Melkuti’s ungainly aircraft drew crowds when he showed it off last year at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Some stared in disbelief, unsure if it was a serious design or, well, a joke. Others pictured the AMV 211 sitting in their driveway.

Indeed, if it works–and that’s a big “if”–the aircraft could usher in the long-awaited era of personal VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft, vehicles cheap enough for average Americans to buy and basic enough for them to operate from their homes. Although the list of failed attempts to create such aircraft is long, Melkuti feels that the time is finally ripe. “Now that we have technologies like composite construction, lighter engines and GPS,” he says, “the field should mushroom.” Melkuti, 48, a rock-solid weightlifter with salt-and-pepper temples, studied aeronautical engineering in his native Yugoslavia. After college, he worked on jets at a Yugoslavian aircraft builder, then

emigrated to the U.S. in 1986 and found a job as an airline mechanic. In 1996 he quit and began spending all his time on his aircraft concept. For the past seven years he’s been painstakingly building the AMV 211 from secondhand parts, custom machine-tooled components, and composite airframe parts he has designed and constructed himself. He has neither tested the idea in a wind tunnel nor modeled it on a computer. Everything was drawn by hand on paper. “Back in the old country, we didn’t have PCs,” he explains.

Instead of a jet engine or propeller, the AMV 211 relies on a ducted fan–in this case, a single 94-inch horizontally mounted fan enclosed around its perimeter and powered by a modified 450hp Mazda rotary engine. For transition to forward flight, louvers under the fan direct the thrust rearward, and the vehicle flies pitched about 26 degrees from its takeoff position. This places pilot and passenger into forward-facing positions and places the wings and rear tail controls in the airstream.

Melkuti has been plagued by engine problems, most recently when an air intake manifold cracked. He fixed the power plant and has moved the aircraft to a local airport for hover tests, which he plans to conduct extensively prior to a free-flight at low altitude. “It’s the greatest thing in America, that you have the freedom to design and build any aircraft you want,” he enthuses.

Forecast: Cloudy Apart from Melkuti himself, few believe his craft will fly. Even if it manages to rise off the ground, control problems could send it tumbling in an instant. “Fundamentally, what he’s trying to do is very difficult and potentially very dangerous,” says fellow visionary and professional aerodynamicist Barnaby Wainfan, whose own aircraft, the Facetmobile, has had its share of ups and downs. “He seems like a very nice guy. I hope he doesn’t hurt himself.”