Oldies and Oddities: Son of Rocket Belt

Don’t wear this at home

By the age of 11, I was a rabid James Bond fan. I chose “Sean” as my Catholic confirmation name, a blatant act of hero worship honoring the original Bond, actor Sean Connery. Thus, when the suave British agent (actually, his stunt double) took off in a Bell Rocket Belt in the opening sequence of the 1965 film Thunderball, I was hooked. The Jetsons-style flying machine was way cooler than the Taylorcrafts or Ercoupes I flew back then with my father. I assumed that Rocket Belts would one day become as common as Volkswagen Beetles.

Thirty-six years later, the Bug basks in newfound acclaim while the Rocket Belt remains a minor footnote to aviation history. Built by Bell Aerospace of Buffalo, New York, only a scant few of the prototypes survive.

However, various derivatives of the originals were built, and so the hydrogen-peroxide-powered flying contraption has not been completely relegated to museum status. Dallas-area entrepreneur Kinnie Gibson owns three, and actually makes a business of flying them.

Most sane pilots would launch in the notoriously unstable Rocket Belt only at gunpoint, while totally inebriated, or both. But Gibson relished the idea. A self-described practitioner of what he calls the “dangerous” sports, he raced motorcycles as a kid, took up skydiving at 18, and later joined a skydiving demonstration team. In 1976 he started a hot-air balloon company. He toured with Evel Knievel in Australia, where he piloted balloons as part of the “Evel Knievel Thrill Spectacular.” This led to stunt work in Hollywood. He appeared in numerous films and recently completed his 11th season as stunt double for Chuck Norris in the “Walker, Texas Ranger ” TV series.

In 1981, while working for a California hot-air balloon operator, he discovered a Rocket Belt in a company warehouse. The unit was a close copy of the original Bell design. It had been fabricated by one of the owners of the balloon company, who had flown it himself on occasion. Gibson asked to try it, and eventually got his chance. After listening to a short lecture on basic operating theory from the owner, he made the first of 31 flights tethered to a cable. Satisfied that he understood the beast sufficiently, he made his first free flight. Soon thereafter he bought the unit and began flying it at public venues, like mall openings and car shows.

The Rocket Belt runs on a 90 percent hydrogen peroxide solution contained in two small tanks worn on the pilot’s back. A larger central tank contains pressurized nitrogen, used to force the hydrogen peroxide over a silver-lined catalyst bed that decomposes the solution. The non-combusting byproduct is a super-heated steam exhaust. The process is simple and reliable, says Gibson, and once the catalytic reaction is started, it is unlikely to be interrupted. The steam is vented through two tubes positioned eight inches behind the pilot’s body and angled slightly away, producing as much as 300 pounds of thrust. The tubes are mounted on gimbals, which allow the pilot to direct the exhaust for maneuvering. The pilot can vary the strength of the thrust by manipulating a motorcycle-like hand grip that controls a throttle valve.

After numerous tear-downs of his first Rocket Belt for maintenance, Gibson decided he could improve on the design. Using lighter and stronger materials, he crafted two new belts, increasing flight endurance by nearly a third. The engine would now run for all of 30 seconds, rather than just 21.

Gibson, who has flown the 130-decibel banshees at racing rallies and amusement parks, while touring with rock bands, and at Hollywood opening night bashes, says the Rocket Belts are extremely tricky and easy to over-control. Placing one’s legs in the 1,200-degree-Fahrenheit exhaust streams is not recommended. A stopwatch marked with yellow (for caution) and green ranges serves as fuel gauge. Touching down with three to four seconds of propellant remaining is the goal, but a few times the stopwatch (and fuel) has run out before Gibson had quite rejoined terra firma.

With every flight starting as a fuel emergency and going downhill from there, mishaps are perhaps predictable. After several of what Gibson calls “minor” crashes and one accident that nearly resulted in the amputation of a foot, he has slowed down a bit. Nowadays much of the flying is done by Eric Scott, an employee of Gibson’s company, Powerhouse Productions.

In its first incarnations, the Rocket Belt’s minuscule range and other logistical issues proved insurmountable obstacles to wider acceptance. Nevertheless, the Belt remains an intriguing and still somehow futuristic flying machine.

—Vincent Czaplyski

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