Hydrogen-peroxide—expensive to produce, unstable in transport and fundamental to personal flight—pours from tanks through a tube, over a custom-made catalyst. Ignition! A pilot soars into solo flight. Dreams of many generations take flight too. The Great American Jet Pack follows the contrails of visionaries who dare to dream of leaving the ground under their own control.
These dreams likely began as soon as humans could walk upright. Prehistoric images in caves and in petroglyphs represented humans in solo flight, like birds. The Icarus myth and other stories showed the grip that flight held on the human imagination even millennia ago.
The dream may be taking flight, thanks to the imaginations of inventors—Wendell Moore, Bob Courter, Bill Suitor and others—who challenge gravity along with society’s skepticism. Such characters fill this book and point the way toward a jet pack in every closet.
Widely published author Steve Lehto has written several works that chronicle man’s dream to push the boundaries of the modern engine, including Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation. In Jet Pack, the author pulls from nearly 150 sources.
It’s a wild ride.
Technology follows imagination. That commodity was in no short supply at West Point in 1940, at a time when Colonel Charles Parkin trained cadets to use flamethrowers that propelled flammable liquid with the use of nitrogen. The Colonel wondered about the nitrogen tanks—he strapped one on, opened the valve and felt the thrust of the tank aid a leap.
It meant a leap forward for the idea of solo flight.
Flash forward 21 years, to February 1961. Wendell Moore at Bell Aerosystems designed and patented a rocket belt that held enough fuel to lift a pilot for 21 seconds of flight. During testing, the pilot harnessed himself, but one of the safety tethers scraped a piece of metal near the facility’s ceiling. Compromised, the tether could not support Moore’s weight when his engines stopped. The fall not only shattered Moore’s knee cap but his dream as well. He would not fly his invention again.
Another pioneer, Bob Courter tested a flying platform called the WASP II in the early 1980s. Courter published a book explaining how a rocket belt works, and he appeared at the Rocket Belt Convention in Niagara in 2006, still an enthusiast for solo flight. Still a dreamer.
One man made the dream as close to reality as we’ve gotten so far. From Lehto’s book:
In September, 2008, (Yves) Rossy flew across the English Channel. With National Geographic filming, Rossy stepped out of an airplane at eighty-two hundred feet and fired his turbines. His twenty-two mile trip began above Calais and took him just thirteen minutes as he reached speeds of 125 miles an hour. When he got over the Dover cliffs, he did a couple of loops and deployed his parachute. When he landed, he spoke to reporters. “With that crossing I showed it is possible to fly a little bit like a bird.”
Such vignettes buoy the reader and add to the intrigue of Jet Pack. At times, though, Lehto weighs down the reader with specifications, measurements and step-by-step instruction. Witness: “One small o-ring had been replaced during testing and it was operating perfectly now. Even the catalyst bed, which reacted with the hydrogen peroxide, showed no noticeable wear from all the firings. It had been subject to 199 runs, 171 of which had been bench firings.”
Geek-speak aside, where is the dream today? How long till we can walk out the front door and fly to work or school?
Jet pack flight seems to start, stop, start over again. That said, it does lay claim to a fair share of historic moments: Moore’s first test flight. Hal Graham hovering before President Kennedy, saluting him. Rossy, flying like a bluebird over the white cliffs of Dover and later across the Grand Canyon. When the industry of personal flight takes off—it does simply seem like a matter of time—one of these events will likely become a moment remembered like the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.
Jet Pack also follows characters who, much like early barnstorming pilots, show off solo flight at air shows, state fairs and other events across the country. They don’t all build their jet packs in garages, but most beginnings seem just about that humble. These pilots scrounge parts, fuse metal and experiment with fuel sources looking for a way to get a few feet higher off the ground.
That fuel of choice, hydrogen peroxide, matters more than any jet pack component to the experiences of these pioneers. The fuel’s price, volatility and scarcity confound jet pack crusaders from around the globe. (Some even try to manufacture it themselves.) The budding rocket scientists invariably seem able to secure only enough fuel for a half-minute in the air. Igniting it requires a highly customized, painfully intricate tool … and through the years, fewer and fewer machinists produce it. Still, those who believe in the jet pack do not easily give up.
So … we drive, ride buses, board trains. We Segway. (Overselling the promise of jet packs, BTW, emerges as a strong theme throughout the book. “If you could ride the Segway—you can fly,” one inventor declared.) Meanwhile, inventors still file patent upon patent for solo flight devices.
Maybe you’ll have luck with a jet pack in your own garage. If you ever wondered how to build one, Jet Pack’s pages of detailed measurements and specifications almost serve as a do-it-yourself manual.
We’ll keep watching the skies to see what you come up with.
Mateo Soltero holds a BA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and recently received his MBA. He lives with his wife and two children in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit his writing at: mateosoltero.wordpress.com.