Retrotechtacular: flying foot-soldiers are coming for you (sixty years ago)


Pictured above is a remarkable piece of experimental technology from the 1950’s that never ended up going anywhere. The Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee is a single-rider vehicle that was supposed to provide a tactical advantage to US forces. The Office of Naval research spent a couple of years developing the aircraft, wich uses two rotors mounted inside the base of the platform. They spin opposite each other — which removes the need for a tail rotor like you’d find on a helicopter –to lift the platform a short distance off the ground. Although six of them were made only two survive. But the good news is you can go and see them at museums on the East or West coast of the US.

Now that the serious business is behind us, let’s talk about the video clip after the break. The narrative style is a gem of the newsreel era. We can’t tell what is going on with the accent, but we’re totally convinced that at least one general meeting per year at your local hackerspace should require all presenters to use their best impression of this talented gentleman’s voice.

[via Hacked Gadgets and Laughing Squid]


  1. Steve says:

    Someone give me $150k, I’ll make this thing more realistic, MCUs and accelerometers for built-in stability, it’ll actually work and it’ll be a blast to fly! Add some google glasses for machine gun control!

    • allen says:

      the hiller flying platforms were already inherently stable. that was part of the problem. to go anywhere you were constantly fighting the machine wanting to just hover in one spot. flying long distances , flying in a straight line, or in any kind of formation was very difficult.

      a more modern version was built by Rafi Yeoli in 1997 called “hummingbird”, it failed to gain any backers. it was available for sale in kit form in the US, but the FAA required a helicopter license to fly it.

  2. SZ says:

    If you’re wondering about the accent, it’s referred to as the Trans-Atlantic (or Mid Atlantic) accent. Read about it here:

    It’s not actually a true regional accent, but rather a blend of American and British accents that was favored by upper crust boarding schools and some actors.

  3. ChrisC says:

    I was thinking that the whole flying soldier thing was biting off too much in one go. A more useful alternative would be to allow soldiers to make powered jumps. Imagine a rocket with only a few seconds of fuel, but if you combine that with some modern electronics and 3d mapping you would give a soldier the ability to jump to the top of a building or across a ravine. Maybe with the advent of powered exoskeletons it would be more practical than now.

    • matt says:

      Thats the present state of jet packs, and their weight would prevent a soldier from carrying their armor, ammo, rifle, etc.

    • nukky cisbu says:

      There’s Starship Trooper’s – the book version, at least – powered armour in a nutshell.

    • salec says:

      Sending infantrymen up above any line of cover on a slowly moving flying contraption – what could possibly go wrong? This kind of machine wouldn’t have any tactical advantage because for single person version it has to inherently lack either swiftness, suppressive firepower, or armor protection. For engineering corps, however, this would be pure gold for bringing a pioneer to the far side of an obstacle, etc. but still I would still rather opt for using it to send a remote controlled robot instead of an GI.

      However, for civilian use in construction, maintenance and firefighting, this thing would prove its worth in situations in which you just don’t have crane with basket that reaches needed height

  4. inventorm says:

    You know what you call flying soldiers on the battlefield: skeet.

  5. Carl Hage says:

    If you are in the San Francisco bay area, you can see the original thing in the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos off highway 101. There’s lots of other cool stuff to see there from 1800’s era flyers to the Boeing SST mockup. Similar to the VZ-1 but pertty new, there is an even smaller personal helicopter capable of parachute drop to a downed soldier.

  6. randomdude says:

    boring seen that in 1991

  7. Stefan says:

    Uhm, as the narrator refers to the austin 7 ( I would say his accent is ever so british. But I could of course be wrong, not being a native speaker.

  8. stevebb says:

    British Pathe news is good for archive film. Came across what looks to be the Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee the other day
    Also got footage of the The Dynasphere (6/10) the infamous single wheeled car
    and a rather cool hack of Motorised Roller Skates(8/10) that managed a claimed 160 mile per gallon- little more a small petrol engine, and roller skates.

  9. David says:

    Back in ’81 or so, I saw an article about a version that had motorcycle controls and seating that used a cruise missile turbine for thrust. It was the closest I’ve seen to the Dick Tracy flying garbage cans.

  10. Bob Shaw says:

    That’s not a Mid-Atlantic accent at all – just a rather clenched BBC-like one! For Mid-Atlantic try Googling ‘David Frost’…

    • SZ says:

      On looking at it again, I have to agree. It most likely isn’t Mid-Atlantic. The reel was produced by Pathe News, a UK company that produced newsreels between 1910 – 1970. Now, there was an American Pathe company up until it closed in 1956. This film is from 1955 (must have been shortly after they took the wraps off the Hiller), so while it is possible it was produced by the American Pathe news before they closed, the references to the Austin 7 and a closer listening to the accent itself… I’d have to believe it is just a mild British accent.

  11. supershwa says:

    Sounds Mid-Atlantic to me….like Katharine Hepburn’s accent.

  12. salsaman says:

    This from a time when aeronautics ruled. In our robotic age, where’s the 6- or 8-legged robotic infantry with a seat/cage/gunner in the middle?

  13. Glenn says:

    Yeah I bet these guys wold have given eye teeth for an Arduino and an accelerometer/gyro combo way back then…

  14. Rick says:

    these were stabilized by the pilot, same as a bicycle or unicycle. No digital controls needed, just a little skill. The leaning and balancing of the pilot also provided for directional control. No need to add electronics when you’re already carrying a decent multiaxis accellerometer, VFR control device, etc in the head of the pilot.

    The device worked fine, just didn’t have any battlefield need. And in todays “regulate everything, sue everything else” world, there won’t be any newer/lighter/better ones made for recreational use.

    • Hirudinea says:

      Yep I read it was about as easy to run as a bike but I think the fact that if the engine went out you fell like a stone, and you could chop people up were also factors against it.

      • allen says:

        well, it had 2 engines..outboard motor engines from small boats. I think if it ever went into production it would be easy enough to set it up so if one engine quit the other one went to “full power” long enough for you to land safely. and as far as “chopping people up” look at the HZ-1 Aerocycle. now THAT was dangerous!

      • xrayspex says:

        You call it a bug, I call it a feature

  15. Scott says:

    One can only imagine the dorky mayhem if flying Segways ever hit the market…

  16. Jan4ever says:

    Should not be too hard to build one it works on the same principle as all of the cheap RC choppers out there now thing it just as reliable as a quad copter maybe even more as it has les moving parts

  17. Jamesmoe says:

    Don’t forget the Williams International WASP. Uses a modified cruise missle engine!

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