Gliding on Air
“Nostalgia on steroids” is how Tom Luczycki
describes the process he used to build the Air Car.
Recalling the personal hovercraft ads he saw as a
child in magazines like Boy’s Life, Luczycki set out to
build an exhibit to delight children and remind adults
of the one device they always wanted to build.
The original model used industrial air casters and a
lightweight camp chair to float the rider. The second
iteration replaced the camp chair with some additional framework and an aluminum race car seat that
added several pounds of mass, but tons more cool.
Then came directional jets. The first version was
just a single jet; the rider held a length of hose and
operated a ball-valve, which allowed them to get
moving pretty quick, but — here’s the kicker —
steering and orientation were impossible.
Luczycki’s team wanted the air car to simulate the
difficulties of maneuvering in space — weightlessness in 2D — so a more complex system was needed.
They came up with an arrangement where the rider
manipulates the car via a joystick and a lever switch.
Luczycki first got the maker bug when he worked
22 Make: Volume
on the maintenance crew at a paper mill in upstate
New York. “When trying to meet a production quota
at the end of the month, you saw the most insane,
Goldbergian cobb-jobs to keep a machine running
for just a few more days,” he recalls. Once the deadline passed, he’d get to see the job done right. He
learned that both methods are important, and need
to be used together in the right proportions.
After studying engineering, Luczycki switched
to fine arts and worked in an art foundry, first as a
metal finisher, then as a large-scale sand molder.
Eventually, he landed his dream job as a designer
and fabricator at the Detroit Science Center, where
he built projects like the Air Car and the Tilt-O-Rama, a ride that elicits two kinds of reactions: the
shock and horror of the passengers and the delight
of their friends at seeing them in shock and horror.
“The best is when we would put in a teacher who
was visiting the center on a field trip,” he says.
“The students went nuts.” —Bruce Stewart
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Photography by Tom Luczycki