Why Aren’t We All Flying Around in Jetpacks?
David Mayman, (Company Founder of Jetpack Aviation in California, flies up the Goodwood Hill displaying his JB11 JetPack at Goodwood on July 14, 2018 in Chichester, England. Source: (Photo by Michael Cole/Corbis via Getty Images)
If we were to believe the comic books of the 1920s and 1930s, the TVs shows of the 1940s and 1950s, and the movies of the 1960s and 1970s, we should all be flying around in our own personal jetpacks by now. These personal flying machines, in convenient backpack form, were staples of science fiction and futuristic pop culture. Jetpacks exist in real life. We’ve seen them at the Super Bowl and in that James Bond movie. So, what happened? Why aren’t we all flying around in jetpacks?
A Russian Prototype
The first patent issued for a jetpack was for a device designed by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Andreyev, a Russian inventor, back in 1919. This personal-sized, oxygen and methane-powered jetpack had two wings, each about three feet long. This jetpack, however, never got off the ground. In fact, it never made it off the drawing board. Even though the inventor acquired a patent for it, the prototype was never built or tested.
The Small Rocket Lift Device
The jetpack remained a comic book and science fiction gadget until the end of the 1950s when Wendell F. Moore of Bell Aerosystems designed his Small Rocket Lift Device…essentially a small rocket in a backpack that he envisioned would be used by individual soldiers in combat. Using hydrogen peroxide as fuel, this jetpack was fully-functional and stable. The jetpack wearer could fly, hover, and turn, as well as change altitude. There was a hitch, though. It could fly very long or very far.
The Drawbacks of Jetpacks
While the Bell Aerosystems jetpack did work, there were some major drawbacks to it. To make a jetpack that is capable of going long distances or flying for longer durations, the weight of the fuel would prevent the jetpack from flight. Even if a low-weight fuel source could be developed to power the jet pack, the human body is not built to withstand the pressures of open flight. The jetpack wearer would need to be outfitted in a protective, pressurized suit, which of course, would be problematic because of the extra weight.
Other Jetpack Designs
Wendell Moore wasn’t the only inventor working on individual flying machines in the 1950s. In 1956, a Romanian named Justin Capra claimed he designed a jetpack he called a flying rucksack. Nearly a decade later, Bell Laboratories followed Capra’s blueprints and created a working jetpack. A few years later, in 1958, two engineers with Thiokol Corporation, built a Jump Belt…a belt that created downward thrust using pressurized nitrogen in canisters affixed to the belt. The next year, the United States Army hired Wendell Moore to head up its research and design division to develop working jetpacks for the military. The limitations of jetpacks led the military to abandon the project.
Beginning in the 1980s, a former stunt man named Kinnie Gibson began using jetpacks for promotional and stunt work through his company, Powerhouse Productions. Gibson and his crew used jetpacks that were featured in film, television, and live events, including the Rose Bowl, Daytona 500, Super Bowl, Olympic Opening Ceremony, and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. They even participated in Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour. Gibson appeared in his jetpack on TV’s The Fall Guy, NCIS, and Walker, Texas Ranger. But it wasn’t the first time jetpacks were featured on the big and small screens.
Jetpacks in Pop Culture
Even as the feasibility of jetpacks is called into question, we still love to see an individual person zoom through the air with a rocket strapped to their backs. On the cover of the 1928 comic book, Amazing Stories, a man is depicted wearing a jetpack. Later, another comic book superhero, Captain Marvel flies around with the use of a jetpack. In the 1965 James Bond film, Thunderball, the dapper spy escapes the enemy by using a jetpack. Johnny Quest, Gilligan, Buck Rodgers, the family in Lost in Space, and Star War’s Boba Fett all used jetpacks. The Rocketeer comic book series of the 1980s and 1990s relied heavily on a hero in a stolen, military-grade jetpack.
Practical Application of Jetpacks
Today, vacationers to coastal, beach-front areas can do a watery version of the jetpack for fun and adventure. Unlike a traditional jetpack, these are tethered and often include a surfboard-like platform that allows the person to slice through the air, creating turns and arcs. While this is entertaining, it is not the best use of jetpacks. The only real practical application of jetpacks has been as extra-vehicular devices for astronauts in space. The thrusters on these NASA jetpacks allow the astronaut to maneuver around outside the spacecraft to do repairs or experiments. The vision of the future that included people zipping to the grocery store in a jetpack has not yet come to fruition and, given the limitations of individual rocket packs, we may never see the day when jetpacks are the preferred mode of transportation.
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