The Mojave Flyer

10 November 2013, from Returning east

I’m driving east, into the nameless areas past the military sprawl of Twentynine Palms and the tourist-heavy Joshua Tree, in the last gasp of California before it gives up to Arizona. A sign says ‘Next services: 100 miles.’ I’ve filled up with diesel, but double-check the gauge just to be sure.

I pass a bicyclist coming the other way who appears to be towing a bundle of lumber. Something about the scene pokes at me. Another mile, and I’m regretting not stopping. I turn around in the sandy shoulder and head back.

The bicyclist has stopped in a turn-out. His load is not a bundle after all, but a structure: a skeletal trailer, perhaps ten feet in length, incongruously resembling the stripped fuselage of a small airplane.

I pull over and walk up to the bicyclist, say hello. He’s put the trailer up on blocks, and is rummaging through a grimy bag of tools. On the ground in front of him is an electric drill that’s been hardwired to what appears to be a home-made battery pack: a paper-towel cardboard core wrapped with duct tape and sprouting wires. He says he thinks he’s got a blown bearing. I offer to help if I can — I have a cabinet full of tools in the truck — but he think he’s got everything he needs.

I introduce myself, and Don shyly shakes my hand with a touch so gentle that I worry I might have hurt him. He’s brown with sun and dirt, the patina of the human desert rat I often meet out here.

The framework in front of him is indeed a fuselage, a naked airplane, missing wings, tail, cockpit, and the skin that binds it all together. Yet something feels altered, missing. All the joints are roughly glued, and many pieces are held together only by strips of rubber inner tubes, stretched and tied around intersections of light plywood. This is not an airplane that once knew the feeling of the sky; it’s clearly homemade, built to appear to be an airplane.

A small gasoline engine sits at the base of the frame, just above the two wheels that transform this strange, home-made airplane into a land-drifting structure. Don explains that the engine helps him climb the hills, like the motor on an electric bike. I spot the throttle cable winding through the fuselage frame, amongst a greasy sleeping bag, a can of fuel, a hacksaw zip-tied to a strut, and various other minimal possessions, up to a control on the handlebars of the bicycle.

I gaze at his structure, the ingenuity, the minuscule weight of it all, and think, somewhat ashamed, of the mass of steel and plywood that composes my own moving home, weighing perhaps a hundred times more than Don’s lithe bike and airplane-like trailer. I wake from a daydream of gossamer housetrucks, and Don is talking about propellers.

I suddenly realize that the purpose of the engine is not to directly drive the little wheels on the base of the fuselage, but rather to drive a propeller, which will move air, which will give a push to the structure, the bike, and Don himself. Indeed, he shows me a fragment of a propeller shaft, and tells me he’s been experimenting with different designs, finding the right gearing, looking for the optimum thrust. The spinning propeller creates thrust, and it is this thrust that moves the airplane — or the flying bicycle.

Don waxes on about the Wright brothers, those visionary bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio — coincidentally, also the birthplace of Don himself. Orville & Wilbur spent a great deal of time on inventing an efficient propeller, and their design has rarely been exceeded. Don says he’s trying to build a propeller like the Wrights’, one that will give the maximum amount of thrust given his small engine. He cites statistics, comparisons, numbers of pounds of thrust, all of which instantly evaporate into the warm air. I do not understand, but I do believe. In this moment, I am completely confident that Don will figure it out.

The evening winds whirl into the valley, stirring the dust. I look around me, see the purple mountains, the sunset-burnt orange sand, specked with the green of sage. I am standing on the side of an empty highway, with a man who is teaching his bike to fly, here in the sparse Mojave desert, three thousand miles and a hundred years from the beach at Kitty Hawk.