The Army has a flying saucer — a real, honest-to-goodness flying saucer. It also has a jetpack, a hover car and an all-terrain walking vehicle. If that sounds like something out of a “Star Wars” movie, that’s because Hollywood is influenced by the Army’s experimental technologies.
Those technologies, developed in the 1950s through the 1970s, were public knowledge, and concept artists and directors could take inspiration from them. Army veteran and artist Ralph McQuarrie, known as “the godfather of the Star Wars aesthetic,” created stunning concept art of hovercraft, androids and cybernetic walkers for George Lucas’ films.
A combat veteran of the Korean War who survived a bullet wound to the head, McQuarrie would have known about the Army’s experiments, said Command Sgt. Major Dennis J. Woods, the command sergeant major for initial military training and senior enlisted advisor on Fort Eustis, Virginia. And some of those technologies that inspired McQuarrie can now be seen at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum on Fort Eustis.
“[The museum] represents the Army’s attempt at problem solving over time,” Woods said, “And then how many of these objects have led to other developments.”
The museum itself, a single-story brick building just inside the main gate of Fort Eustis, appears small. Off to the right, visitors can see older jeeps and a few dry-docked marine vehicles on the grass. Parking is sparse, but don’t let any of that fool you.
“We have more than 35,000 square feet of galleries and indoor exhibits, and then we have four outside, thematic exhibit areas that include the four major nodes of transportation: rail, aviation, maritime and of course, vehicles,” said David S. Hanselman, director of the Transportation Museum.
The museum is one of more than 65 museums in the Army, which shares a central mission, Hanselman continued, to train and educate Soldiers on the history and heritage of the Army.
“As a branch museum, if you will, we also have the dual purpose of being a technological repository to document the things that the Army uses through the ages,” he said. The museum has been around since the 1950s in one form or another, but the current facility was established in 1976.
The Transportation Museum is touted as having the most diverse collection of artifacts in the entire Army museum system, Hanselman added.
Extensively researched dioramas and text displays fill the indoor space of the museum. Visitors walk through the exhibits chronologically, from the beginning of the Army’s transportation history all the way up through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. From tiny models to glass-enclosed artifacts to life-sized dioramas, there is always something interesting to explore. Hanselman explained that the dioramas ensure that all visitors will learn something while at the museum, even if they aren’t reading the text.
“It puts it into a contextual setting that allows folks to understand a little bit more about [an artifact], even if they don’t read a single word of text,” he said.
Larger experimental machines are on display outside. The four open-air exhibits house an incredible variety of cars, aircraft and marine vehicles, with examples from World War II forward. A chilly wind whipped through the maze of artifacts in the Aviation Pavilion as Hanselman described the artifacts, but the cold didn’t damper his enthusiasm.
“What we have here in our experimental craft, we have a lot of one-of-a kind experimental craft and a couple of those are kind of direct descendants of the Star Wars technologies that you see on the screen today,” he said.
The Cybernetic Walker, which is quite similar to its fictional Imperial Walker counterpart, is kept with the aviation artifacts. Two extra legs support the bright orange, elephant-sized walking machine for the display, Hanselman explained as he wove through rotor- and fixed-wing craft.
“Normally, it’s just the four legs that it stands on,” he said. “It does work, it did work, I mean, but it’s a hydraulic nightmare. It actually had to be tethered to a hydraulic tank because it would blast through so much hydraulic oil in operation,” Hanselman added. The operator would sit in the middle of the walker and use a series of levers to move the vehicle.
The walker was developed as a concept vehicle for lifting heavy loads over any kind of terrain, since helicopters were only just coming of age. The walker could carry 500 pounds of cargo, and was easy to maneuver, but being tethered to a hydraulic tank limited its usefulness.
“It did work, but the turbine engine was coming of age and as it developed, it vastly increased the capability of the helicopter, and this thing was proved obsolete, not needed, so it never went past the experimental stage,” Hanselman said.
An improved version of that technology is being used by logging companies today to move timber over mountainous terrain, Woods said. He also pointed out AirGeep II VZ-8P, or “flying jeep,” could be developed in the future for civilian medical use, allowing emergency personnel to soar over traffic and arrive at the scene much faster.
The AirGeep itself just appears to be two giant turbines held together by a couple of jump seats, what Woods described as a “baby helicopter.” It was developed in 1946 as a solution for getting Soldiers into destroyed urban areas in World War II, but the helicopter won out.
“This thing would do about 85 miles per hour, and could reach an altitude of 3,000 feet, so you could cruise that just over the ground level into these leveled cities, and it was originally going to be a machine gun vehicle,” he said, tapping the metal frame. The two seats on the craft also had ejection capabilities.
Another hovercraft sat near the Airgeep. This one, shaped like a 1950s convertible, is known as the Ground Effects Machine, or GEM, and resembles the landspeeder that Luke tools around in during “Star Wars: A New Hope.”
“Curtis Wright [corporation] made this thing; it’s a hovercraft, pure and simple,” Hanselman said. “But they made it to look like an automobile with the thought that the general public would accept this and want one in every driveway.
“Pardon the pun, but it didn’t quite take off as an idea,” he added. The Army purchased two of the GEMs to test the capabilities in concept. The hovercraft could cross water and smooth ground, but had trouble on rough terrain.
The GEM has two turbines, similar to the Airgeep, which are encased in the body of the craft. Rubber skirting along the bottom of the vehicle traps the air from the turbines and creates a cushion to move on. Allowing air to escape from vents on the front, rear and sides of the vehicle enabled directional control, Hanselman explained.
Past failures, future success
One of the most iconic pieces inside the museum is the Vietnam-era gun truck, “Eve of Destruction.” As the only gun truck to return from combat in Vietnam, Eve is a popular exhibit. Hanselman and his staff built a mock guard tower as a viewing platform next to the truck so that visitors could see into the bed without climbing in the artifact. The truck is particularly special because it becomes a key point of study for the war in Iraq, Hanselman said.
“For the first time since Vietnam, our convoys become the main target of the enemy. They want to shut down our logistics chain, and so, our guys said, just like in Vietnam, we’ve got to start protecting ourselves, we’ve got to start developing gun trucks,” he continued. Museum staff spent weeks with Army researchers discussing the design of the gun truck, which led to the development of today’s convoy escort platforms. In fact, a descendant of Eve can be seen at the end of the museum’s indoor display in the Iraq exhibit.
Around the corner from the gun truck are two experimental flying machines developed originally for the transportation of individual Soldiers: The De Lackner Aerocycle and the rocket belt.
The pilot shifting his weight maneuvers the aerocycle, which is an alarming combination of what appears to be a lawn mower engine, two helicopter blades and a platform with handlebars.
The counter-rotating, 15-foot blades gave the Soldier three-dimensional mobility, Hanselman said, but the device was hard to control.
“It was actually tested at Fort Eustis, out at Felker Army Airfield, by that guy,” Hanselman added, pointing at the mannequin atop the aerocycle, “Capt. [Selmer] Sundby, who retired Col. Sundby — I say that so you know he lived through the program.”
During one of Sundby’s test flights, the blades on the Aerocycle flexed and collided with one another, which crashed the machine at 40 feet in the air. The then captain sustained a broken leg, but was otherwise unharmed, Hanselman explained. The Aerocycle was eventually abandoned in favor of the helicopter.
The rocket belt, on the other hand, was easy to control, but had several drawbacks of its own.
“The problem is it had a limited burn time, and if you’re in combat, you have a 40-second burn time, well, it could be detrimental to your health, and oh, by the way, you have two highly volatile chemicals strapped to your back,” Hanselman said.”And it’s a really big, bulky piece of equipment, so where do you put your rucksack and all of your other gear that you need in a combat environment?”
Military planners came to visit the museum and study the rocket belt during the Iraq war, to research possibilities for urban flight, Hanselman added.
Woods went on to describe a flying saucer — complete with three jet engines — that had been packed away for future study, since it couldn’t maintain stability higher than four feet off the ground.
The museum may seem like a graveyard for failed experiments, with so many outrageous vehicles resting in the pavilions, but both Hanselman and Woods emphasized that failures pave the way for progress.
“As history geeks, we find out … that you learn more probably from your failures than you do your success,” Hanselman said. “For every success, there’s 100 failures out there, you can’t get them all. But some of those failures will help tell the story of how you got to the success that everybody knows, and that’s a big part of the learning curve, especially when you’re talking about this for military operations, which is a pretty demanding environment for anything to operate in.”
“We got to shoot broad, here,” Woods said. He hopes that these older technologies can be repurposed with newer, composite materials. For example, that flying saucer could be a viable drone, computer stabilized and able to fly in any direction.
“This is what we were doing in the past,” Woods said. “Just imagine what we’re up to now.”