For many years, I wasn’t sure if what I saw was real or some sort of hopeful childhood vision: I was in a large crowd on the National Mall and a figure in a white spacesuit wearing a jetpack suddenly floated off the ground. He was flying! After rising straight up, he swept forward, then swooped back above the crowd.
I was about 5 years old. Was it a “Jetsons” phantom memory? I grew up in a white-bread Virginia suburb and my father was working as a NASA engineer. But this was way cooler.
Then I forgot about it, for decades. But about a year ago, the image popped into my mind and I decided to do some research. I came across a 1967 newspaper clipping with a black-and-white photo. Billed as fun for children, the Pageant of Transportation included a “rocket belt” flying man.
The caption named the rocket man as Bill Suitor. In the photo he floats midair with a balloonist near the Washington Monument. I wondered if Suitor was still around. A Google hit said he’d given a talk in April 2021 in Maine to a local historical society, which agreed to pass along my request to contact him. Further research showed Suitor started flying the rocket belt as a teenager. He had flown the Buck Rogers-inspired jetpack more than any other human: By one count, he has logged 1,000 flights.
Then one day I got a phone call from just outside Buffalo. “I’d like to keep the idea of jetpacks alive,” Suitor said when we spoke. “But I’ve become a nonbeliever.”
Suitor got started in his space-age career when he was 19, not from dreams of being an astronaut (he was planning on architecture), but thanks to his lawn-mowing job. “I had never been outside of western New York,” he told me. His neighbor was Wendell Moore, a rocket engineer with Bell Aviation who was working on a secret project for the U.S. Army: developing a tool to revolutionize battlefield mobility. Moore recruited his lawn boy as a guinea pig, Suitor joked. After tests, Bell Aviation made a short film to prove the concept.
For that film, the company got permission to fly into historic Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario. It was a fine summer day, and the late sun cast long shadows. Suitor rose off the sea wall on the Niagara River and flew over the fortress. Soaring over historic buildings with Shaker rooftops, “I saw my shadow for the very first time” in flight, he told me. Suddenly he realized the bird shadow was him. That image, he said, “stuck with me to this day.”
He was sent on a publicity tour. Suitor’s first gig on the road was at the Sacramento racetrack and fairgrounds, just months after his first flight. “The higher you go, the nicer it is,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “You feel free as a bird.”
What he didn’t know was that he was scheduled to fly into the racetrack fairgrounds at night. For the first time, he’d launch in the dark, get blinded by spotlights and land on a small stage near where an orchestra was playing. “When I swung in over the stage to land,” he told me, he nearly strafed the tuxedo-clad musicians and sent them scurrying.
The tour continued. In early 1965, Suitor learned he was heading to Paris within a week. He and another Bell rocketeer would be stunt doubles for a scene in a new James Bond film, “Thunderball.” He couldn’t believe it: the popularity of Bond and Sean Connery as Bond was soaring after “Goldfinger.” In London, Suitor was outfitted in a gray suit matching Connery’s in the film, but made of a special flame-resistant Dacron.
In Paris, Suitor was assigned a driver and taken west of the city. His mission: escape a chateau’s third-floor balcony, scoot over the castle wall, and land near the waiting Aston Martin. The director begged the flyboys not to wear their helmets: It didn’t match the shot of Connery. But they refused. The March day was chilly, which caused ignition problems. On his second flight, “I hit the cobblestones like a ton of bricks and bounced into the air,” Suitor told me. “It wasn’t a pretty landing.”
One thing to consider about rocket-powered solo flight is the noise. The Bell model produced an earsplitting 130 decibels. The jetpack was powered by hydrogen peroxide, with steam shooting through two nozzles. It “screams rather than roars,” said Suitor, “a high-pitched, very annoying noise about 16 inches from your ears.”
Of that day when I saw him in 1967, Suitor’s main memory is of an air-cushion vehicle hovercraft, skimming over the Mall carrying the day’s VIP, Alan Boyd, the first U.S. secretary of transportation. Someone asked Suitor if he could fly up and circle the basket where the balloonist was hovering. “I loved flying unusual requests,” he recalled, “it was fun.” A Washington Post photographer captured the rendezvous.
A week later, Suitor married his sweetheart in the chapel of the Niagara Falls Air Force station (her father was in the military). They’ve been married 54 years and have seven kids. He eventually went on to a career at the local utility.
Mike Neufeld, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, said the rocket belt, or rocket pack, found its moment, though it never proved to be practical. “It was basically the Cold War, and the military was willing to throw money at some very crazy ideas.” (It also tested a flying saucer.)
But the jetpack, captivating as it was, was doomed. “It failed as a technology because its flight time was limited to a little over 20 seconds,” Neufeld told me. Even with later versions managing 30 seconds, “it’s basically a great stunt device.”
Still, the rocket pack, rooted in 1930s Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon imagery, keeps a grip on the imagination. “It comes and goes out of popular culture,” Neufeld said. Rocket belts were used to sell everything from Keds to Pabst Blue Ribbon. One is featured in the new Smithsonian “Futures” exhibit.
At its peak, Suitor sailed over the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, with President Reagan in the press box and billions more watching on TV. But by the 1990s rocket belts became a rich man’s toy. Suitor got recruited to test one prototype for a group of investors but found it lacking.
Now 77, he keeps a low profile, spending time on his woodworking and home projects, occasionally giving talks to groups about his rocket man exploits. A few years back he made Christmas ornaments for friends: tiny Bell rocket belts of the “Thunderball” variety.
He was recently back from a family trip to Europe, where, driving toward Normandy, they suddenly came upon a building that looked familiar. It was the chateau of his James Bond adventure. “It was surreal,” he said. “As we were driving into the village, I could see the deer through the trees.” It was the stone stag atop the chateau’s entrance, which he’d last seen as Bond’s airborne double. It stirred a memory — a vision of a future now in the past. Just as I had seen on the grassy Mall.
David A. Taylor is a D.C.-based writer.