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Air scooter gets off the ground — briefly

NASA, military support inventor’s fledgling gizmo

SHARE Air scooter gets off the ground — briefly

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — When you've spent millions of dollars and nearly six years trying to turn science-fiction fantasy into reality, little bits of progress are huge developments.

So it's understandable that the inventor of a personal flying machine is touting his most recent breakthrough — getting the 325-pound SoloTrek a few feet off the ground for 19 seconds — as a test "flight."

"We have to walk before we can run," said inventor Michael Moshier, a former Navy pilot and aerospace engineer whose project is supported by NASA and the military. "We're getting more confident, and not yet taking it too far before we get too comfortable."

The 8-foot-tall SoloTrek Exo-Skeletor Flying Vehicle has a gasoline engine that drives two large fans, which are surrounded by metal ducts to improve their aerodynamic efficiency. The pilot flies it in a standing position and controls its movement with two joysticks.

The machine is designed to go 80 mph and fly 150 miles on one tank of gas. Moshier plans to add a global positioning system for navigation, mechanisms to prevent pilots from running out of gas in the air and a parachute-equipped ejector seat.

Moshier, 54, and his 10 employees at Millennium Jet Inc. have fired up the SoloTrek a few times in front of the company's headquarters on an industrial cul-de-sac in Sunnyvale, drawing astonished looks from passers-by.

He hasn't yet invited reporters to see a liftoff in person, but he has a video clip of the longest flight, which occurred Dec. 18.

The video shows Moshier, his pants flapping in the wind from the SoloTrek's air fans, getting the machine to hover about three feet off the ground. For Moshier's safety and the protection of his sole prototype, the SoloTrek was tethered to a crane and to poles on the ground.

Moshier says he plans to test the SoloTrek unleashed within a few months.

"At this point, he has shown remarkable progress in getting as far as he has in such a relatively short amount of time," said William Warmbrodt, chief of aeromechanics at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center.

Warmbrodt's team has helped Moshier research his project and let him use an Ames wind tunnel. "I think it holds genuine promise."

The Defense Department is giving Moshier $5 million over three years in hopes the SoloTrek someday can help soldiers get in and out of dangerous spots quickly. Moshier says he is on schedule to deliver a prototype to U.S. Special Forces by the end of 2003.

He also plans to begin developing an unmanned version of the SoloTrek known as the MULE, which he believes can serve as a flying beast of burden for troops.

"If it works as advertised, this could be a high-performance, low-cost alternative to things people try to use helicopters for today," said technology forecaster Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park.