Written By: Stewart Bailey / Museum Curator
Nearly 1000 years ago, a series of stories came out entitled “1001 Arabian Nights” and it featured a wondrous creation; the magic flying carpet. Ever since, people have wanted a device that could effortlessly whisk them through the air to their desired destination. While the Wright Brother’s creation gave humans the gift of flight, it was still too complex for the novice, and engineers have been working ever since to make flying machines more like a magic carpet.
In the early 1950s, Charles Zimmer of the National Advisory Committee on Aviation (fore-runner of NASA) developed the idea for a personal rotor craft that was guided by the motions of the pilot’s body. This principle was called “kinesthetic control” and several companies including Hiller, Bensen and DeLackner put it into practice on new, one-man rotorcraft designs. Their goal was to give their operator an ability to fly freely and quickly with minimal training.
Of all the designs, the most radical (and possibly the most dangerous) was the DeLackner DH-4 Heli-Vector. Designed by Lewis C. McCarty, it featured a small platform for its operator to stand on, above a pair of counter-rotating 15’ foot blades, and was powered by a modified Mercury Marine outboard motor. Airbags under the central structure and on four poles served as landing gear and made it amphibious as well.
First flown in November, 1954 the DH-4 showed enough promise that the US Army ordered 12 copies designated HZ-1 Aerocycle. Their hope was that it would be an easy-to-fly way for troops to cross minefields or rough terrain; letting them serve as the eyes and ears of the Army, like the old horse cavalry. Unfortunately, testing of the HZ-1 in 1956 proved that the Aerocycle was not easy to fly, and it had a tendency to kick up rocks and debris at the pilot. What’s more, the rotor blades flexed at high speeds and collided, causing them to shatter and the platform to drop like a rock. Amazingly, test pilot Capt. Selmer Sundby, survived two such crashes before the Army terminated the program.
Until last summer, only one Aerocycle was known to have survived and it was on display at the Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, VA. Then in August 2012, Mr. Robert Cummins called the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum with the story of another Aerocycle, found in the former DeLackner Helicopter Company factory in New York. With Mr. Cummins help, the museum acquired the craft, and had it moved to the Evergreen facility at JFK Airport where the folks at Evergreen Aviation Ground Logistics Enterprises (EAGLE) crated it and shipped it to the museum aboard an Evergreen 747.
Arriving in McMinnville, the unique craft was inspected by the Restoration volunteers, which brought some surprising facts to light. It turns out, that it was not just any Aerocycle, but the prototype; the DH-4 Heli-Vector. Four original airbags, painted olive green for the Army demonstration flights were still attached, and under the dirt and grime, it still had most of its original parts which illustrated its hand-built nature. Unfortunately some items were missing, giving the volunteers many mysteries to solve. The DeLackner Company closed long ago and there are no technical manuals available, so each day brings new questions and new opportunities to be “history detectives,” as the team tries to rebuild this treasure from the past.
While the DeLackner Heli-Vector and Aerocycles were not successful in their intended role, they do hold a unique place in aviation history. They were an effort to make personal flight available to everybody and to provide people with a modern form of the “magic carpet.”