By Dave Reeves
Photos by Ward Robinson except where noted
This story originally appeared in Issue2. Click here to buy the print edition
DEZSO MOLNAR AND THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL
We are in a small plane over the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles. Altitude, speed and the miracle of flight are what separate us from the misery of ten miles of traffic idling on the pass, under a lens of amber smog, where the power lines cross the dump. My earphones crackle, “Allahuaha akbar!” screams the man flying the plane, Dezso Molnar, to which his copilot answers, in an entirely too authentic fashion, “Alllllahh Akbaarrrrrrr!”
Weeks and thousands of miles later, I’d know that Dezso was commenting on how our dependence on Arab oil breeds system failure like the traffic below and that Allah is made even more Akbar by the fact that this traffic jam pays for Wahabi prosthetists to fly planes into buildings screaming that very phrase. I would also realize that Captain Molnar and his copilot were screaming the modern Banzai into a closed channel. At the time, I was busy scanning the surrounding hills for contrails of surface-to-air missiles to appreciate any subtle nuances.
The mountain jutted close to enough to our little plane that we could count the shimmering leaves of El Nino grasses at the crest, which fell away and left us high above crude little hills sifting down into the Mojave.
The pools and parking lots of polite society bunched up against the freeway and then were no more. The delineated squares of civilization faded under shifting sands, until an isosceles of bleach black tarmac drew itself on the desert floor, all that’s left of the mighty El Mirage Air Force Base. The air above El Mirage is the consecrated ether, which held Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier.
But El Mirage has been demoted from the glory days of aircraft “proving” and bought by a “private contractor” called“General Atomics”, which “happens” to develop military drones. So these days camera weapons painted the color of the sky lurk above the airport as if on strings, their mantis heads evaluated our small plane with the disdain of our future overlords.
Dezso pushed the stick and the plane dived low. He and the co-pilot scanned the salt flats, debating the extent recent rains have softened it. “What say we go on a meth tasting tour?” crackles Dezso’s voice through the earphones as we banked over a bald man wearing cowboy boots and shorts, behind a line of plastic bags steady flapping on barbed wire. Dezso put the plane down on the hard crust of the salt flats, which was, Iinshallah, dry enough to hold our weight.
The white sands of El Mirage are popular for photographers as the lack of visual distraction forces one to focus more clearly on the subject. For example, I noticed that the co-pilot, Gino, had a nose ring. A severely bashed up Rolex. Hair over the ears. Sid Vicious sunglasses. None of it regulation.
My dad taught flying, I grew up in small airports. Due to the cost of training and staying certified civilian pilots tend to be staid, conservative, retired military and business bastards. In my prior experience small plane world was just a small, plain world. But it was clear to me then that Dezso and this Gino character are not my daddy’s pilots. These are punk pilots.
“That’s where many land speed records were set.” Dezso points across the flats where the blankness is framed by some vague jagged hills. “I was the crew chief for the American team called ‘Spirit…on Craig Breedlove’s ‘Spirit of America’ team. I oversaw the building of the car and every test run we did. The objective was to be the first car to break the sound barrier. But we were racing much better funded British team... and they did it first.”
Dezso shrugs off the defeat with that unnerving positivity that gurus emanate.
We walked off the blinding white of the dry lake into a confederation of rusty hangers built on normal desert sand. The welcome wagon from the other kind of speed made famous in the Mojave materialized from the wastes on a motorized mountain bike, wearing a full green camouflage suit. “That guy is not one of our allies” Dezso advised as the camouflage guy puttered by, saying nothing, eyeballing us “sky people” out of the side of his head.
Luckily, America has an abyss like the Mojave, too barren to even give to Indians, where men can fly contraptions, break sound barriers or shoot old televisions with automatic weapons. “What I want to do is open up a drone port and flying car and motorcycle station that will go from here”, Dezso pointed to a dust devil northeast, “all the way to Vegas.”
Dezso opens the door to his hangar and there is a gyrocopter, or to be more preciseThe Molnar T2, which is a two-seat autogyro trainer, blades hobbled with thin yellow ropes. The rest of the hanger is full of the things one needs to build a flying machine, fasteners, pieces of engine and wing. Propellers. Almond butter. “What we’ll do is have races along the side of the highway up into Henderson…”
Dezso limbers up the autogyro, and goes through the ritual inspection, feeling along the rotor blades for cracks, examining the engine, yarding on joists to see if they flex. “I mean, you’re assuming that people could fly a motorcycle.” I say. Dezso, always unfazed by this line of reasoning, comes back with, “I can. I can fly the thing. If I can do it, you can do it right?”
I wasn’t so sure. Dezso has flown C 141 for the Air Force, worked on a supersonic car and flies experimental whirligigs. I wreck motorcycles in Los Angeles.
“What if I said, ‘Hey man, hundred dollars says I can beat you to Vegas from here?’ Dezso thinks that every risk taker is a sucker for the hundred-dollar bet. “Why not? It’s safe...I mean a main reason people die in planes is engine failure, which you don’t have to worry bout in an autogyro because if the engine fails then you will just go down slow, like one of those seeds off a sycamore tree. An autogyro can only fall so fast, you know. And what? If it’s bad weather you just land and take the 15.” He pointed northeast along the 15 freeway, which ran, engineer straight, into the horizon.
It seemed crazy then, but after spending twenty odd hours driving in various cars across the vast California deserts I would come to share Dezso’s view.
“But people are stupid, they’ll crash, you’ll be sued.”
“Not if I put a little sign on it that says, “ Dezso holds a palm up to his sternum, “you must be this much of a bad ass to fly one of these.”
Dezso finishes his preflight and guides us toward an amalgam of sheds flecked with hard won desert rust called Teddy’s Airport. We found thirteen men and one woman hiding in the shade between the grilling trailer, the battery trailer and Teddy’s living trailer. It was a meeting of the first chapter of Gyrocopter Pilots association, the oldest in the country, debating the design of their T-shirt.
This group of aviators are bonded by more than enthusiasm as, until recently, an aspiring gyro pilot had to build his autogyro in order to fly it, the logic being that by the time an aspiring gyrocopter pilot puts the thing together he’ll be an expert on the intricacies of the craft and thus more able to survive piloting it.
Which appeared to be true. The men at the autogyro meeting weren’t wild-eyed freaks with a death wish. They’re men (the lone woman was a secretary who volunteered to keep the minutes), who wish to build and fly an experimental aircraft. The mix of races and nationalities, whites, Asians, Latinos, Polacks, is testament to the fact that autogyros draw mavericks from all over Rosemead.
There were, also, more than three sets of Einstein eyebrows among the autogyro pilots, evidently a product of the white desert. The greatest eyebrows of all belonged to Teddy, after whom the airport was named. Teddy has a Polish accent, not tall, maybe 65. “They say it is my airport. Teddy’s airport. But there is no airport.” Teddy gestured to the nothing all around, which only served to reinforce the primacy of his compound.
Teddy gave us a quick tour of his living trailer with a small dog and a room full of autogyro magazines and then the grilling trailer engulfed in cheeseburger smoke. The best part was where Teddy had ten soviet surplus solar panels lined up to twenty naval batteries tucked in a shed. “You see? it’s already here.” Dezso gestures to the elaborate wiring, linking the black boxes the length of the shed. “Teddy got it figured out. If Teddy can do it everybody can do it. So, by the time we get to Mad Max, petroleum fuel will be outdated because if you don’t have fat cats bringing gasoline to you, well then you ain’t going to get it.”
It was impossible not to talk about Mad Max with the gyrocopters and the speed freaks. “ Mad max isn’t going to need that shit. No, by the time it’s Mad Max times we’ll be fighting for water.” Dezso crosses back to his trailer where Gino has rolled the autogyro out of the hanger and is shouting and gesticulating, “It will be more like ‘Moist Max”.
Teddy shows us his autogyro, which, without benefit of plastic fairing is all welded metal and wires. Beside the oil pressure and the tachometer dials Teddy had mounted a plastic wind gauge, the type you might find at a beach house. Teddy shrugs, “They say I have to have speedometer, they don’t say if it have to be good one…”
Dezso and Gino buzzed along the road and over Teddy’s place at a pretty good clip in the autogyro. Gino held a hydra headed GoPro camera to get the wrap around view as they skimmed the rooftops and banked out over the desert.
To the uninitiated eye an Autogyro aircraft appears out of phase, wackadoo, wounded.
In reality it is an extremely stable and inexpensive aircraft. “Autogyro is like dirt bike of the air,” Teddy says. Teddy’s airport is for flying junkies, men who have given up women and fresh food and normal neighbors- the whole landlubber life to live out in the blank, with the rusty hangers screeking in the wind and the dust devils dancing to fly their machines without being hassled by the man. Pilot heaven is a place you can land anywhere.
It was when Dezso put the gyro away that I found his bed in a shelving unit beside theengine parts. The pillow that alerted me to the presence of the bunk, tucked in the shelf like a dirty secret . I pictured Dezso sleeping on a two inch sheet of foam in a shipping container, eating rabbit food, waiting for the wind to die so he can test his machine. So remember Mr. Molnar tonight, you poor starving artist, feeling sorry for yourself on the lumpy couch cushion. He’s sleeping in an airplane hangar, waiting for dawn to test his machine.
If Dezso succeeds, the process might begin by which humanity might be saved from choking on it’s own pollution. If he fails it’s salt death and his body will be stripped by dirt heads then eaten by coyotes.
PROCEED DIRECTLY TO PLAN B
We enter a Civilian airport at midnight. Modern hangers. No rust. No speedfreaks. We were back in the small, plain, plane world, until Dezso opened up his hangar door.
“This is the first one that flew”
The GT is the first in the progression of Molnar mobiles. It’s a normal autogyro beefed up with big tires. There is a drivetrain that can be switched from turning the propeller blades to driving the rear wheel of landing gear, like a motorcycle. Weight considerations have left the frame naked so it’s more of a flying dune buggy.
Next to this is the G2, the two seat flying motorcycle. “The point of the G2 is that it’s a motorcycle on the road and if you decide to fly you put the mast up and it becomes an autogyro.”
The G2 is 12 feet long and the fuselage is made of steel webbed together. The rest is carbon fiber, motorcycle engine or propeller. The two wheels on the front mean that, technically, the G2 is a trike, but it’s a flying trike.
“What’s good about the G2 is how narrow it is. I split lanes in this thing.”
Now Dezso’s speaking my language. For those of you who aren’t motorcyclists “splitting lanes” is the practice of passing in between cars who drive too damn slow.
“Does it run?”
“Oh yeah. Get in. See? It’s got both a tail number and a motorcycle license plate,” he failed to point out the word EXPERIMENTAL written in bold black letters along the fuselage in the same font the surgeon general uses on packs of cigarettes.
Dezso points out the retractable landing gear mounted to the back. “Aerodynamics demand that these come up on takes off. It’s a little tricky because you need to switch from steering to counter steering instantly or you're dead. Here, get in.”
He said it again. I couldn’t ignore it. So, I lowered myself into a recumbent position and allowed Dezso to strap me in with a four point racing harness. Then he gave me a helmet to put on, which seemed a little pointless until Dezso climbed in front of me and put his helmet on.
That’s when I realized Deszo was going start the thing. I tapped him on the shoulder, urgently-“Wait we’re going to take off?” but my words were lost under the engine. I was justifiably nervous about flying in a motorcycle gyroplane. If you check the history of aviation, first guy to die was the third guy to fly.
But there’s no way to get out of the G2, as the passenger is fully reclined and strapped into the metal airframe. To claw my way out would require grabbing Dezso by the helmet, which was no longer an option as we were moving pretty fast.
“Don’t worry! It’s legal to drive on the road,” he screamed over the engine as the airport gate opened slowly.
The youth on the corner stood dumfounded. Dezso twisted the throttle, the thing went braaaaaap and we ran off faster than a scalded cat in something loud, weird, not yet invented.
Dezso was right about the steering. It would kill you if you weren’t ready for it. Or I wasn’t ready for it and it almost killed me. As we went around corners the wheels would cant in order hold the road. I tried to lean into it, but the four point harness held me with no choice but to breathe into my calm place while watching broken glass glint in the pavement rushing by.
I couldn’t tell if the sirens were for us. I never can. That’s the problem with sirens. Regardless, it seemed like a good time to get Dezso’s deathtrap off the street, license plate and tail number or not. So, we charged back to thesecurity gate and Dezso jumped out and typed in the security code.
While we waited for the gate to open he told me to“relax, the cops aren’t coming for us”. But what does Deszo Molnar know about reality? His first motorcycle is a Trikogyrocycle.
Then Dezso and I were traffic on the pass, by the dump, under the smog. Fat bastards all around us.
The power lines crackling overhead reminded Dezso that it takes a constant eighty thousand horse power to pump all that water over the hill.
“See ThatDodge charger? For less money we could have an electric car flying in the air.” Dezso can’t stand it.
“I mean, what’s next? Are we going to keep using more and more fuel - keep sitting in traffic dragging empty seats? Or can we start to think about scaling back. You don’t need a big ass metal body and five hundred horsepower. Going fast is great, we do it, we’ve gone twenty times faster than sound. All this wide-body horsepower and smoke is bullshit because when you double the speed you square the resistance. You don’t need to go that fast, you just need to get off the deck see?”
Outside my truck the tableau of classic backstage California scrolled by fast as I dared to go: the oil derricks of Bakersfield barely pumping, the stench of Cowschwitz. I rolled down the window to make it worse.
“Do you know that ninety percent of the world’s problems would be solved if people just stopped eating cows? Fat bastards. Heart troubles. Methane. Rain forest eradication. ”
Allah Akbar means “god is great”. “Great” in this case isn’t a review of God’s personality. Fanatics aren’t screaming about how God is a Ggreat Gguy. No, the “Akbar” is a quantifier, meaning Allah is huge, everywhere. It is in the way that a fanatic sees Allah that Mr. Molnar sees system failure, writ large over everything, all the time. Systemic. Endemic. Akbar.
Dezso focuses on me, realizing I might fit the profile.
“So your dad teaches flying. Can you fly?”
Sure, I can fly. There’s nothing to it, except the taking off and landing parts. But I can’t afford to pay the gas it takes for two hundred hours it takes to achieve a license.
“But what if the gas was free, would you fly then?”
And this is when I understood that this motorcycle gyroplane was more than just pie in the sky. Hell yeah, I’d fly,
I would have pissed on a sparkplug not to be on the 5 Ffreeway heading Nnorth for the next four hours.
I hushed along a road on an electric motorcycle lent to me from a company called Zero Motorcycles. The motorcycle emitted no noise or smoke, things I counted as virtues until I heard the wind blowing through the artichokes outside of Watsonville.
I passed through a checkpoint employed off the main road and made my way through berry fields and horse pastures of a religious school until the road made a left at the Pacific Ocean. In keeping with the theme Dezso has brought us to another decommissioned military airbase, south of Santa Cruz, the epicenter of the “Electric Coast.”
We are bivouacking at the shop and airport of master fabricator, Craig Calfee, the man who introduced carbon fiber bicycles in the form of the Lemond Bike to the Tour de France in 1990. Due to Calfee’s design every bike in the Tour de France is now made of carbon fiber.
Dezso and Craig cruise by on an electric tandem bike faster than the pelicans flying overhead. No one is pedaling. They aren’t yucking it up, though, these are serious Americans, not some fun loving louts.
A airplane lands on the road ahead, a bit of a shock to me as I was unaware that I was on a runway.
This Electric Coast is a loose affiliation of like-minded inventors and rule breakers. The denizens of which include Joby Aaviation, to which NASA has awarded a contract to design a electric plane, Zero motorcycles, and Farasis Battery. There is also a drones concern called “Inspectools” which uses drones to check windmill blades .
The idea that motivates all the businesses on the electric coastis to make everything lighter, more efficient, electric.
We are at Calfee bicycle workshop because the bicycle is the technology from whence it all came. The progression is from bicycles to motorcycles to airplanes to rockets to the moon. Bicycle is the mother of the whole thing. And Craig Calfee is the man that makes fifteen thousand dollar bikes out of carbon fiber that weigh twelve pounds.
These are the Old Testament days of American aviation, close enough to genesis to parse who begat whom, in what order and on what day. The progression of this evolution goes from the Wright Brothers to Glenn Curtiss to Jack Parsons to Burt Rutan and Bob Truax.
Rutan designed thefirst plane that went around the world without refueling. The ascendency of experimental aviation is affirmed by the fact that Rutan’s rocket plane hangs in the Smithsonian next to the Wright Brothers plane and the Apollo one lunar lander.
The last name on the tree, Bob Truax, will be familiar to many as the inventor of the man behindthe steam rocket, which failed, due to Evel Knievel , over the Snake Canyon.
Regardless of Evel Knievel, Rutan and Truax are the names on the branch of aviation from which Dezso is mentored. Which makes, on certain days, Calfee’s airport bike shop drone port electric plane development complex where thehistory of aviation meets the Nnow, where the bug of Rreality hits the windshield of Ttime.
This is one of those days as Mr. Molnar and Mr. Calfeetinker away, moving around new electric engines on a Rutan-designed kit plane. They work together in the taciturn way that serious people do, classic inventor stuff. And what they are doing in there is cutting away weight, take ou,t the oxygen, the weapons and the extra fuel. Stripping the aircraft back to the essentials for racing.
The goal, according to Dezso, is a flying electric car whose gross weight, with the pilot, is five hundred pounds.
If five hundred pounds sounds too light but then you’re still misunderstanding what Dezso is getting at:
You don’t want to be IN a plane, man, you want to be the plane.
Is this the milieu that might construct the car crusher, the Duex Aux Machina to lift mankind from the smog of our poorly structured plots?
It’s possible. If you think two guys in a bike shop can’t change aviation then you have misunderstood both the past and the future.
DRONE PORT KITTY HAWK
We’re driving along highway 15 to get to Las Vegas from Los Angeles. An Aad on the radio for some new thing in your car where the radio won't turn on until you fasten your seatbelt is just too much for Dezso. So, he turns the radio off, manually.
“See my goal is to fly and drive the G2, out of El Mirage along the side of this roadto Jon’s drone port in Las Vegas.”
“You know people can barely drive cars as it is.” I interjected, though four hours ofjockeying with patriots in their traitorous gas-guzzlers on the way to Henderson made me understand the genius of flying there.
“Oh, this machine isn’t for other people. its for me,” Dezso reminds me with thate same sunny positivity.
At a coffee shop in Vegas we met Dezso’s hotshot new designer, Alex Kopersky who just graduatedfrom Art Center with full sketches of a new design, "The Streetwing." Dezso and Alex talk about the benefits of an having an electric motor. One of the benefits is that electric engines is that theythey are adequately cooled by the air, meaning you can configure them in different places and the trunk can go in the front.
“Luggage? For what? I’m just going to Vegas.”
No luggage? Alex’s eyes spin with the concept. Evidently, Auto Design School is all aboutexpanding the room for the luggage of the ever-fatter bastards of today's market.
“No, performance is all we care about. Performance first. You know why a flea can jump higher than a giraffe? No luggage.”
We were back in traffic heading to our motel before I understoodwhat Dezso meant by that particular riddle.
“The designer knows it’s a good gig because we’re going to build what he designs. He knows that if he stays on track with the auto guys he’ll spend his life designing a taillight. So, for him, it’s either you designed a tail light or some shit that makes you turn the radio down or you can be the guy that sketched up a Molnar flying car design, which we will build and fly.”
The mock-ups had given Dezso a solid image of the flying plane and seeing it set him into hyperactivity.
“First things first I’m taking the Streetwing all the way down to Tierra del Fuego.“ In the tradition of aviation pioneers Dezso is planning The Great Trip Over The Unforgiving Shit, a time honored way for aviators to prove their new machine or to disappear, never to be found. Either way he makes the history books.
It’s a risky proposition, crossing these continents in any vehicle. The headhunters and the MS 13 guys around the Darien Gap will, for damn sure, want to fly a Streetwing. Then there’s whole issue of the byzantine South American traffic rules and the winds down in the horse latitudes.
I couldn’t talk him out of it, his eyes were lit up like lemons in a one-armed bandit machine. It was all coming together, so close, but still moving at the glacial pace of cash.
That was when a Lamborghini pulled up beside us, twelve cylinders idling loud enough to rattle ourteeth. I knew Dezso’s rap about how a Challenger is equal to the value ofan electric flying car and I also knew that, by those metrics, the Lamborghini would be analogous to moon rocket.
“I can’t wait to fly past this asshole and fuck his girlfriend.”
It was the first malicious comment I heard the man utter in the two thousand miles of travel. Days and nights, in and out ofstrange hotels, terrible food...sober as a judge the whole time, mind you. And the one person that pissed Dezso Molnar off was a knucklehead just minding his business in a lime green Lamborghini.
At the drone port this side of Las Vegas it became clear what a drone port would be: a field to land drones. The drones would carry whatever was needed to come up from Los Angeles in order to feed the luxury market in Las Vegas.
According to Amazon the future of package delivery is drones. According to NASA the future of aviation is electric, ergo, the future of air travel is drones. Because what is an electric engine aircraft but a big drone and what isa fat drunk bastard but a package to be delivered to and from the Casinos?
Dezso is making an informed gamble becauseDrones can’t fly into Las Vegas but they can stop in this field outside of Henderson with the flying motorcycles.
“This is the other side of track” he pointed toEl Mirage, southwest down the 15 in same blown out grey. I could feel the desert yawning at me, trying to suck five more hours out of my life.
“The other side of this is Teddy’s airport see?”
The desert rode off to the horizon beside the highway, flat the palm of your hand. Nothing between Henderson and El Mirage except dirt, tumble weeds and those bats just outside of Barstow.
Matter of fact, once you start looking at California with a whatsitcopter pilot’s eye most of the state is just landing strips next to highways. I, for one, can’t wait to fly experimental aircraft in the desert. Not only because I’d been brainwashed by days of righteous patter by Dezso Molnar or because it’s good for the environment but because it’s crazy. And macho.
Sure , flying an autogyro motorcycle sounds far fetched to old ladies and drunks but to punk pilots it sounds like both a good time and a great way to get to Vegas. If I had ten thousand dollars and a couple of drinks I’dfly one right now.
Furthermore, I know a bunch of motorcycle yahoos that will race against me if I told them about the hundred-dollar bet thing. And, when I beat those fools, I’d split lanes around Vegas, until I found the desert again. Then I’d take off and keep on flying down Route 66, through Monument Valley to Santa Fe on The Green Chile Circuit.
No stop lights, speed limits. Competition will force us to make badder assed flying motorcycles until even fat bastards will be able to fly them.
So get with it. Let the meeks inherit the earth.
Those with the right stuff come rank with us in the autogyro cycles above. Or, if the weather is bad, on the highway beside.
Because, if Allah really is Akbar, and Dezso Molnar doesn’t disappear into the Darien gap, the glory days of aviation are still ahead.