By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This story takes place in a small town in Texas that people drive through on their way to someplace far more exciting. Neal, though, came to the town of Boyd, literally just south of Paradise, and never left. He arrived here after he fled his job at his father's farm in rural Tennessee, taking off in a beat-up sedan with $400 in his pocket. He could have kept on going—Fort Worth and Dallas are just a short drive away—but Neal found a church, a home and a job, which is all he was looking for in the first place. Once he found that, he found peace, and once he found peace, he found a way to make a motorcycle that flies.
Neal says he came to Texas directed by the voice of God, which guided him from Tennessee to Oklahoma to Fort Worth and on to Boyd. He's lived there now for 27 years in a home he built himself and where one morning God helped him figure out the first clue toward building a flying motorcycle. If you've ever driven through Boyd on a plain summer day, through a dusty downtown that couldn't lure the hungriest or weariest traveler, you might wonder why God didn't take the time to help anyone else.
Neal, though, is a deeply religious and serious man and probably wouldn't appreciate a joke about his faith or his adopted town. He reads through the entire Bible every year and doesn't drink, swear or, in his words, "run around." At 56, he's devotedly single and doesn't even think about dating. All he cares about, outside of God, is his motorcycle.
Neal doesn't read a whole lot of books besides the Bible. When he's not working on his motorcycle inside a stifling hangar at a local airfield, he's thinking about it. How can he make it land softer, fly safer, take off quicker? Neal says that he has no outside interests because he's like a warrior. When he heads off to battle, he says, "I don't encumber myself with anything more than I have to."
In a matter of months, Neal will attach a propeller and a helicopter rotor blade to his most recent motorcycle—he's already built and sold a handful of flying bikes—and take it out to a tiny airport in Bridgeport. Then he'll spin the propeller and hit the gas. When he hits 25 mph, the helicopter blade will spin up to 120 revolutions per minute, or enough to soar into the Texas sky like a leaf caught up in a breeze.
If he's so inclined, Neal can fly to Paradise and back, which is all he's ever wanted.
"At the end of your life you have to ask yourself, Did you really fulfill what God intended you to do?"
But Neal's invention does fly, and it is a motorcycle you could drive to the corner store. As odd as it looks as it glides parallel to the ground, you'll find aviation experts who think this self-described hillbilly is onto something. A few people here and there claim to have invented a flying motorcycle too, but Neal is the clear leader of the pack. He makes them, flies them and sells them. With the aw-shucks practicality befitting a country boy, Neal has added devices and features that seem to help his three-wheeled bike handle the stubborn incongruities of traveling the skyway and the highway.
"I applaud his inventiveness," says Charles Reinholtz, a department chair at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. "He definitely has something that works."
There are others, however, who are more dubious and say that Neal has just recycled an old, discredited idea. They're not entirely wrong. Like many inventors, Neal isn't creating something out of thin air. His flying motorcycle is actually an update on a forgotten aircraft called a gyroplane. Resembling a tiny, makeshift hybrid of a propeller plane and a helicopter, the gyroplane fell out of favor more than 50 years ago as it fell to the ground after the slightest gust of wind. Today, only hobbyists fly the aircraft, which has a propeller on the back to drive it and a pair of free-spinning helicopter blades on top to lift it into the air.