Flying saucers and jet packs: how US Army has tried to take them beyond sci-fi

The Army often has been inspired by science fiction – and vice versa. Its Transportation Museum in Virginia displays its own take on the flying saucer and Boba Fett’s jet pack.

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
BB-8 arrives at the world première of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Dec. 14 in Los Angeles.

It was back in the 1920s that Buck Rogers, the 25th-century sci-fi comic strip hero, used his own personal rocket belt to jet around. Decades later, the inspired musings of the comics have helped drive the military to explore such technology for itself. 

At the Army’s Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Va., the service displays its own take on the flying saucer, along with an “air car” that looks remarkably like the “Star Wars” land speeder used by Luke Skywalker, an elephant-size four-legged cybernetic robot that closely resembles an imperial walker, and the character Boba Fett’s jet pack.

Indeed, the Army has tried to build its own means of space-inspired futuristic travel, many times. And just as the Pentagon has been inspired by popular culture, a number of US military efforts have been used as templates by the creators of, among other endeavors, the blockbuster “Star Wars” series.

Between 1950 and 1970, artists were especially inspired by the military’s creations. Designer and illustrator Ralph McQuarrie – an Army combat veteran of the Korean War who survived a bullet wound to the head – for his part brought the concept of hovercraft, androids, and cybernetic walkers to the George Lucas films.

In real life, though, there have been some scientific hurdles that have kept the designs from coming to fruition. “Most of the different kinds of aircraft were thoughts that were good thoughts, but the technology wasn’t there for the idea,” says Mark Shanks, exhibit specialist at the museum.

They did, however, inspire new ways of thinking about what humans could make.

The goal for the Army’s version of the flying saucer, for example, was to create a craft with vertical lift that could hover beneath enemy radar and then rocket into the stratosphere at subsonic speeds.

Known as the Avrocar, the craft’s blueprint promised that it could fly more than 300 miles per hour at an altitude of 10,000 feet. But during flight tests, the craft instead reached speeds of roughly 35 m.p.h., and became unstable at altitudes of more than a few feet.

“It wasn’t overly successful,” Mr. Shanks says. But it’s a crowd-pleaser. “Everyone comes here and asks, ‘Where’s the flying saucer?’ ” The craft sat outside for 30-plus years and, given the elements, is now in pieces. “It’s literally a boatload of money to put something like that back together.”

Though it was never produced by the Army, the craft helped the military learn about the mechanics of “air-cushioned flight,” Shanks adds. That ambition eventually led to the creation of the Marine Corps’ Harrier aircraft, with its jet engine that can come straight off a ship, without need for an aircraft carrier to launch it.

The service put some of what it learned into use in Vietnam, with a vehicle known as the ground effects machine (GEM) hovercraft. 

“It was like an alternative to regular cars: You could float around on air and even go out onto the water or cross over a lake,” Shanks says. Six of these hovercraft were produced; the only surviving one is at the transportation museum.

“Some of them blew up, some of them got shot up,” he says. “This is the only one that survived.”

And the fate of the Army’s jet pack, like one that Boba Fett uses in “Star Wars”? It worked – but only for very short distances. “You can still use them at county fairs,” Shanks says.

The Army envisioned using the jet packs as a way to “project a person forward to the front lines so quickly that in mass quantities they would overwhelm the enemy.”

The problem is the mixture of fuels for the jet pack will only be enough to carry a soldier and his gun for one to two minutes, depending on weight.

“They work, but for 60 seconds, and after that you better have your feet on the ground,” Shanks says.

Plus, the fuel is “highly volatile,” he adds. “Do you want to strap that on your back? I don’t.”

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