Hanging out at the First Annual Rocketbelt Convention
Last weekend Gizmag’s Billy Paul attended the First Annual Rocketbelt Convention at the Niagara Falls Aerospace Museum in New York, USA. Yes folks, you read it right, we said rocketbelt as in jet-pack, Buck Rogers, James Bond, the 1984 Olympics and Lost in Space. Believe it or not, these devices have been around for more than four decades with the first untethered flight performed on April 20, 1961 by Harold “Hal” Graham. During the inaugural flight, Graham flew the Bell rocketbelt a not-so-astounding distance of approximately 100 feet while only a few inches off the ground. Perhaps the anticlimactic nature of this device is the central reason that we are not all flying to work using rocketbelts. Nonetheless, enthusiasts and Bell Aerospace (or just Bell depending on the year) employees from all over the globe flew to New York on boring and very un-James-Bond-like commercial jets in order to attend this rather enigmatic event.
The two day event was hosted by Kathleen Lennon Clough, a New York local, and Peter Gijsberts, a resident of the Netherlands who up until two months ago had never seen a real rocketbelt. Kathleen’s father, Tom Lennon, had been one of the premiere photographers at Bell Aerospace during the rocketbelt dynasty. Kathleen brought to the convention a powerful look of nostalgia and joy as the legacy of her father and his coworkers was passed to the eager enthusiasts in the audience. Well, at the very least, her look portrayed a sense of accomplishment given that her and Peter had managed to throw the convention together in less than 6 months – a feat made even more impressive by the list of VIPs.
Among the attendees and guest speakers were his eminence, Harold “Hal” Graham, first to fly an un-tethered rocketbelt and quite a showman (he played the ukulele while singing a rather heartfelt song about his lost days as a sought after test-pilot); Peter L. Kedziersky, the second Bell rocketbelt pilot; William “Bill” Suitor, who has flown the rocketbelt in excess of 1200 times, including stunt-doubling for James Bond and the opening ceremony in the 1984 Olympics; and John Spencer, who flew POGO, the rocketbelt that allows you to stay standing.
Other attendees included the science fiction writer, Barry DiGregorio, who wrote Mars: The Living Planet, a book about the possibilities of microbial life on Mars. Barry is an interesting fellow with some strong opinions.
Of all the attendees I interviewed, my favorite was Ky “The Rocketman” Michaelson. Ky had an amazing story that started out with him being an illiterate high-school dropout and finished with him being a multi-millionaire owner of several businesses and 72+ state, national and international speed records.
Ky is a colorful and outspoken character who smiled as he bashed education and said that people often got stuck when they relied on structured teachings and books. Ky stated that the best way to learn and succeed is via a more hands-on approach. Ky is currently working on a book in which he details how to build a rocketbelt out of easily obtainable parts for less than the price of a good motorcycle.
On the first day, all of the attendees showed their respects to the father and inventor of the rocketbelt, Wendell Moore. Wendell’s daughter talked at the event. She spoke of how Wendell would keep a drawing board next to his bed and often awoke in the middle of the night to sketch the amazing devices that had found their way into his subconscious dream-world. It was on one of those sheets of drawing board paper that Wendell Moore sketched the first rocket-belt. After speaking, Wendell’s daughter honored the Niagara Aerospace Museum by donating the original sketch in all its glory.
As for the rocket-belts, the talks covered the operation. Most of them used hydrogen peroxide (H202) as a fuel; however, Bell did experiment with other means of propulsion. For example, Bell strapped a tiny jet engine to the back of one unlucky employee. While the employee was not hurt, and the jetbelt did prove to have a greater range than the H202 rocketbelt, the added weight combined with the obvious danger kept the jetbelt from “going to market.”
The rocketbelt did however “go to market.” The quotes are necessary as this phrase should not be taken literally since there was never a real market for rocketbelts. With their limited flight time (20-30 seconds) and their excessive weight, it would have been a difficult sale for even the most competent of salesman. Nonetheless, they did attempt to sell them. All sorts of marketing artwork and photos were produced by Tom Lennon and John Carr, who produced drawings portraying soldiers in rocketbelts flying to a sinking ship in order to evacuate its occupants and legions of soldier flying into combat over tall grass (lovingly called “shooting ducks at dawn”).
A few rocketbelts were sold to be used during evacuations; but, for the most part, rocketbelt sales never took off (pun intended).
Hal Graham, for the first time ever, told a story about a particular sales pitch that ended in his being unconscious and hanging upside down from a platform some 30 feet off the ground after attempting to fly off of a Centaur tower. Unfortunately, the design of the Centaur tower was such that the exhaust from the rocketbelt threw Hal backwards, where he hit is head and was knocked unconscious. It was shortly after this event that Hal retired from rocketbelt flights.
In all, the rocketbelt convention was an amazing forum culminating from 40+ years of scientific study and hobbyist play. True the rocketbelt is a bit of an enigma and an anachronism that does not have a time into which it truly fits, but, inspired by a dream, and dream inspiring, the rocketbelt lives on in the hearts and minds of all those who attended the 1st annual rocketbelt convention.
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