By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Professor Reinholtz at Embry Riddle reviewed footage of Neal flying, available on his Web site. He also reviewed Neal's U.S. patent for his fly-drive vehicle, which includes schematic drawings of the Super Sky Cycle. Although Reinholtz wonders whether it will have widespread appeal, he's impressed with many of the aircraft's features, particularly how Neal's enabled it to switch from the air to the road.
"He clearly has something that's different than what's been done in the past," he says. "I think he's on to something."
Neal doesn't want his Super Sky Cycle to be just a curiosity. Since he first flew it a year and a half ago, he's been refining it to address obvious questions about its practicality. He sized it small enough to slip into a garage and narrow enough to fit in a lane of traffic. He has a pre-rotator device that spins the blades as you prepare for flight. That enables the Super Sky Cycle to take off rather quickly, within three to five seconds.
Once airborne, Neal's aircraft will fly well over 100 mph and as lofty as 12,000 feet, nearly as high as a Cessna. The Sky Cycle has stabilizing features designed to keep it horizontal in the event of unexpected turbulence. He says that if you already have a pilot's license, you'll only need 10 hours of additional instruction before you're ready to take flight.
After the Sky Cycle lands, you can fold away the rotor blades in three minutes, or about as long as it might take to put the top down on an old, rickety convertible. Then you can hit the motor running and head out on the highway. Born to be mild, at least as Neal sees it.
"I've made it very docile to fly."
Then again, any new air-and-road vehicle that has the body and soul of a gyroplane will have its detractors. John Cotter, the aviation professor at Southern Illinois University, says that other than a few touches here and there, Neal hasn't addressed the age-old issues that doomed the gyroplane to obscurity in the first place.
"This is not going to become a commodity where there is one in every garage," he says. "Gyroplanes are dangerous as hell."
But to people who love to fly them, newer gyros are still paying for the sins of their poorly designed predecessor. Doug Blank, a business consultant who lives just north of Salt Lake City, Utah, has flown gyroplanes 2,000 feet above the ground. He says that the aircraft is surprisingly safe; if you're an experienced pilot you can keep the thing stable, and in the event of engine failure, the naturally spinning blades will slowly drop you to the ground. And Neal's gyros are particularly advanced, he notes, designed to keep the light aircraft horizontal and stable in the event of a landing.
Blank recently sold some land to get the $38,000 he needed to buy the kit for the Super Sky Cycle. His family, of course, was nervous, but Blank spent some time researching Neal and his new aircraft, interviewing people who knew him and had bought his gyroplanes. Everyone told him that they liked the aircraft and that Neal was easy to work with. If they needed help on a technical issue, they'd just call and he'd be there to help.
"I didn't run into anyone who had anything bad to say about him," Blank says, adding that everyone thought Neal was an "honest and ethical man."
That's kind of what you want from someone building a flying motorcycle.
As Neal refines his Super Sky Cycle, he can expect more publicity. A producer from the Late Show With David Letterman has asked him to be a guest. Neal told them he wasn't ready just yet, but give him a few more months until he's ready to unveil the updated, stylish version of his earlier Sky Cycle. He gave the same answer to a news crew from South Korea. Neal wants just a little more time in his hangar to get everything just right.
Of course, with the increased attention will come more scrutiny, competition and criticism. If he understands that, he doesn't seem to care. It doesn't seem like anything can trouble Neal, at least not since the day he left his father's farm on nothing more than a wing and a prayer.
"I really have no worries," he says. "Do I look like I have worries?"