PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — When Panama City Beach resident, Jeff Elkins, was a kid, he says he knew one thing for sure.
“I knew there would be flying cars by the year 2000,” he said in an interview.
The year 2000 came and went without flying cars, so, Elkins took matters into his own hands. With screws and sheet metal, propellers and joysticks, he created an early version of the “Air-board.”
“Now 20 years later we’re finally getting something close, “ he said. “This aircraft is what they call a personal electric vertical takeoff and landing device.”
The spider-looking contraption is powered completely by batteries and is equipped with eight different propellers, rollover bars and foot-straps for a rider.
All Elkins needed now was someone daring enough to strap-in and fly it. Luckily for him, a woman named Mariah Cain was looking for her next big adventure.
Cain was a professional “Flyboard” rider; she had been gliding and doing tricks on the water-powered jet board for years.
At the time, Elkins was working for Flyboard as well as inventing his own projects on the side, including the “Air-board.” At a Las Vegas flyboarding show, a mutual friend of both Elkins and Cain brought them together.
The rest is history.
“She’s the best partner,” said Elkins. “She’s a very unique individual, I’ve never met anybody like her.”
Elkins said she’s a natural pilot for his invention.
“She’s intuitive with this machine, the two of them dance in the air,” he said. “She’s the only one that knows how to do it.”
Cain said it’s a dream-come-true.
“I’m like, how is this my job?!” she said. “I was used to being attached to a hose, so having something where I could just shoot off the ground and not have anything holding me down was really incredible.”
Now, three years and hundreds of hours of work later, they’re soaring as a tech start-up called DragonAir Aviation.
“Her first board only flew 3 minutes,” said Elkins. “Now we’re looking at a thirty minute flight with a two-hundred pound pilot.”
The DragonAir team is located in Panama City Beach working out of TechFarms, the only technology incubator in Panama City Beach. You can find the team there every day working around the clock to get ready for a big competition.
“We were looking for some opportunity and we found the GoFly prize,” said Cain. “That’s where we’re at now.”
“GoFly” is a world-wide competition sponsored by Boeing, challenging contestants to build a working, personal flying device.
The competition started out with around three thousand contestants from 101 countries; DragonAir Aviation is one of the top five finalists flying toward the grand prize of one million dollars.
“I’ve never put more heart or time or passion into anything in my entire life,” said Cain. “We’ve been on the run for months trying to make this work but we’re finally here and we’re ready to take it on.”
The winner of the competition’s “Final Fly-Off” will be the best in four categories; size, speed, duration and payload. The DragonAir team will be heading to California at the end of February to take their shot at the million dollar prize.
“We’re confident,” said Cain. “It’s going to be a tight timeline but I don’t know, we feel like this is what we were made for.”
Elkins believes they’re ready.
“I know we’re going to win,” he said with a smile.
At the end of the day, for Cain, the “oohs” and “aahs,” and the smiles on spectators’ faces watching the aircraft fly at Bay Point Golf Club are what it’s all about.
“I hope we get to keep bringing inventions to the world,” said Cain. “Innovations that will excite people and inspire their imaginations and encourage other people to follow their dreams and dig a little deeper.”
Elkins said this is just the beginning.
“I think we’re going to have several different versions of this thing,” he said. “That’s probably what I’ll spend my time doing.”
He said in the future, he hopes the device can be used recreationally in races or even to help save lives by acting as a personal air-lift device for military and first-responder personnel.
“I guess it’s a super-powered drown, so there’s a lot of applications in that,” he said.
If DragonAir Aviation wins the million dollars, Cain said they’ll use that money to help pay the team-members that worked so hard on the project as well as put some back into the company for future projects and youth-education programs.
The GoFly Final Fly-Off will take place from February 27th to February 29th at the Moffett Federal Airfield at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.