Rocket Man

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Last fall, producer Chris Berube found himself in an aerospace museum just outside of Washington D.C. The museum is inside a large aircraft hangar with rows and rows of warplanes and Air Force uniforms and even an iconic American spaceship.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): The Space Shuttle Discovery looks… It almost looks like a cardboard replica of the Space Shuttle Discovery. It doesn’t look real up close. This is amazing.

ROMAN MARS: Chris also found some exhibits that were less exciting.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): “Male astronauts could wear a urine collection hose and bag assembly. “This is literally just a diaper in a glass case. Oh, this is not what I’m looking for. Okay, keep walking.

CHRIS BERUBE: The museum was cool, but I was getting impatient. That’s because I was in Virginia for a very particular reason. I was there to see a jetpack. And according to the website for this museum, they had one. I just wasn’t having any luck finding it.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): Okay, I haven’t found the jetpack, but I have found a mailbox that looks like R2-D2. Okay, this hasn’t even gone to space? Why is this here?

CHRIS BERUBE: I know it may sound–I don’t know–immature for a 30-something-year-old man to wander around a museum and mutter to himself about the lack of jetpacks inside the museum. But hear me out. I had a really good reason. When I was a kid, my dad used to work at a hydro plant in Niagara Falls. And when he came home, he’d tell me and my brother all these stories about his time at work, like pranks or travel to interesting places. But there was one story my brother and I never got tired of hearing about. According to my dad, one of his coworkers had a jetpack. At least my dad thought he did. Apparently this guy knew how to fly a jetpack, and my dad told us that he even talked about putting one on the roof of the plant, I guess, in case of emergencies.

ROMAN MARS: For years, Chris wasn’t sure if this jetpack man existed or if jetpacks even existed.

CHRIS BERUBE: My dad died in 2010, so I never had a chance to ask him about this as a journalist. For years, I just had this story in the back of my head, but the details never totally added up. For example, according to my dad, the jetpack guy had flown one in the movie Superman II So I watched Superman II, and you know what? There’s no jetpack. I started to wonder, “Did my dad make this up to entertain us?” I mean, there surely wasn’t some guy flying around southern Ontario with a jetpack in the early ’90s, so I didn’t put too much stock in it. It was just some family story–a thing I would tell people at parties, kind of half remembering all the details. But it turns out I wasn’t alone.

DAVID TAYLOR: So this story for me really started from a memory. I wasn’t even sure it was a real memory that I had.

CHRIS BERUBE: This is David Taylor. He grew up in Washington D.C. in the 1960s, and he had something similar–his own hazy half memories about a jetpack guy.

DAVID TAYLOR: I just had this image in my mind of a figure dressed in a white kind of an astronaut suit hovering over the National Mall.

ROMAN MARS: David also wasn’t sure if this memory was real until he started looking through the archives.

DAVID TAYLOR: I found a photo from the Washington Post in 1967 of a guy wearing a jetpack on the Mall, who was giving this demonstration at this pageant of transportation. Sort of twin canisters on a backpack. It has sort of an arm–a metal arm on either side–like a motorcycle handlebar, but running back up to his back instead of in front of him.

ROMAN MARS: The photos were proof; David really had seen a jetpack in action.

DAVID TAYLOR: I felt completely validated, and I was thrilled. And I thought, “Okay, this can be the start of actually something that’s a story that I’ve been part of rather than just some unrooted dream.”

CHRIS BERUBE: David wrote about his experience for the Washington Post. And after I read his article, I realized two things. One was that his jetpack guy–the one he saw back in 1967–he sounded suspiciously like my dad’s jetpack guy. But the other thing I realized is that absolutely, definitively jetpacks are real. American scientists actually developed one back in the ’60s, and it worked pretty well.

ROMAN MARS: 50 years ago, magazines were filled with claims that pretty soon there would be a jetpack in every garage. The jetpack seemed like the future.

CHRIS BERUBE: It’s not just me and David who have been obsessed with this search for a jetpack. For decades, scientists–lots of people–have tried to bring the jetpack into reality. So what happened? Why has the jetpack fallen off our radar?

ROMAN MARS: Ever since humans have dreamt of flying through the air in defiance of God, we have wanted jetpacks. A Russian scientist came up with a drawing for one in the 1910s, but it was never built.

CHRIS BERUBE: jetpacks showed up in pop culture a few decades later–in things like Buck Rogers comics in the 1930s–well before they became a reality. By mid-century, they came to represent the whole idea of a futuristic society, alongside flying cars and servant robots.

DAVID TAYLOR: The Jetsons was… I would watch it on Saturday mornings as the cartoons then. And so that was my sense of space travel. There were jetpacks in the Jetsons, and so that got linked to this memory.

JANE JETSON: Let’s go, George. Up, up, and away.

GEORGE JETSON: Yeah, but not too high. My ears will pop.

ROMAN MARS: jetpacks may have been the stuff of cartoons, but scientists weren’t far behind.

CHRIS BERUBE: You might be thinking of a classic jetpack, like a backpack with flames coming out of the bottom. But it took a while to get there. Other technologies were tried out first, like flying shoes with propellers on the bottom or a platform that could be lifted by compressed air. None of these bobbles really panned out until the military got involved.

STEVE LEHTO: A lot of the cutting edge technology, sadly, is developed by the military because–number one–the military has got deep pockets. They’ve got money to spend on this stuff.

CHRIS BERUBE: Steve Lehto is the author of the book The Great American jetpack.

STEVE LEHTO: Anything that can give you an advantage in war is something your military wants. So people were thinking, “Hey, if we could strap rockets to soldiers who were running across a field and it made ’em run faster, they’d be harder to shoot–they’d get farther–that kind of thing.

ROMAN MARS: In the 1950s, the U.S. military took a serious interest in jetpack research.

COLLEEN ANDERSON: This was a very tense period of the Cold War.

CHRIS BERUBE: That’s Colleen Anderson. She’s a rocketry expert at the Smithsonian.

COLLEEN ANDERSON: I think it speaks to the fears of the Cold War–the kind of unknown aspects of the Cold War. and if the Cold War would become a hot war, what tools would be needed to fight?

ROMAN MARS: The military kicked it out to the regular contractors to see if anybody wanted to build a jetpack. Multiple aerospace companies came up with prototypes. None of these quite hit the mark until the Bell Aircraft Corporation entered the fray. They had a division called the Bell Aerospace that focused on jets and rockets. In the race to make a jetpack, Bell had one giant advantage over their rivals: an engineer named Wendell Moore.

CHRIS BERUBE: Wendell Moore–how do I put this? He looked exactly what you think a 1950s aerospace engineer would look like. He had a flat top haircut and these big thick glasses and a neat little bow tie. But beneath his square exterior, Wendell Moore was eccentric and talented enough to build his own experimental plane in his suburban garage.

BILL SUITOR: Everybody in the neighborhood thought he was nuts, but he was miles ahead of everyone.

CHRIS BERUBE: This is Bill Suitor. He worked for Moore at Bell Aerospace.

BILL SUITOR: The Ascender–or the “Ass-Ender” is the pronunciation they would use–it was a rear propeller, rear engine airplane experimental. We used to get the biggest kick out of it.

ROMAN MARS: At Bell, Moore developed rocket thrusters to help jet planes change direction at high altitude. So when the military called and asked about jetpacks, Wendell Moore didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

STEVE LEHTO: And Wendell Moore was looking at them one day and said, “You know, if we made those little rocket thrusters a little bigger and strapped ’em to a person, maybe he could get off the ground.”

CHRIS BERUBE: In the mid 1950s, Wendell Moore drew up a design for a device he called “The Rocket Belt.” Moore’s design looked a lot more like the jetpacks from cartoons and comic books.

COLLEEN ANDERSON: The rocket belt–it has a harness or a vest that you would put over the shoulders and then it has tanks for the propellants and then the exhaust would come out.

ROMAN MARS: The rocket belt included two arms the pilot could hold onto. And to propel the device, Bell Aerospace would fill the tanks with one of the most dangerous substances on earth: highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide.

STEVE LEHTO: So you can go to a drugstore and buy hydrogen peroxide and use it to clean cuts and take things off and clean with and whatever. But that’s a very, very low percentage of hydrogen peroxide–like 3% solution. If it’s closer to 90% or 95%, it’s actually extremely volatile.

CHRIS BERUBE: The Bell design was elegant in its simplicity. On the metal arms, there was a throttle like you’d see on a motorcycle. And when you twisted the throttle, it would cause this violent chemical reaction.

ROMAN MARS: The powerful reaction would create steam that was so strong, it could propel a human being through the air. The rocket belt was designed to be kinesthetic, which means that pilots could pivot their body to move the belt backwards and forwards.

STEVE LEHTO: The idea that you can control something through your body movements in an obvious manner–you lean the direction you want to go. We’ve all heard of the Segway scooters. The Segway scooter was supposed to be that you could get on it and use it almost instantly without thinking about it. Wendell Moore said, “I think if we actually put this thing on your back and put the nozzles in the right place and in the right direction, we could get this thing to fly the direction you want it to go by simply leaning. Leaning this way, you go that way.”

CHRIS BERUBE: The rocket belt was a sci-fi dream come to life. But to be clear, the rocket belt wasn’t a jetpack technically speaking because it didn’t use a jet engine. Instead, it was powered by steam. But still, even back then, lots of people used the words jetpack and rocket belt interchangeably because–I mean–it just kind of seemed like a jetpack.

ROMAN MARS: With funding from the military, inventor Wendell Moore completed his first prototype for his design in 1960. The next step was to actually fly that sucker.

CHRIS BERUBE: Moore set up an indoor test rig at the Bell Aerospace office in Niagara Falls. The office had an old airplane hangar, so there was lots of room for flights. In an act of either bravery or incredible stupidity, Wendell Moore nominated himself as the first test pilot. Wendell Moore would drive to work, strap on the rocket belt, twist the throttle, and up he’d go. He would take it up a couple feet and then a couple more.

ROMAN MARS: The rocket belt was heavy. It weighed over 100 pounds. It was noisy too, creating a sound many people compared to a jackhammer. And it was really hot, with steam reaching over 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

CHRIS BERUBE: Despite all of these inconvenient features, the rocket belt worked. Wendell Moore was doing the impossible. He was the first person ever to fly a rocket belt. He was also the first person ever to fall while using a rocket belt. Here’s Bill Suitor.

BILL SUITOR: They had a nylon rope for the safety tether–melded the rope–and he dropped to the floor and broke his knee. And that’s when Bell told him, “Moore, you’re done flying.”

CHRIS BERUBE: Despite this incident, the program kept going. And the first true rocket belt flight without tethers happened on April 20th, 1961, with a pilot named Hal Graham. The flight was momentous but also kind of small. Graham bent his knees, and he pushed up. And suddenly in this big cloud of steam, Hal Graham was in the air. Then just as quickly as he was up there, he started to come down and hit the grass with this kind of running tumble.

ROMAN MARS: We couldn’t talk to Hal Graham for the story because he died in 2009, but he did record a song about his time as a rocket belt pilot that you can find on YouTube.

HAL GRAHAM: Oh, my rocket belt days are over. My fame is fleeting fast. The task before you people is to improve upon the past.

CHRIS BERUBE: Hal Graham did several flights on the rocket belt, including a demonstration for the president. Graham flew the rocket belt in front of JFK, who was said to be slack-jawed as he watched a man gliding through the air.

ROMAN MARS: Bell Aerospace was eager to promote their new invention. The company had an art department that created drawings that showed the rocket belt out in the world. Their work imagined a society with office workers and American soldiers using rocket belts.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): Okay, so here’s actually a guy in an army uniform.

DON ERWIN: Yeah, and he’s got the requisite serious expression on his face for going into battle.

CHRIS BERUBE: Don Erwin is the president of the board at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, which has copies of many of these drawings. In one drawing, a fleet of U.S. soldiers are marching on, guns in hand and rocket belts carelessly flung over their backs.

DON ERWIN: This is an artist rendering of how the rocket belt might be used. And on half of the panel, we see an infantryman wearing the rocket belt with his helmet and fatigues on. And in the background, some of his buddies are scaling a cliff, right? So you can see what they were thinking in conventional warfare.

ROMAN MARS: The media was paying attention. Magazines ran articles about the potential uses for the new flying machine–from military applications, like saving people trapped in a war zone, to everyday uses, like delivering the mail.

CHRIS BERUBE: Wendell Moore told Popular Science Magazine that the rocket belt would be publicly available within two to three years, even though there wasn’t really a plan for that to happen. The rocket belt was a long way from being deployed in a war zone, let alone showing up in every driveway. In fact, testing was starting to turn up some pretty serious limitations–the main one being flight duration.

COLLEEN ANDERSON: It’s extremely heavy for one person to have to carry themselves. And this 50 pounds of this hydrogen peroxide propellant only works for about 20 seconds.

STEVE LEHTO: And they’re like, “Okay, can we extend that?” And they’re like, “Probably not by much.”

CHRIS BERUBE: If the idea of the rocket belt was to get soldiers out of danger, 20 seconds wasn’t going to buy a whole lot of time, especially when the weight of the pack itself would slow soldiers down. You also couldn’t really use it for search and rescue because you needed the arms to steer, so your hands would be busy. You couldn’t really pick anybody up. Practically, it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

ROMAN MARS: The military decided to pull funding, and this very well could have spelled the end for Bell’s rocket belt program. But Bell wasn’t ready to give up, and they decided to try one last thing to capture the public’s attention and bring the rocket belt to the next level.

CHRIS BERUBE: To keep the dream alive, Bell Aerospace decided to take the rocket belt on the road. People were really excited after reading about it in newspapers and magazines, and now they actually wanted to see the thing in action. So Bell hired a promoter with experience on the county fair circuit to book a series of public demonstrations.

ROMAN MARS: To pull off the spectacular public demos, they were going to need more pilots–somebody young and stupid enough to fly this thing.

BILL SUITOR: I was young and stupid, and that’s the way they wanted you. “Don’t ask any questions, kid. Just get in there. We’ll tighten it up.”

CHRIS BERUBE: Remember, this is Bill Suitor from Bell Aerospace. Before he worked there, he was actually Wendell Moore’s neighbor growing up. And when Bill was just 19 years old, he became, I would say, understandably curious about the rocket belt.

BILL SUITOR: I was pestering him all the time. “I want to fly that thing. I want to fly that thing.”

CHRIS BERUBE: Bill didn’t have much work experience other than cutting Wendell Moore’s lawn. But that did not stop Wendell from recruiting Bill Suitor to become a rocket belt pilot.

BILL SUITOR: Nepotism is a wonderful thing.

CHRIS BERUBE: Wendell Moore wanted to show that pretty much anyone could strap on the rocket belt and make it work. If Bill could do it, then surely–say–an American soldier could do it, too.

ROMAN MARS: In 1964, Bill started testing the rocket belt, doing tethered flights at the Bell office. The first thing he noticed about the rocket belt was the intense noise it made.

BILL SUITOR: It was 130 decibels. The helmet was padded for sound and all, but I’m wearing hearing aids nowadays. I don’t think it’s from that.

ROMAN MARS: I think it might’ve been from the jetpack.

CHRIS BERUBE: By this point, the rocket belt could still only fly about 21 seconds, which–to be fair–can feel like a long time when you have a rocket strapped to your back.

BILL SUITOR: If you watch a sweep hand on your watch or a clock or something, 21 seconds is a long time. To have an 800 to 1,000 horsepower rocket strapped to your back, it can be an eternity. When things start going wrong, they go wrong real fast. We used to have a phrase, “It’s grass in your ass.”

ROMAN MARS: The thing about a 21 second flight is that the rocket belt was going to stop working after 21 seconds, even if the pilot was still in the air. To make sure the rocket belt pilots didn’t wipe out midair, Bell developed a special helmet with a built-in warning system.

BILL SUITOR: It was a vibrator… Mind your business now. It was a vibrator that fit against the back of your skull because they tried lights and everything as a warning system. And the mental overload–they ended up with the vibrator on the skull. You can’t ignore it. Your teeth vibrate. At 10 seconds, you get a buzz. And then you get one every second for five seconds. Now you’re at 15 elapsed time. You got six seconds left, so get your affairs in order.

ROMAN MARS: Granted, the helmet didn’t solve all possible safety problems. Bill Suitor remembers his first bad test on the rocket belt.

BILL SUITOR: I rose up. The flight plan was to go straight up 20, 25 feet inside the hangar and then move forward, stop, turn around, come back, and land. Rose up. When I’m about 25 feet up, I put it into a hover position. And the throttle handle came off in my hand.

CHRIS BERUBE: Thanks to the safety tether, everything turned out okay, and Bill wasn’t hurt. But this is the kind of accident that would turn off certain people–people like me–from the idea of a rocket belt. But not Bill Suitor. He loved the challenge. He says he got the hang of it quickly, and the controls felt like ice skating. He developed this rhythm with the belt that he called “body English.”

ROMAN MARS: After his training was complete, Bell Aerospace decided Bill Suitor was ready to show the world what the rocket belt was capable of. So he packed his bags and shipped out to glamorous Sacramento, California.

BILL SUITOR: Miss Teenage U.S.A.–or something like that that had to do with some national contest every year–wanted to know if Bell could bring the rocket belt to display it here at the teenage fair or whatever it was. And it’s the first time I’d ever seen the ocean. I’d never been out of Youngstown.

CHRIS BERUBE: Bill Suitor had never been on an airplane before. He’d never even stayed in a hotel, and he certainly hadn’t flown a rocket belt over a crowd of thousands of cheering spectators under a spotlight at night.

BILL SUITOR: Well, the light from the outside fairgrounds made it like twilight. Well, it was darker than twilight. But then they wanted all the lights in the racetrack. It was supposed to be a surprise. That’s a fart with a lump in it. It certainly was a surprise. And this brilliant, bright, big spotlight is right on me. I said, “That light is blinding me. I got to get that out of my eyes.”

CHRIS BERUBE: Just before the flight, the lights went down. For this trick to work, Bill had to fly just over the crowd–close enough they could see him and the rocket belt and then make a very careful landing on a narrow stage.

BILL SUITOR: So on cue I take off and I’m to fly down the racetrack. The grandstand is behind here. Well, nobody had warned the orchestra–which was in the orchestra pit–of what was about to happen. And I’m coming in. I’m coming down as I’m coming in. Below me there’s a blizzard of sheet music. And all I see is assholes and elbows of the musicians climbing over. They don’t know what was happening. They’re panicstricken. I’m distracted by that.

CHRIS BERUBE: Somehow, despite all that, Bill managed to touch down and land on the stage. And nobody got hurt.

ROMAN MARS: The crowd might have stood up and cheered in rapturous applause. Bill Suitor was just happy to pull it off.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): Did you feel relief when that happened?

BILL SUITOR: Oh, man. Yeah, and almost every flight I’ve ever made is a relief. So that was my introduction to showbiz.

CHRIS BERUBE: After the first flight, Bill kept showing off the rocket belt at the Sacramento Fair–every day, three times a day, for 10 more days. people loved it. Then, Bell started sending him farther afield. He toured the country, making $147 a week.

BILL SUITOR: And then we went to I think it was Las Vegas to fly over the Flamingo Hotel swimming pool, the Los Angeles County fair, and then up to Seattle to Mount Billingham, Washington.

CHRIS BERUBE: He flew in the first Super Bowl. Okay, the first Super Bowl wasn’t a big deal yet, but still! The Super Bowl!

DON ERWIN: We’re just looking through pictures of the rocket belt in different scenarios. This one’s flying next to a Navy ship. This one is at Disneyland in front of the castle.

CHRIS BERUBE: Here’s Don Irwin of the Niagara Aerospace Museum, which has hundreds of photos of the rocket belt in action.

DON ERWIN: They demonstrated a lot by flying over things. And what I like about this picture is you can see they’re flying over an airplane. Here’s this shadow dangerously close to the airplane itself. So he’s either demonstrating how easy it is to control in detail, or he’s out of control.

ROMAN MARS: Bell did a great job keeping the rocket belt in the public eye. Here’s Steve Lehto.

STEVE LEHTO: They made it a concerted effort to get these things into the media–not just in front of newspaper reporters, but on camera and on television. So there’s an episode of Gilligan’s Island where Gilligan finds a jetpack.

PROFESSOR: Good heavens. Look what you’ve made me do.

SKIPPER: Sorry, professor. But we’re dying to find out if this jetpack is going to be able to fly to Hawaii.

PROFESSOR: Well, there’s a chance skipper, but–

SKIPPER: You hear that Gilligan? One of us might be able to fly to Hawaii. Isn’t that great news?

CHRIS BERUBE: In 1965, the rocket belt had its biggest break. Bill got the call to appear in the James Bond movie Thunderball. The producers had an idea for a stunt where James Bond is being chased around this French villa, and he would climb up to the roof and then casually ride a jetpack all the way down to a waiting Aston Martin. Of course, it was too dangerous to put Sean Connery on a rocket belt. So Bill and a colleague named Gordy Yaeger were picked as his stunt doubles.

ROMAN MARS: When Bill and Gordy got to France for filming, the producers had a surprise.

CHRIS BERUBE: In their opinion, James Bond wouldn’t wear a helmet while flying a jetpack–a prospect that was way too dangerous for Bill Suitor. But the producers tried to make him do it anyway.

BILL SUITOR: The first thing they do is they tried bribing us with money. “Just this once. Just…” That wouldn’t work, so they got some grown shoe polish somewhere.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): They tried to make it look like hair?

BILL SUITOR: Well, just get it brown, you know?

CHRIS BERUBE: The crew had to go back and do reshoots to make everything work. But in the final sequence, Connery straps on the jetpack–yes–wearing a helmet and escapes some pesky goons, soaring over a French castle and landing next to a luxury car.

ROMAN MARS: Then Conrey delivers an iconic line about the rocket belt. “No well-dressed man should be without one.”

JAMES BOND: No well-dressed man should be without one.

MADAME LAPORTE: Yes, very practical.

CHRIS BERUBE: By the mid’60s, things were going really well with the rocket belt. But there was a gap between reality and the public dream of a jetpack in every driveway. A year went by and then another, but the rocket belt didn’t feel any closer to being available to the public. Here’s Steve Lehto.

STEVE LEHTO: There was a bit of overpromising going on. Newspaper reporters would say, “These things are on the horizon. We’ve got one doing this now, and pretty soon we’ll be doing that.” And we don’t know where that stretch came from, but it got into the culture that pretty soon we’re all going to have them. We were promised jetpacks. We were. We were.

CHRIS BERUBE: Bill Suitor says that the media got carried away when they talked about the rocket belt. By the late 1960s, in the public imagination, the novelty started wearing off. Millions of people had seen the rocket belt, but it didn’t have any new tricks.

ROMAN MARS: Even Bill Suitor started getting tired of it.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): Did it ever get routine?

BILL SUITOR: Yeah, it did. Well, once I got married and started a family, it wasn’t fun anymore.

CHRIS BERUBE: Bill flew the rocket belt for five years, in 12 countries and 42 states. But by the late 1960s, Bill and his wife, Cheryl, had kids. And every time he landed the rocket belt and felt that little pang of relief, he wanted to be back home. And it was becoming obvious that the military wasn’t going to bail out the program by ordering a giant fleet of these things.

BILL SUITOR: The handwriting was on the wall. Lyndon Johnson–he cut the space program to his Great Society. He had to use his money for social programs–not that there’s anything wrong with that, but science needs it, too. Anyway, there’s no way that we were going to continue with the jet belt.

ROMAN MARS: Bill flew the rocket belt at the New York State Fair in 1969. The emcee noticed that Bill was standing next to the governor, and he told the audience to welcome “Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Rocke Fellah.”

CHRIS BERUBE: After that, Bell Aerospace wrapped up the program. Wendell Moore–the inventor–developed a prototype for a jet belt powered by kerosene. And he got to see it fly without tethers one time before he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1969.

ROMAN MARS: Bell Aerospace gave away their rocket belt prototypes to the Smithsonian and other schools and museums. And with nothing to do, Bill Suitor left the company.

CHRIS BERUBE: Bill ended up taking a new job at the State Power Authority in Niagara Falls, New York. There, he wowed coworkers with stories of traveling the world–coworkers like my dad, Roger. Bill Suitor–he’s the jetpack guy. He’s the one I’d always heard about. Bill doesn’t remember my dad probably because–you know–my dad didn’t have a jetpack.

ROMAN MARS: Bill may have left Bell Aerospace, but he didn’t give up on jetpacks. Over the years, inspired by the rocket belt, various hobbyists have built their own. And they called Bill Suitor for help with test flights and public demonstrations.

CHRIS BERUBE: Bill’s last big ride was over the 1984 Olympic opening ceremonies–an event that was watched by the entire world.

BILL SUITOR: “Two and a half billion people.” That’s what I said to myself. I’m standing up there, and my father died years before that. But I’m telling my father– Well, in my mind, I’m telling him, “Look at this. Look at this. Did you ever think it would come to this?”

ROMAN MARS: Over the years, jetpacks have come a long way. Flight times are longer. Some designs today are actually built with small jet engines instead of hydrogen peroxide tanks. So we finally have real, literal jetpacks.

CHRIS BERUBE: But the reality is people aren’t as enthusiastic. There’s a jetpack pilot named David Mayman, who lives in Australia. And a couple of years ago, he flew his machine over the Sydney Harbor. The footage is quite something. But in an interview with the Guardian, Mayman said he was surprised by the reaction. Here’s a quote. “I still remember flying around close enough to see the joggers and the people walking around the botanical area. And some of them did not look up. The jetpack is loud, so I promise you they heard me. But there I was, flying by on a jetpack, and they did not look up.” Maybe in a world full of drones and billionaire rocket launches, the jetpack just isn’t all that surprising. Bill’s working with a class at a university in Buffalo to see if there’s some way to do jetpacks sustainably. But his attention–it’s on other things, like climate change or his grandkid’s hockey game or the Christmas ornaments he’s carving in his wood shop. The jetpack can feel totally beside the point.

BILL SUITOR: Yeah, I don’t have any problem with any of it, but we’ve got to move on. Things have changed. And it’s time we all grew up a bit.

CHRIS BERUBE: The rocket belt is a technology of the future that belongs to the past, but I understand why Wendell Moore and Bell Aerospace kept going. I understand why hobbyists kept trying to develop a better jetpack, even after it was obvious there wasn’t going to be a jetpack in every driveway. They just had to know what was possible. It’s the same reason we go on a first date or go to the moon. It’s the same reason I had to find the rocket man and the same reason I went to not one but two aerospace museums looking for an old rocket belt–just to know for sure that they exist.

DON ERWIN: Okay, we’re going to take this out so you can see it.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): Wait. Really? We can actually do that? Oh my gosh, Don.

DON ERWIN: Don’t tell my boss. I can get in trouble.

CHRIS BERUBE: Sometimes the magnet of curiosity is just too strong. Sometimes we just have to know more.

CHRIS BERUBE (FIELD TAPE): Oh, wow. Oh, man. Finally… I can’t believe it.

ROMAN MARS: When we come back–why the internet can’t get enough of jetpack Hoaxes. More with Chris Barbe after this… We are back with Chris Berube. Chris, you have been working on this story for quite a while, and it is finally here.

CHRIS BERUBE: I know. Yeah. I did my first interview for this story two years ago, I think. Yeah, two years ago.

ROMAN MARS: So, why did it take so long?

CHRIS BERUBE: It took a while largely because I had to persuade Bill Suitor to speak with me. So I sent him an email after I read David’s article in the Washington Post. And his first response to me–I have this written down–“I have no idea of how a podcast works, nor do I care to learn.” So that was his reply. We communicated on and off for two years, and I guess I won him over eventually.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, I think he might be onto something about podcasts though.

CHRIS BERUBE: You got to keep track of so many podcasts, it’s not worth it. Don’t start if you haven’t started. That’s probably the best advice.

ROMAN MARS: Probably true.

CHRIS BERUBE: But thanks for bearing with me during the reporting. I know this was a long one. But I want to talk to you about something that came up for me while I was reporting this–while I was talking to people about jetpacks for the last two years–which is I heard from a couple of people, “Oh, jetpacks–the invention of jetpacks–like what the Nazis did.” A couple of people said that to me when I was bringing up this story.

ROMAN MARS: Huh. So where did they get that idea?

CHRIS BERUBE: They got it online–believe it or not–the source of all knowledge, the internet.

ROMAN MARS: Sure.

CHRIS BERUBE: And I talked to Steve Lehto about this. Of course, he wrote The Great American jetpack, a very important book in this story and a great resource for jetpack history. Anyhow, Steve told me it is very common to find stories like this online, and this particular one–the Nazi one–is not true in his reporting. In fact, it’s part of this big lineage of fake jetpack news.

STEVE LEHTO: There were a bunch of hoaxes I ran across while researching jetpacks. And one of them was that the Germans had invented the jetpack in World War II by strapping the engine of a V-1 buzz bomb to the back of a soldier so he could hop over trenches. And that struck me as being false for a bunch of reasons. Number one, trenches were World War I. Number two, the buzz bomb engine was actually quite heavy; it was a pulse jet engine. And none of it made any sense.

ROMAN MARS: So where does this story come from?

CHRIS BERUBE: Steve looked into it. This story appears to have come from a Holocaust denier.

ROMAN MARS: Goodness. Okay.

STEVE LEHTO: And I ran the origin down to a guy who was a conspiracy theorist who liked to go on TV shows and rant about how much he hated certain ethnic groups. And he found that if he said, “I want to go on there and rant about ethnic groups,” they wouldn’t let him. But if he said, “I want to get on there and talk about German invented jetpacks,” they’d go, “Oh, come out!” And he just invented the story. He admitted it later. He later said, “I made the story up.” And yet I found websites that had repeated the story as if it was true, and they even had photographs. And the photograph, of course, is a G.I. Joe with a model of a pulse jet glued to his back, and it’s kind of blurry. And it’s like, “It’s obviously a model!”

CHRIS BERUBE: Yeah. So Roman, I’ve shared the link with you if you want to take a look at the picture.

ROMAN MARS: Okay, I got to see this. Okay. Oh my God, that is a doll. That is not a person.

CHRIS BERUBE: That’s not a person. It’s a little blurry. So at first glance, if you’re not looking very carefully, it kind of looks like a person.

ROMAN MARS: If you’re not looking carefully–yeah–and you’ve been hit in the head.

CHRIS BERUBE: You’ve never seen a doll before? Your prescription is out of date? Yeah, I know. I know. It’s so silly. Well, okay, so that’s one common hoax is this idea that the Nazis invented it Another–there’s this story out there about this Romanian inventor who claims that he invented a jetpack that predates the Bell design.

STEVE LEHTO: “I invented the jetpack. The Americans stole it from me. They owe me a couple billion dollars.” And I traced this story down, and there’s a museum in Romania that has one of his jetpacks on display. And it’s obviously not a jetpack.

CHRIS BERUBE: Steve did not get to go to the museum, but he sent someone to take photos. And yeah, it looks homemade. It’s not a real jetpack. And apparently news organizations would call this guy for proof, and he’d send the pictures of Bill Suitor–the guy from our jetpack story–or Bob Courter, this other famous Bell rocket belt pilot. So once again, there’s no merit to this story.

STEVE LEHTO: And sadly, I found news organizations in Romania that ran interviews with the guy. And he would talk about his jetpack, and they’d slice in images of the Bell rocket belts being used.

CHRIS BERUBE: Roman, I think this whole thing speaks to a bigger issue that runs through the whole story we’ve been telling about rocket belts and jetpacks–and it’s how these kind of short circuit our brain, I think, when we think about them. Like, for science journalists and for everyday people, our critical faculties can kind of go a little haywire when we’re reading about the idea of jetpacks, right?I think we just get so excited. It’s like, “Oh, we want them to be real.” And I feel like we don’t apply enough intellectual rigor when talking about it.

ROMAN MARS: Right. I can see that. And what I can also see is, like, you see little rockets, and you see humans… What’s the problem here? You strap one to the other. There’s a kind of sense that you could kind of make one in your garage. And so I think that sort of weakens people’s defenses when it comes to these kinds of things.

CHRIS BERUBE: Right. Totally. And I think it’s what runs through this whole story. Everybody is looking for the jetpack. There is a part of us that really wants it to become something. So I feel like that hope kind of overtakes our rational thinking around something like this.

ROMAN MARS: Totally. I think that’s the cornerstone of your story–that there’s a piece of everyone’s brain that is searching for their jetpack because we want it so badly. And it makes sense to me completely. I had so much fun watching the story develop. Thank you so much for reporting it and for your persistence in getting Bill Suitor. That man is a gem.

CHRIS BERUBE: Thanks so much, Roman. I really appreciate that.

ROMAN MARS: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube. Edited by Kelly Prime. Mix and sound design by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Special thanks this week to Bill and Cheryl Suitor, the Udvar-Hazy Center, and Don Erwin at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, where you can see a real life rocket belt. You can read David Taylor’s reporting about Bill Suitor and the rocket belt in The Washington Post. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of our team includes Sarah Baik, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Neena Pathak, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence.We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find us on all the usual social media sites as well as our brand new Discord server. There are about 3,500 people talking about architecture–talking about Power broker–talking about all kinds of fun things. Please join us there. There’s a link to that, as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.

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