By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
But for all its faults, the gyroplane's principal advantages—it's rather light, compact, inexpensive and easy to take off and land—gave Neal the idea that it could double up as a motorcycle, if not one day a car.
Twenty or so years ago, Neal says, he realized that the trick to inventing a flying car was not to try to make a car fly but make a gyroplane drive. On a small scale, Neal's done that. He's already sold five Super Sky Cycles and has plans to sell 30 more. He's even working on a fully enclosed two- and three-seater. But Neal has a far loftier ambition. Hoping to become the "Henry Ford of Flying Cars," Neal says that his flying vehicles will take over the sky a lot sooner than you think.
"Fifteen years from now if you don't have a flying car," he says matter-of-factly over lunch, "you'll be the odd person out."
Neal is a probably a better inventor than he is a prognosticator. There are all sorts of obvious reasons why his vision may never come true, not the least of which is that few people would be willing to trade in their SUV for a three-wheeled motorcycle with a rotor blade whizzing above them. Of course, if you doubt Neal—and there are many who do—he doesn't particularly care. He'd rather work on his bike than talk about it anyway. Day after day, often with nothing but the distant hum of traffic on Route 380 to ease the silence, Neal labors quietly and alone in a spacious airplane hangar at Bridgeport Airport, making and fine-tuning flying vehicles. Whether he'll be successful on the scale he imagines is an open question, but if he fails, it won't be for lack of effort. And it certainly won't be for lack of faith.
"I'm never nervous," he says about whether his dream will take off. "When it's what God has given you to do and you're taking one step at a time in fulfilling your mission of building the cars of the future—it's an excitement I can't explain."
Though Neal was intrigued with flight at a young age, it looked as if he were grounded for life as he approached 30 and found himself still stuck at home in Crossville, a hard-luck town on a bluff between Nashville and Knoxville. Although he graduated from a state college with a degree in mechanical engineering, Neal couldn't find any good jobs in East Tennessee and settled for milking cows on his dad's dairy farm, taking home $200 a week. Neal was desperate for a way out.
"I prayed to God, 'If you get me out of this pit, I'll read the Bible.'"
And that's exactly what Neal did. "I devoured God's word," he says. He didn't just read the good book, he had it playing over the speakers in the barn as he milked his father's cows. Soon after, Neal says that he heard the "spirit of God" answer his wish. The spirit led him to a religious gathering in Tulsa and then directed him to Texas and then propelled him to Fort Worth. The voice of God, as least as it's heard by Neal, is a rather literal one, with a surprising familiarity with the American Southwest.
As the spirit continued to guide him west, Neal came upon a white building on a hill. He knocked on the door and realized it was a church. The pastor answered, and Neal asked him if he had a room. The pastor asked him if he played a musical instrument, and Neal told him, in his East Tennessee accent, he played the "geetar." The pastor led him to a room down the hall, and the new Texan became a song leader in the church choir.
Neal got a job painting houses and soon after learned how to build them. After he moved out of the church and into a mobile home, he built a place of his own where he still lives today. From 1985 till 2003, the man who came to Texas directed by the voice of God worked as a custom builder, making good money at a job he enjoyed.
But Neal couldn't shake the dream of flying. In the late '70s, after he graduated from college, he had taken a short-lived job in Fort Worth selling books. By chance, he heard that a Dallas police officer was selling a gyroplane and wound up purchasing it for $800. He read books on how to fly it, and when he was ready, he attached his new aircraft to his brother's car. A thumbs up was Neal's signal to speed up; a thumbs down meant to back off. Once he got the 20-foot copter blades moving, Neal was airborne.