History’s Ideas: The De Lackner Aerocycle (1955)

Throughout the modern history of engineering, unique problems have inspired the design and creation of interesting – and sometimes downright odd – product designs.  A few have gone on to change the world.  Most are now forgotten, reside only in museum exhibits, or live on as design influences in other, more well-known technologies.

Once upon a time, for example, there was a plan to issue hoverboards to U.S. combat soldiers.

Well, not really, but pretty close.  In the early Atomic Era, the U.S. Army began developing serious concepts for personal helicopter devices for American infantrymen.  The general idea was to create a helicopter-type flying vehicle in which the propellers were located under a pilot’s feet, rather than above his head.  Standing on a centered platform, the soldier would be able to steer the vehicle by shifting his weight, much like a bicycle.  

Hovering rather than walking, an Army reconnaissance pilot would enjoy significant mobility advantages on an atomic battlefield.

Several design concepts from various aviation companies made it into the prototype stage.  One of the most promising designs was the De Lackner HZ-1 Aerocycle, first introduced in early 1955.

The HZ-1 utilized a 40-horsepower outboard engine to drive two counter-rotating. 15-foot propeller blades.  The pilot, secured by safety belts, would stand on a platform just above the blades, steering and controlling the unit’s throttle from a control center mounted on bicycle-type handlebars.  The unit used standard helicopter-type metal skids for landing gear.  The De Lackner was rated with a service ceiling of 5,000 feet and could be piloted with less than 20 minutes of instruction.

And surprisingly enough, the Aerocycle worked!  It was stable in test flights, managing to reach speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour.  This made the Aerocycle one of the fastest moving one-man flying machines being tested by the Army in that era.

The HZ-1, unfortunately, was not fated for production use.  It was loud.  It was vulnerable to enemy attack.  It was difficult to maintain.  And, yes, it also crashed from time to time.   By the 1970s, and after two decades of experimentation with thhistorys-ideas-the-de-lackner-aerocyclee HZ-1 and many other vehicle designs, the Army largely abandoned further research into one-man light aircraft concepts.  

So it would seem that Army hoverboards may have to wait, after all.

You can, however, still see an original De Lackner HZ-1.  While the Army originally commissioned twelve units, the only remaining HZ-1 prototype is today on display at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, in Newport News, Virginia.