"I'm going to pour gasoline on that motor and set it on fire once we get our new four-stroke engine installed."
Elwood Norris, inventor, promoter, and full-throttle enthusiast about the dream of building a personal flying machine, is joking about the temperamental Italian two-stroke engine that powers a contraption he refers to as his baby. Right now his baby won't fly. Experimental aviation, circa 2002, is grounded by a faulty carburetor. The machine, officially known as the AirScooter, sits on the edge of a roughly mown hay field near Newport News, Virginia, somewhat ungainly on its big red rubber pontoons. Norris' aircraft is an open-cockpit, twin-rotor ultralight helicopter that, today, is scheduled to make one of its first demonstration flights, orchestrated for this magazine. The glitch is embarrassing, but Norris is not really fazed. The AirScooter will fly, he promises. And, indeed, before the demo is over it will display its potential-it's the closest thing yet to a sturdy, mass-marketable flying machine for casual amateur use.
How can there be, a hundred years after Kitty Hawk, any talk about a dream of personal flight? Didn't Otto Lilienthal, the Wright brothers, Glenn Curtiss, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, William Lear, and all the other aviation pioneers put that dream to rest? The answer is that the AirScooter and its ilk, a class of flying machines that dates back many decades, represent a kind of suburban sequel to the Wright stuff, in which the science of aviation is brought home, domesticated, made, as Chrysler described its minivan, "garageable." The idea gained momentum in the optimistic era after World War II, and remains appealing because it promises, as the car once promised, personal power and adventure for the ordinary man or woman. With the car now often gridlocked on roads to and from suburbia, a machine that can fly above the car suggests freedom from the tyranny of two-dimensional blacktop. It is-the grand vision-a fantasy, but enormously attractive.
The airplane never really promised this. The development of the helicopter, though, seemed to. As Edwin Teale speculated in this magazine almost 70 years ago, four years before the first single-rotor Sikorsky helicopter flew, "Office buildings could be capped with honeycomb cells holding the helicopters of the workers, each craft dropping into its compartment in the morning and rising straight up from it at night; aerial shuttle lines could link centers of population with airports and suburbs. These are not fantastic visions. . . . As these words are being written, a cable from England tells of dramatic progress."
To really deliver on the dream, then, the personal flying machine cannot be dependent on an airstrip or lake-as even the smallest ultralight plane is-but must take off and land vertically. It must be as easy to operate as an SUV, which no conventional helicopter is. And it must be cheap enough for the middle class car owner-the standard American dreamer-to buy and maintain, far cheaper than a Cessna or little Bell chopper.