In the Japanese animated film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the protagonist explores a post-apocalyptic world riding on a jet-powered glider called a Möwe (also called a mehve in English). When the movie was first released in 1984, a vehicle like that seemed like it could only exist in science fiction, but today one artist is determined to make it a reality. Kazuhiko Hachiya has spent the past decade designing and testing his own single-person glider and recently unveiled a full-sized model with a working jet engine.
As a mostly invention-based artist, Hachiya is no stranger to building unusual personal vehicles, having previously designed a jet-powered hoverboard (which was scrapped when the prototype caught fire during a public demonstration). The artist, who heads a company that makes toys and software typically aimed at children, turned his attention to recreating the glider from one of his favorite movies in 2003, calling it the OpenSky project.
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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is considered a classic in Japanese animation circles, particularly as it's the first film from writer/director Hayao Miyazaki, who later directed other highly-regarded movies like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Hachiya and his collaborators have made no secret about the source of their inspiration but have actually avoided an official endorsement from Miyazaki and his film studio, fearing that it would only cause trouble for them in the event of an accident.
The OpenSky project is now in its third iteration, following extensive testing with two full-sized prototypes, costing a total of 33.5 million yen (about US$335,000) to develop. The previous prototype, dubbed the M-02, successfully took to the air while being towed and remained aloft on its own for some time. Though this version didn't include an engine, it was intended to represent almost the exact dimensions of the final model.
The glider had a wingspan of 9.6 m (31.6 ft), and a fuselage pod length of 2.1 m (6.8 ft), not including the skid and landing gear on the front. Much of the airframe consisted of fiber-reinforced plastic with a wooden skeleton, keeping the entire structure at a relatively light 66 kg (145.5 lb). One pilot can lay down in the middle of the craft on a harness and adjust its pitch, roll, and direction using a set of rudder controls fitted to a pair of curved handles and by shifting weight.
The latest prototype is called the M-02J and, as the name suggests, it's very similar to the previous model, save for the addition of a working jet engine. The engine itself was custom-built by Hachiya and his collaborators at Team Rocket, a group whose goal is to send a private spacecraft into orbit. Hachiya has not yet revealed the exact specifications of the engine or any other differences between the M-02 and M-02J, though he has previously stated the team's goal was to have a 10-liter (2.6-gallon) fuel tank providing about 15 minutes of propulsion, which should be just enough time to get it into the air.
To keep the glider somewhat consistent with the one portrayed in the movie, the designers are aiming for a maximum speed of 120 km/h (75 mph), with a cruising speed between 50 and 90 km/h (31 and 56 mph). All of the life-sized prototypes also have a pilot weight limit of 50 kg (110 lb), or just enough to hold a young woman like the main character in the film. However it's doubtful that the final model will have the maneuverability of the glider seen in the movie, which was able to perform some acrobatics that would make even an experienced flyer queasy. By Hachiya's own admission, it's also incredibly unlikely that a pilot will ever be able to stand up safely while the glider is in flight.
The M-02J has been in development since 2007, but the developers only recently finalized its propulsion system for use on the ground, with actual flight testing set to begin later this year. Don't get too excited about the idea of flying an open-air jet glider just yet though. While Hachiya's passion project has spent over ten years in development, he has explicitly stated that there are no plans to mass produce the glider. He's also balked at the idea of making the blueprints freely available, concerned that someone might be injured or killed in an accident.
Hachiya is currently exhibiting the M-02J glider at the 3331 Arts Chiyoda Center in Japan, until September 16. During special presentations, the designer himself will demonstrate how to assemble the aircraft, describe each mechanism, and even allow attendees to ride it ... but only on the ground. Visitors will also have a chance to watch a video of the latest M-02J trial and try out a simulator that mimics the experience.
Check out the video below to see some of the OpenSky glider's long development process, as well as the M-02 prototype in flight, which looks just as fun to ride as you'd imagine.