re-sized buck rogers

Was Buck Rogers the first wing suit flyer?

Arnie Schwarzenegger once famously pronounced ‘I’ll be back’ in one of his Terminator movies – well I am back and this leaves me with a dilemma – my co editor and family have fulfilled their part of our ‘deal’ – they bungee jumped at Victoria Falls! Congratulations – and I am pleased to say they are all fit and well and smiling.

You must understand that as a blog which writes, reports and does all things about extreme sports we feel we are somewhat obliged to have experienced as many of the extremes about which we write as possible. My co-editor and her family, having agreed to the bungee jump, then helpfully pronounced that my part of the ‘deal’ would be to wingsuit fly! Here you should note that I was not allowed to comment and have steadfastly refused to be a party to the deal.

However in understanding that to get even close to becoming a wingsuit flyer you have to have many hours of tuition, training, practicing, parachuting and free diving I thought I could at least do a little research – please note that this in no way suggests that I accept the deal.

And the results – well it seems that we can date back the first wingsuit flyer to 1928 when Captain Anthony Rogers – otherwise known as Buck Rogers – first appeared in a sci-fi story in a popular pulp magazine. Manned flight has long been in mind – the legend of Icarus, Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter – but it was Buck who really fired up the imagination.

Steve Kramer of the Wall Street Journal reports on a book just published called Jetpack Dreams by Mac Montandon:

‘Nevertheless, a few obsessed engineers and enthusiasts keep trying to achieve lift-off. In “Jetpack Dreams,” Mac Montandon tours this wreckage-strewn territory and sketches some of its fanatical inhabitants………

At the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Thiokol Chemical and, most notably, Bell Aerospace, engineers inspired by Buck Rogers spent years and fortunes designing jetpacks. Then as now, the contraptions featured strap-on tanks filled with volatile fuel, usually hydrogen peroxide, that powered thrusters for propelling the pilot skyward. Then as now, most of the jetpacks flew about as well as ostriches.

The partial exception was the Rocket Belt, developed by an appealingly monomaniacal engineer at Bell Aerospace named Wendell Moore. Mr. Montandon tells this part of the story well. After Mr. Moore shattered his kneecap in a crash, he surrendered the throttle to other test pilots but kept refining the Rocket Belt. Success, when it finally arrived, was modest: In April 1961, a pilot scudded 112 feet in 21 seconds. Mr. Moore and others improved the device’s maneuverability but couldn’t extend that 21-second duration. Funding dried up.

Mr. Montandon earnestly recounts the Rocket Belt’s high points: an exhibition for President Kennedy, cameos on the TV show “Lost in Space” and in the 1965 James Bond movie “Thunderball” (“one of the most profound pop culture touchstones for jetpack junkies,” Mr. Montandon writes), and a flight at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The device was also popular at state fairs and sporting events.

Mr. Montandon strains to portray these 21-second displays as triumphs and the use of jetpacks in ads and videogames as significant cultural markers. But in truth his examples show the jetpack dwindling from a potentially world-shaking invention into a high-tech toy for entertaining but irrelevant stunts.’

So you see – when I read words such as ‘ostrich, shattered knee cap and wreckage strewn territory’ you will understand why I might spend quite a long time in the research department!

Of course on my return to Europe I was greeted by the very exciting news of Yves Rossy’s successful powered wingsuit flight over the English Channel – La Manche – and to keep up the spirits I have added a very good video by Atika Shubert CNN’s NewsRevue who interviews Rossy before his successful Channel crossing.

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