Those of a certain age may remember the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. As Rafer Johnson lit the eternal flame, a man strapped into a rocket-propelled backpack launched himself across the arena above the ticker tape and balloons, landing gracefully on the track before a TV audience of 2.5 billion.
It was a moment of triumph seeming to herald a new age in which, finally, teased for decades by Buck Rogers’ “degravity belt” and King of the Rocketmen, we’d all soon be fizzing off to work with our own personal jetpacks. Even Isaac Asimov confidently predicted that by the turn of the century, they would be “as common as a bicycle”.
So what happened? In 2018, shouldn’t we all be flying to work?
So called “rocketmen” were not entirely the work of fiction. Russian pilot Aleksandr Andreyev had been working on one as early as 1919. Germany’s second world war rocket whiz Wernher Von Braun allegedly worked on a “jet vest” for the US army after the war, which later became project Grasshopper, aimingto build a “jump belt”.
All these attempts fizzled out due to lack of funds. It wasn’t until engineer Wendell Moore’s Bell Rocket Belt was first tested in 1960 that the world witnessed a working jetpack – using a turbo jet rather than a rocket.
The US military commissioned Moore and John K Hulbert – a gas turbine specialist – to work on the Jet Belt, or “man rocket”, for possible military use. Moore’s first problem was fuel – anything capable of producing enough thrust burned up in a flash.
Moore hit upon using hydrogen peroxide, a compound commonly used as bleach, as a fuel. Two cylinders were attached to a fibreglass frame with another of nitrogen gas. Forced on to a catalyst, this mix explodes into superheated steam, shooting through twin nozzles at 700C.
Thrust sorted, they soon encountered the human body’s natural resistance to aerial navigation. The device, which used directional thrusters controlled by hand-operated levers, was extremely tricky to stabilise.
Undaunted, Moore flew the first flights himself, but in February 1961 the belt swerved like an unattended firehose, snapped its tether and Moore fell 2.5 metres, breaking his kneecap.
After 36 tethered flights in a hangar, the untethered belt, was finally flown outside by Harold “Hal” Graham, a 27-year-old Bell test engineer with no previous flight experience. Amid a cacophony of steam, Graham flew for just 13 seconds, covering over 34 metres (112 feet) at an altitude of 18 inches.
During the first public display at Fort Eustis, Virginia, on 8 June 1961, Graham lifted himself to around 4.5 metres, dangled around for 15 seconds and landed, offering a salute.
It was a big hit with the public. Graham piloted the device all around the world to great acclaim, but after landing on his head from 6.7 metres at a demo in Florida, he retired.
Graham handed over the reins to his friend Bill Suitor, who proved adept at flying the machine. Again, the public loved it, but the US army, who was paying for it, was disappointed.
The belt weighed 56.7kg with fuel and consumed 19 litres of expensive hydrogen peroxide during its 30 second flight and required a platoon of service personnel to attend to it. It flew neither high nor low enough to be at a safe height, and it was difficult to fly. In the opinion of the military, the Bell Rocket Belt was more a spectacular toy than an effective means of transport, so it withdrew funding.
But by then the idea had caught on. Jetpack enthusiast and engineer Nelson Tyler, approached Suitor with his own belt. Suitor flew the Tyler belt to much acclaim at exhibitions across the US, culminating in the triumph flight at the Olympics in 1984.
Stunt pilot Kinnie Gibson was next to fly Tyler’s belt, making himself a millionaire flying as the Rocketman until his passing – from natural causes – in 2015. But it was Gibson’s success that is partly why you haven’t come to work on a rocket pack this morning.
By 1990, the 90% pure oxygen he needed was becoming too expensive. Gibson tried his engines with 88% oxygen and a catalyst to compensate, but the pack malfunctioned, smashing up Gibson’s knee. He sued the chemical company for the malfunction – and won – leading to companies refusing to make the 90% oxygen you would need for that homebuilt rocket-belt.
Then, in 1992, came the RB2000, a project based on the Bell model, built by Brad Barker, Larry Stanley and Joe Wright. If ever there was a moral reason not to build a rocket belt, this story told in The Rocketbelt Caper by Paul Brown – involving lump hammers, lawsuits, drug smuggling and murder – is it.
Fast-forward to the 2010s and jetpacks have become a reality again, if not quite in the form of the personal backpack we thought we would all be dangling from. Water-propelled Hydrolift/Jetlev devices have become a commonplace exotic seaside pursuit, while jetpack enthusiasts build untethered versions for themselves, usually similar to the designs of Wendell Moore at Bell. The big difficulty here is still the scarcity of hydrogen peroxide.
Inventor, tech whiz and head of Google’s research laboratory Google X, Astro Teller, says even Google has looked into jetpacks, but at a quarter-mile a gallon and with a motor as loud as a Harley Davidson, decided they weren’t practical.
More hopeful is the offering from Jetpack Aviation, who specialise in personal vertical takeoff and landing devices. It demoed its JB10 in Monaco (two minutes aloft) and in London in October (four minutes aloft) last year to some acclaim. The brain power behind it? One Nelson Tyler, who aims to release an electric version in 2019 … yours for £200k.
Then there’s Swiss ex-military and commercial pilot Yves “JetMan” Rossy, who straps two 8ft carbon wings and four small kerosene jet engines to his body. Online footage shows Rossy confidently executing loop-the-loops and roaring over the Grand Canyon strapped into his device. Drawback: one must throw oneself out of a plane, which makes for a rather awkward commute. Cost: £190k.
Richard Browning, meanwhile, is a British inventor dubbed “Wiltshire’s Iron Man”, whose Daedalus personal flightsuit sees him strap jet engines to his back and hands.
Perhaps the most promising development, which is already on the market, is that made by Tecnologia Aeroespacial Mexicana. It’s already sold four of its Tecaeromex Rocket Belts, and a helicopter version is in the works. You can even train to use one using a JetLev.
We might soon be able to fly about strapped into jetpacks, but whether we should is another matter. It’s hard to disagree with original rocketman Suitor, who said, after his experiences with Barker and co: “I hope they never become popular. Nobody would be safe.
“You’d have people falling out of the air like unwanted Santa Clauses. I’ve had several close shaves myself and almost sliced myself up like a big soft slice of silky cheese. Could you imagine every idiot who could afford one flying about?”