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Episode 26 - The Insane History of Jetpacks

Listen: https://www.americathebizarre.com/listen/episode/1a81dbf8/26-the-insane-history-of-jetpacks

Towards the end of World War II, Nazi rocket scientists led by SS Major Wernher Von Braun, decided to switch their focus from space travel to personal rocket packs. The proposed rocket packs would allow for German infantry soldiers to quickly move across battlefields while avoiding barbed wire and minefields. The proposed rocket pack was dubbed the Himmelsturmer or Skystormer, and would use two low powered rockets, one strapped to the soldier’s chest and another rocket strapped onto his back. When it became obvious that the advancing Russian army wasn’t going to be stopped, the Nazi’s rocket research lab was destroyed along with all evidence of the rocket pack. Wernher Von Braun was brought to the United States to help develop our space program. If you want to hear more about him and our space program, go listen to episode 5 “Moon Nukes”.

While working for the US government, Von Braun helped a civilian radar technician named Thomas Moore receive a US Army grant worth $25,000 to build a rocket pack in 1952. Moore called his rocket pack the Jet Vest. Unfortunately, the money from the grant ran out before Moore could complete his project. In 1958, Harry Burdett Jr. and Alex Bohr were hired by the US Army for project grasshopper, where they were to develop a rocket pack for infantryman that would let them jump at great distances and run at high speeds. Burdett’s and Bohr’s jet pack used bottle nitrogen and then rockets for thrust and got the pilot to be able to jump up to 25 feet in the air and run up to 30 miles per hour. They presented their jet pack to the Army at Fort Bragg, but their funding dried up shortly after as well.

While they had been working on Project Grasshopper, an engineer for the Bell Aircraft Company, later named Bell Aersosystems and Bell Aerospace, named Wendell Moore was also working on strapping miniature rockets to a pilot. Wendell Moore called his device the Small Rocket Lift Device or SRLD. His design involved gas being forced through downward-facing exhaust tubes. While inside of a large hangar, Moore tested his invention with him as the pilot on December 17, 1957, the 54th anniversary of the Wright brother’s first flight. Moore was tethered to the ground by his colleagues and hovered about 4 inches from the ground. Moore was very excited and continued to make adjustments to his device. In 1959, Moore was able to test his device again and got about 15 feet off the ground this time. The Army heard about his work and gave him $150,000 to design a rocket pack for the army in 1960. Moore continued to make adjustments and renamed his invention the Rocket-belt.

The new design had three tanks. The two side tanks contained hydrogen peroxide and the middle tank contained nitrogen. For flight to start, a valve is opened, and the nitrogen is released into the hydrogen peroxide tanks, which forces the hydrogen peroxide to go over a silver mesh, which creates a reactions that causes a high pressure of steam. The steam shot out of the rocket nozzles at such a high velocity that would create enough thrust to lift the pilot off the ground. The first flight took place on December 29, 1960 with Wendell Moore as the pilot. The flight was rough and only lasted a couple seconds, but it was successful. Moore continued to improve on the jet pack. In February 1961, Moore was piloting the 20th test flight when the belt snagged on a safety tether. The tether snapped and Moore fell more than 8 feet out of the air onto the concrete floor of the airport hangar. He fractured his knee badly and couldn’t fly the jet pack anymore.

Harold ‘Hal’ Graham was then selected as the next jetpack pilot. His only qualification was that he volunteered. After Graham had mastered the rocket belt, the team felt confident to unveil the jetpack to the public. On June 8, 1961, Army officials and reporters gathered at Fort Eustis, Virginia to watch Graham pilot the rocketbelt. Graham flew to about 15 feet off the ground and then came back down. The press was wowed and headlines about the rocketbelt were seen in newspapers all across the country. A week after the first public flight, Graham flew again, this time at the Pentagon in front of about 3,000 Pentagon staff and in October, 1961, he flew in front President John F. Kennedy at Fort Bragg. Everyone that saw it was awe-struck and word spread quickly. The team created the B-series rocketbelt, which was lighter. While flying the new model at Cape Canaveral, Graham fell 22 feet and landed on his head. Graham survived, but decided that he was done flying the rocketbelt. After Graham quit, four new pilots were hired. The new pilots were either experienced pilots or technicians. The team started to look for a rocketbelt pilot that had no flight experience or knowledge of the rocketbelt, so they could prove that any US soldier could fly one of these contraptions. That’s when 19 year old William P Suitor was hired. Suitor was Wendell Moore’s neighbor and was draft age at the time that the Vietnam War was getting going, which was the perfect demographic to prove any soldier could be taught to fly the rocketbelt.

Suitor started out flying the rocketbelt while he was tethered to a cable-pulley system so he couldn’t crash too badly. After four months of tethered training, he was finally able to complete his first untethered flight and shortly thereafter, began to perform demonstrations for the public. Even though they had proven that an untrained young man could learn to fly the belt, the Army was now concerned that it was too expensive to use and the distances that a pilot could achieve with the small amount of fuel they could carry wasn’t long enough to justify the cost. With the Army no longer interested, the rocketbelt team focused on demonstrations for entertainment purposes.

Suitor had his first public flight at the 1964 California State Fair where he buzzed the Sacramento stadium and then landed on the stage. He came into low over the orchestra pit and sent sheet music flying and musicians running. They continued to show the rocketbelt at public events including at the New York World Fair and Disneyland. In 1965, Suitor and another pilot named Gordon Yaeger flew to Paris to film the opening shot for the James Bond film “Thunderball”. Bill Suitor got to be Sean Connery’s double for the scene where James Bond uses a rocketbelt to fly from a chateau down to the ground. When the movie came out, it continued to increase the popularity of the rocketbelt.

Other pilots were hired, but Suitor was the main pilot. He flew in demonstrations all over the world and flew it at the First Superbowl in 1967 between the Packers and Chiefs. On May 29, 1969, Wendell Moore died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 51. Without their chief engineer and mastermind behind the rocketbelt, the team fell apart and the rocketbelt was never flown again. Suitor decided to take a job with the New York Power Authority, assuming that he would never fly again. Suitor didn’t work there long though, because he was quickly approached by a movie-engineer named Nelson Tyler. Tyler had watched Suitor fly the rocketbelt at Disneyland and became obsessed with it. He sold his sports car to so that he could fund the creation of his own rocketbelt. Tyler asked Suitor if he would help him test the Tyler rocketbelt and Suitor agreed.

Suitor flew the Tyler rocketbelt publicly for the first time at the American Football Pro Bowl in 1971. They continued to work together for several years. They were then approached with the opportunity to have Suitor fly the rocketbelt at the 1984 Olympics. Suitor flew a successful 17 second flight during the opening ceremonies in Los Angeles and the 92,000 people there went wild. Suitor landed on his landing platform, gave President Reagan a salute, and the crowd just started going nuts. Suitor decided that he was going to retire from rocketbelt flying after the Olympics, and finally have a quiet life working for the New York Power Authority.

After the Olympics, Nelson Tyler got 800 enquiries of people asking to buy the rocketbelt. Tyler sold it to a theme park in Stockholm, Sweden. The theme park hired Suitor’s back up pilot named Kinnie Gibson to fly the belt. Gibson was eventually able to buy the belt from the park and took it back to the United States with him. Gibson soon realized how expensive it was to fuel the belt. He started using scuba tank compressed air instead of compressed nitrogen cylinders which would cause the belt to lose power after ten seconds. He also could no longer get 90% hydrogen peroxide, so he used 88% that he bought from a company in Germany. During his first flight with the new fuel, Gibson was able to take off but the belt stopped working when he was mid-flight and Gibson fell, breaking both his knee and the belt. Gibson sued the German company and won $250,000 in the settlement.

After he recovered from his knee injury, Gibson still needed to rebuild the belt and build a hydrogen peroxide distillery to get the 90% hydrogen peroxide he needed. Gibson decided to reach out to his buddy Brad Barker. Gibson and Barker had met in 1975 when they both worked for the Houston Central National Bank. Barker was mechanically inclined and was able to figure out how to repair the belt, but Barker knew he couldn’t build the hydrogen peroxide distillery alone, so he decided to reach out to Larry Stanley, a wealthy entrepreneur that dabbled in everything from computers to aeronautics. Barker and Gibson could use Stanley’s money and knowledge to get the distillery and their business up and going.

Things were going well between the three men until Stanley borrowed Barker’s Cessna in 1986. Stanley had borrowed the plane several times before, but this time Stanley disappeared with the plane. After not being able to find Stanley or his $180,000 plane, he contacted the FBI. An agent called Barker and said

“Your airplane is probably at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico with a load of pot on it.”

Apparently, Stanley was a known drug smuggler that was very well-known to several drug enforcement agencies across the world. The good news was that the plane was found in a hanger in Seattle. The bad news was that it was there because Stanley had added a long-range fuel tank along with other modifications so that he could make trips to South America for drug trafficking and there was know an outstanding $30,000 bill that needed to be paid before the plane could be released back to Barker. Barker couldn’t afford that and was forced to sell his Cessna and Barker still had no idea where Stanley was.

4 years later in 1990, Barker was working on the rocketbelt in Los Angeles while Gibson was in the Philippines to work as a stunt man in a movie. Barker got a call from Gibson’s wife Sheri. Sheri told Barker that Stanley had broken into the Gibson’s storage facility in Houston and had stolen some of the rocketbelt equipment. Stanley told Sheri not to get anyone involved to try to get the equipment back or somebody would get hurt. Barker hopped on a plane for Houston and called up his friend Rob Fisher who had a black belt in karate as back up.

Barker and Fisher headed out to Stanley’s family’s oil fields with Sheri and some of Kinnie Gibson’s brothers. They were met by one of Stanley’s employees, Bernie Robinson who was a former Navy Seal. Barker said that Robinson tried to swing at Fisher and then Fisher used his karate moves to put him down. Then Gibson’s brothers helped Fisher hold Robinson down while Barker grabbed a baseball bat and started bashing Robinson’s legs with it. Barker kept asking “Where’s Larry Stanley?” Robinson said “He isn’t here” to which Barker replied “That’s a shame. I’m very upset with Larry Stanley and I’d like to hit him some.”

All of a sudden, a car pulled up and out stepped Larry Stanley. Barker said “Stanley, I’m gonna ask you one time where Kinnie’s equipment is, and, if you don’t tell me, you’re not going to like what happens.” Stanley took one look at Barker with the baseball bat and said “I’ll take you there.” Stanley took Barker to where the equipment was being stored and gave it all back.

Gibson returned from the Philippines and signed a contract to fly the rocketbelt at the end of every performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ tour. Gibson would switch places with Michael Jackson at the end of the concerts and fly up into the air to make everyone think that Michael Jackson was flying. Every flight at the concert paid Gibson $25,000 plus expenses and he made close to $1 million during the tour. Gibson then got a contract to fly at over twenty different events at Disney World.

During the summer of 1990, Gibson and Barker began to have a falling out. Barker decided that he would just go out on his own and build his own rocketbelt. He needed some serious financial backing though, so he called up Larry Stanley. Barker figured that Stanley still owed him for the plane. The two men eventually agreed to work together and founded the American Rocketbelt Corporation together in March of 1992. They built their own fuel lab and used pictures of Gibson’s rocketbelt to engineer their own. In October of 1994, their rocketbelt the RB-2000 was finished and ready to be tested, all they needed now was a pilot. Bill Suitor was living the quiet life in Youngstown, New York, working for the Power Authority and painting wildlife as a hobby. When Barker called him, he at first seemed disinterested in flying the rocketbelt, but Barker eventually talked Suitor into coming out of retirement.

When Suitor saw the rocketbelt, it was almost as if he fell in love. He didn’t like other people touching it and he polished it regularly. Suitor asked Barker “Do you mind if I name the rocketbelt?” Barker said “No. I’d be honored if you did.” Suitor then said “I’d like to call it Pretty Bird.” Later Barker would say “I remember thinking, God, please don’t call my rocketbelt Pretty Bird. But that’s the name he gave it.”

Suitor tested out the Pretty Bird and had a very successful flight of 20 seconds. Suitor returned to Youngstown with the intention of returning to Houston in November for more test flights. However, things between Barker and Stanley started to go south, again. Stanley accused Barker of embezzling from the American Rocketbelt Corporation and Barker accused Stanley of writing bad checks. Then they argued about who would fly the belt during public demonstrations. Stanley had lost weight so that he could fly it, but Barker felt that Stanley was still too fat. One afternoon, they got in an argument about who would get to fly it when Barker grabbed a 9mm pistol and pressed it to Stanley’s forehead, but then apologized for that about an hour later and they continued to work together.

A few days later, Barker and Stanley started fighting again and this time it turned into a fistfight. After slamming each other against office furniture and through doors, Barker realized he had a large gash on his hand that was gushing blood, so he went to the emergency room. When he returned from the hospital, he heard that Stanley had been telling other employees that he was embezzling, so he grabbed a lead-filled dead-blow hammer with his right hand while his left-hand was in a sling and found Stanley and hit him on the back of the head. Another employee tried to separate the two, but Barker was able to get in a few more good swings and hit Stanley’s right hand so hard that Stanley’s ring finger was severed at the knuckle. Barker hit Stanley about 10 times before the cops showed up. Stanley refused medical attention and both Barker and Stanley were arrested and charged with assault.

While in jail, Stanley decided that he did need medical attention and was taken to the hospital where he received several stitches in the back of his head and had his severed finger reattached. He was then taken back to the jail.

Both men filed civil suits against each other for rights to the rocketbelt, but one day Brad Barker just grabbed the rocketbelt, fuel laboratory equipment, and a .357 Winchester rifle and hid them from Larry Stanley. Barker got Suitor to come help him test out the rocketbelt and worked with Barker and Barker’s new business partner Joe Wright to get the rocketbelt tuned in. In June of 1995, Suitor flew the Pretty Bird at a party thrown for the Houston Rockets for winning the NBA championship. The flight was a great success, but Suitor decided that this was for once and for all his final flight and officially retired, again, after.

Barker and Wright had a falling out after the demonstration and that’s when Stanley approached Wright. Stanley had seen all of the media cover of Pretty Bird’s flight and was still looking for the belt. Stanley offered money and to remove Wright from his lawsuit against Barker if Wright helped him find Pretty Bird. Wright agreed. Four days after the agreement between Wright and Stanley was made, Wright was found dead in his home. He had been beaten to death so badly that you couldn’t tell who he was or if he was even a man or woman. There had been no sign of forced entry and it seemed that whoever killed Wright had been invited into his home. He had been struck by a blunt object, something similar to say a baseball bat, at least 14 times. The killer had then turned on the water in the bathtub and left it running, which flooded the crime scene and ruined a lot of evidence.

Despite the lack of evidence, Barker was arrested, but was turned loose after three days of interrogation. The police couldn’t connect him with the crime and Barker had been in Fort Smith at the time of the murder. Stanley met with Wright’s family and told them if the law couldn’t punish Barker, he would do it himself. Joe Wright’s sister came to Stanley’s house to talk about her brother’s murder. Stanley showed her his new .40 caliber Desert Eagle pistol while they were sitting in his garden and he accidentally pulled the trigger. The bullet flew by her head, narrowly missing her. Despite that, Stanley carried the gun wherever he went.

In July of 1999, Stanley’s civil suit against Barker for the rocketbelt finally came to trial. Barker didn’t show up and the judge awarded Stanley sole ownership of Pretty Bird. Now all Stanley had to do was find it. Stanley offered a $10,000 reward for the recover of Pretty Bird. At this time, Brad Barker was working on a new flying contraption that was shaped like a giant beer can. His idea was to sell it to beer companies as a promotional tool. Unfortunately, the funding for the giant flying beer can was pulled and Barker was out of a job. Barker tried to break into the storage facility that stored the flying beer can, but he was caught and landed in jail. When he got out on bail, Barker got a job offer from a Hollywood stuntman that would pay him $1,500 to do 3 days of stunt work in the Mojave desert. Barker needed the money, so he headed to Los Angeles. Barker met with the stuntman who then took Barker to his home where two other guys were staying. The stuntman told Barker that he would be working with the two men. They went inside and started chatting until the stuntman pulled a gun on Barker. Barker was thrown onto the floor by one of the other men and the stuntman asked “Where’s the rocketbelt?” They interrogated Barker for hours, but Barker refused to give up the location of Pretty Bird. They then put a hood over his head and duct-taped it on and put him in a small wooden box. They then screwed the box shut. Barker stayed in the box handcuffed, tied, and hooded for several days. The men continued to interrogate Barker about the rocketbelt and threatened to hurt his son, but Barker said nothing. That’s when Barker heard them drilling holes into the box. One man said “Is that enough holes?” and another replied “No, the more holes, the faster it’ll sink.” Barker was never thrown into the ocean, but after six days in the box he was pulled out and told that a notary was coming and that he was going to sign some papers. Barker signed the papers that waived him claim to the rocketbelt while a gun was pointed at his head. After signing the papers, Larry Stanley walked in. Larry Stanley ordered Barker back into the box until he revealed the location of Pretty Bird.

The next night, Barker was able to pop his handcuffs loose little by little until he could get his hands out. He then untied his legs, took the hood off, and got the lid off of the box. He found a window that was jammed shut, but he eventually popped it open, ran through the backyard, and hopped the fence. Barker ran for two miles until he got to a gas station where he got a ride from a stranger to a nearby diner. He then called the FBI, who had been looking for him. They appeared at the diner in minutes. He told them how he had been kidnapped and malnourished, he lost 30 pounds during the ordeal. The agents arrested the kidnappers and dropped Barker off at the hospital.

Stanley was found guilty for kidnapping. He had been offered two plea deals, but refused to take them because he said that he had done nothing wrong. The judge sentenced Stanley to life plus ten years. Stanley finally realized that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison, and then wrote a letter admitting his guilt. The DA decided to go back to the judge and ask for a lighter sentence and the judge lightened the sentence to eight years. The rocketbelt has never been seen publicly since.


Sources:

The Rocketbelt Caper by Paul Brown

The Incredible, Stupid, Gruesdome Story of the First Jet Pack by Mac Faber


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