The U.S. Military’s Trial-and-Error History of Hovercrafts

Long before Marty McFly tore up Courthouse Square on a Mattel hoverboard, the U.S. Military worked secretly to develop their own flying platform technology. The development of flying platforms began in the 1940s with Charles Zimmerman, an aeronautical engineer with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of the modern-day NASA. Zimmerman developed a vertical take-off apparatus called “Flying Shoes” — a platform with two small engines that were connected to a pair of upward-facing propellers that the pilots strapped to their feet. Pilots could control the vehicle by simply shifting their weight in the direction they wished to move – much like a modern Segway. The Flying Shoe concept went nowhere, but in 1953, the U.S. Army contracted Hiller Helicopters to make a flying platform that featured a cross-shaped frame, rotary blades, a platform for the pilot, and an outboard motor. The Aerocycle not only looked dangerous, it was dangerous. It turned out to be more challenging to fly than intended and wound up crashing just prior to being abandoned. Hiller went back to the drawing board and came up with the VZ-1 Pawnee. It featured a larger platform and larger rotors, but it, too, wound up being scrapped. The Hiller Company went under in 1966 and the U.S. Military abandoned all notions that they would someday come up with a hovercraft that could be used safely and effectively in combat.