Rocket Men

The guys who really, really want to fly.

Listen to the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for Slate’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

On April 20, 1961, Harold Graham made history by being the first person to achieve liftoff using a rocketbelt—a rocket-powered “jet pack” that straps on the flyer’s back. Last week at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, Graham, now 72, arrived at the world’s first rocketbelt convention clad in his original black-rubber flight suit and helmet, the one he wore 45 years ago. His rocketbelt itself was a plastic mock-up—the real ones tip the scales at around 130 pounds—but his enthusiasm could not have been clearer.

Flying with a rocketbelt is extremely dangerous. The would-be aviator must strap a contraption onto his back that includes two large tanks filled with highly combustible fuel, concentrated “rocket-grade” hydrogen peroxide. The flier turns a motorcyclelike hand throttle that opens a valve and releases nitrogen into the two tanks, which causes the fuel to expand to 5,000 times its size. The fuel is then forced through a catalyst pack and converted to steam that can reach 1,300 degrees, providing enough power to thrust itself and the person wearing it into the air.

Harold Graham, the first person to launch himself with a rocketbelt

That’s when things get really tricky. Once in flight, there are eight points of control for the flier to master (up-and-down, and also up-and-back and up-and-forward, and so forth). He does so using both a control bar and jetavators (movable nozzles that regulate precision movements from side to side). Every movement the flyer makes is an act of precision. And he also has to contend with deafening noise 3 feet from his ears and support the weight of a welterweight boxer.

Bill Suitor, the most traveled rocket man in history with 1,200 flights (most famously as a stunt double for Sean Connery in Thunderball), describes the challenge of maintaining stability with a rocketbelt as “trying to stand on a big beach ball in the middle of a swimming pool.” Now in his 60s, Suitor hasn’t flown in more than two decades. But like Graham, he relished recounting tales of his glory days as a pilot for the Bell Aerospace Co., creators of the first working rocketbelt. “The rocketbelt was an idea 50 years ahead of its time, and we’re now in year 49,” he said to me as we walked past his original flight suit, which hangs in the museum. (Suitor jokes that unlike Graham, he can no longer fit into his old outfit.) Most of his flights went off without a hitch, but the few times he lost control were the scariest moments of his life. During his worst ride, he said with a chuckle, “I felt like I was a balloon someone blew up and let go.”

Eric Scott, flight star of the rocketbelt convention

For insiders, the highlight of the conference was a new bit of rocketbelt lore. During a talk to 100 people—and just before debuting on the ukulele an original song he wrote—Graham for the first time told the story of his only crash. He recounted falling 22 feet and landing on his head during a secret demonstration at Cape Canaveral, a mishap that left him unconscious for half an hour. Graham retired from the rocketbelt biz shortly thereafter. “It’s not a matter of if you get hurt, it’s when,” says Eric Scott, a 43-year-old former stuntman who flies for the sports-marketing company Go Fast in the rocketbelt you see in the video at the top of this article. All would-be rocketbelters practice on a tethered safety line for months before attempting a free flight. And most never make that flight: To date, only 11 men in history have free-flown a rocketbelt. More men have walked on the moon.

Rocketbelts are in scarce supply—there are currently just four known working models in the world. If you want one, you can’t assemble it from a kit, as you can a helicopter. You start from scratch. “The success of those few who have built belts, and the even fewer who have flown them, relates directly to how obsessed they are,” says Peter Gijsberts, a Netherlands-based limousine-services manager who runs the Web site ROCKETBELT and who dreamed up the conference with Kathleen Lennon Clough, whose father was the photographer who shot the early rocketbelt test flights.

The rocketbelt builders who gathered in Niagara tended to have plenty of garage space, a good set of tools, and an understanding wife (one rocketbelt builder was with his on their honeymoon). A few came with their works-in-progress in tow—none functional yet, but all promised to be “95 percent there.” These were placed on display right next to the original Bell rocketbelts Graham and Suitor flew in the ‘60s.

Scott takes off

On the last day of the convention, Graham, Suitor, and Scott stepped up to the stage with Peter Kedzierski, John Spencer, and Nelson Tyler—six of the 11 real-life Buck Rogerses history has known. Scott is the only one of them who still flies. Later that afternoon, with the wind blowing strongly, he strapped himself into his rocketbelt, gave a thumbs-up sign, and ever so carefully rotated the throttle. Within seconds, steam of more than 1,000 degrees thrust him into the air, with an 800-horsepower roar that blew out the crowd’s eardrums (not literally, but if you didn’t have earplugs or hands over your ears, you were in pain). The rocket man took flight, looking at first as if he was moving in slow motion. He made it across a city block, some 40 feet high, staying aloft for more than 25 seconds. It felt a lot longer.