Anyone remotely familiar with internet hype knows that flying cars and jet packs are “Just around the corner!” Interestingly, much of the cool technology in this field came and went decades ago. Like the WASP II flying platform.
I wrote a book on the history of The Great American Jet Pack and in doing so, immersed myself in the study of everything from the Zimmerman Flying Shoes to the Water Jet Pack. And the coolest, most improbable flying device which actually worked: The WASP II. Yup, that thing in the picture is actually flying.
First, some background. This category (Individual Lift Devices) does not include airplanes, gliders or things of that nature. What I was looking at was the promise of personal flight. You know: Walk out into your backyard and take off. This is often summarized as “jet packs!” but there was so much more. Scientists did everything from build upside down helicopters to strap rockets to mens’ backs. Some of these things worked - in that they got a person off the ground and back down without killing them - but most had drawbacks. Expensive fuel, complicated builds, strenuous training, short flight times and so on. No one ever came close to building something that the average person could just strap on and fly.
But one of the coolest devices built in this field was the WASP II flying platform. It started with the WASP which was pretty much a jet engine blasting at the ground. WASP stood for Williams Aerial Systems Platform - Williams being the company that built it.
The operator just hung onto the device and steered it by shifting his body weight. This kinesthetic control is how many of the ILDs were steered. When the WASP worked (it took off, landed, and no one got hurt) plans were made to refine it. The WASP II was similarly a downward pointed jet engine but it had a housing in which the operator stood. This lent itself to a variety of nicknames, including the Flying Pulpit.
The WASP II had only two hand controls: a throttle and yaw control. The throttle worked as you might imagine: the more you gave it, the higher or faster you went.
Rotating or turning on a vertical axis is the problem of yaw control. To spin or turn the WASP II in mid-air, small vanes redirected some of the thrust as it blasted from the base of the craft.
The man you see at the top is Bob Courter, the guy who had the coolest job on Earth. He passed away not too long ago and I wrote a piece about his career. Among the cool things he got to fly were the rocket belt, jet belt, WASP and WASP II.
He’s the one who proved this thing could be flown, and steered simly by leaning in the direction you wanted to go. Under his control, WASP IIs zipped around effortlessly, defying gravity and looking like they shouldn’t be able to do what they were doing.
The WASP II was pitched to the military. It could fly at 60 MPH and stay aloft about a half-hour if need be. But it was expensive, loud, and took more than a bit of skill to operate. And since the operator used both hands to fly it, what else could he do while he was up there besides look around? Even so, Courter trained three soldiers with no special aviation background to fly the units and the group put on a demonstration which was considered a huge success.
No one could quite figure out what to do with the vehicles otherwise. So the program was closed. Of the WASP IIs built, a couple of them can be seen by people like you and me. One is in the air museum at the Wright Patterson AFB and the other is in the Seattle Museum of Flight.
Personally, I think the WASP II was pretty cool but I’ll tell you what probably made a few of the operators pause: To fly the craft, you stand with your feet on opposite sides of a small jet engine. As you straddle that jet engine, working the controls and keeping a keen eye on your balance, consider what might happen if something in that engine were to let loose. Particularly the portion that was groin-height. It never happened but it is something to think about, my friend.
Here is the obligatory youtube video to prove I’m not just makin’ this stuff up. That’s Courter at the controls. There are more videos out there and a ton of info too. And if you might want to read a book on the topic, there’s a whole chapter on the WASPs here. And, this was not all for naught. The engine in the WASP II eventually found its way into a variety of cruise missiles and those are still in use. Yeah, you can’t ride one of those but there was a time when Bob Courter climbed aboard one of those engines and took it for a spin.
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Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.
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