Today, let's fly without an airplane. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
As WW-II wound down, we were
all ready to take to the air. Before the war, we'd
read in Popular Mechanics about
airplanes with retractable wings that turned into
automobiles. Helicopters had been around since
1939. Soon we would have one in every garage.
Writer Barry DiGregorio tells about another device
tickling our fancy in the late '40s. It was the
rocket belt, a ring of downward-facing jets you
could strap on and use to fly away. The rocket belt
first appeared in Amazing Stories
magazine in 1928 -- in a sci-fi story about a WW-I
air ace named Buck Rogers. Buck Rogers suffered an
accident and woke up in the 25th century. He and
his 25th-century rocket belt have been the stuff of
comic books and movies ever since.
But who could wait for the 25th century? As early
as 1933, a German inventor got on roller skates,
strapped a home-made rocket to his back, and lit
the fuse. He was lucky. It only knocked him off his
feet and sent him tumbling forward.
In 1949 one of Werner von Braun's team developed a
jet vest for the Army. With it, a soldier could
jump over a low obstacle. But here the real problem
with Buck Rogers's rocket belt surfaced.
The cost in rocket fuel for generating thrust to
get off the ground without wings is huge. The cost
of staying in the air is prohibitive. Still, the
idea of flying without an airplane is such heady
wine. In 1957 the Army got seriously interested. By
1961 they'd staged a 13-second flight that carried
a man 113 feet. By 1962 a test pilot flew over 800
feet and stayed up for 21 seconds.
Then the technology took a not-too-surprising turn.
The government funded Bell to build a 170-pound
contraption powered, not by rockets, but by a small
jet engine. In this version, a person could stay up
for 20 minutes. But now the line between Buck
Rogers's rocket belt and a small airplane was
A century ago, railroads offered the first
commercial engine-powered travel. But trains
immediately passed out of individual control and
left us longing to make rapid travel a personal
thing. That's what the bicycle gave us -- then the
automobile. But the airplane never really did.
We never did have a helicopter out in the garage.
But that hasn't stopped us from wanting one. Buck
Rogers's rocket belt is a primal dream -- an
elementary craving that will not go away.
For now, rocket belts lurk in the fringes -- the
stuff of fairground entertainments and James Bond
movies. Meanwhile, the American Flying Belt
Company, here in Houston, continues working on
lighter and more feasible versions. So don't count
it out. Behind it lies something far too elemental.
As Dickens once wrote:
O running stream of sparkling joy
To be a soaring human boy!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds