with attention to every ounce: Few of its parts exceed a pound and a half. There is hardly any instrumentation. The rotor blades are a mere 14 feet long. At a remarkable 247 pounds, the AirScooter is lighter than many motorcycles-not including its two 30-pound pontoons, which get by courtesy of an FAA safety rule. Think, then, not of a flying Ford Explorer but of an airborne ATV.
To go left or right, you turn the handlebars to the side; to move forward or back, you push the handlebar assembly out or pull it toward you. These instinctive motions adjust the position of the yaw paddles or the rotors (see diagram, page 52). To go up or down, you twist the handlebar throttle with your right hand-just as you would to accelerate on a motorcycle. The throttle simply increases the rpm of the blades above your head to lift the craft higher in the air. That's it. Pitch, yaw, and roll, all neatly taken care of. No foot pedals or fancy dials. None of the five separate hand and foot controls you'd find in the cockpit of a conventional helicopter.