Here's Your Jetpack

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Jetpacks have long been a staple of American futurism: we believe that soon, just down the line a bit, we'll be able to strap on a jet-powered backpack and fly to work. But, decade after decade, no jetpacks. At least not at my house. The "Where's My Jetpack?" notion is such a mainstay of futurist thinking that it's the title of a book. But despite not having your own jetpack, various prototypes have been built and actually worked. Let's have a look at the best-known jetpack, which was actually called a "rocket belt."

The Bell Aerosystems Rocket Belt

Bell Aerosystems developed the Rocket Belt under contract with the US Army. Its flying time was extremely limited (about 20 seconds), but it actually worked -- tests were carried out throughout the 1960s, as well as flights at the 1984 and 1996 Summer Olympics. In the demo video below (circa 1966), test pilot Bill Suitor demonstrates the pack, explaining that a timer buzzes against his skull as he flies -- if he runs out of jet fuel, he crashes to the ground. (Incidentally, apparently this happened to inventor Wendell Moore in an early test flight, causing Moore to break a kneecap and stop flying. The early test flights used a ground tether to prevent enthusiastic novice pilots from shooting up too high to safely descend within the 20-second-ish window.) When asked about parachutes and other methods of descent in this video, Suitor chuckles and says, "We rely on gravity." He has a point -- he's not flying high enough for a parachute to help. BEHOLD:

Suitor flew 1,200 times using this device, and wrote a book about being a jetpack pilot, called The Rocketbelt Pilot's Manual. He appeared in a laundry list of TV shows and movies piloting the pack, including: The A-Team, The Fall Guy, Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, Newhart (!), The Six Million Dollar Man, and the Bond movie Thunderball.

And here's some footage (no sound) of two Bell Rocket Belts flying simultaneously (note the 16mm movie camera mounted on one pilot's helmet). Because of the time limitations, this one-minute movie must have entailed multiple refueling sessions.

And here's Suitor flying at Disneyland in 1965:

(The title of this video says the event took place in 1966, but helpful commenters helped determine that it was probably taken in late December, 1965.)

And a seven-minute History Channel clip about the Rocket Belt:

You can also watch a ten-minute silent film featuring various clips of test flights in the 1960s.

Although the Bell Rocket Belt is the best-known working jetpack, there have been others. NASA uses a jetpack on its EVAs so astronauts can maneuver and return to the spacecraft (plus, there were early plans for a Bell product to go to the Moon on the Apollo missions, notably a two-man variant called the Bell POGO), and various private companies have worked on the technology -- Wikipedia's jetpack page has a good roundup. Also relevant is a MythBusters episode in which the guys attempt to build a jetpack.

So, to answer the "Where's my jetpack?" question: it has been around in various forms since the 1960s, but it's dangerous, requires extensive training to operate, and has run times measured in seconds. But, hey, it exists.

The Jetpack Murder

There's a curious 1990s coda to the jetpack saga involving an "RB-2000" jetpack and an unsolved murder. You can read all about it from Atlas Obscura. Here's a tidbit:

By the time the RB-2000 was flying over the Houston Ship Channel, the company was already in ruins. Barker and Stanley were at each others throats, while the third partner Joe Wright had a failing car stereo business and a escalating crystal meth addiction. Even before the inaugural flight of the belt, Barker and Stanley had had a terrible falling out. Stanley believed Barker was stealing money from the company and when he confronted Barker, they fought violently. From a 2002 Sunday Herald article:

"Stanley got in my face," Barker recalls. "I grabbed a five-pound, dead-blow, lead-filled hammer off the table. I hit Stanley short blows twice to the back of the head. That pretty much ended the partnership."

Read the rest. It's worth it. The book Jetpack Dreams also covers this topic in depth.

See also: Jetpacks: The Future Is Now; Where's My Jetpack?

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September 17, 2012 - 10:27am
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