The Incredible, Stupid, Gruesome Story Of The First Jet Pack
Every human dreams of flying, but not with wings, because that looks exhausting. This is why jet packs used to be a sci-fi staple -- your grandparents grew up thinking the kids of 2018 would fly their rocket belts to school every morning and spend recess punching birds out of the air.
That didn't happen, for the most part, and for a very good reason: We humans simply cannot be trusted with this technology. What follows is the absolutely real story of some dudes who did in fact own a jet pack and took it for a years-long ride fueled by deceit, obsession, assault, kidnapping, possible murder, and a little dash of karate for good measure.
To be extra clear: We did not make any of this up.
In The 1950s, "Rocket Belts" Were Absolutely Real
Behind every great story of obsession are the moments before the madness. Like Kathy Bates from Misery walking into a bookstore for the very first time, or the guy from that Sting song before he started counting every individual breath that woman was taking. For the jet pack, it starts with Bell Aerosystems in the 1950s. Engineer Wendell Moore developed a hydrogen-peroxide-powered "rocket belt" for the U.S. Army. The pack weighed about 125 pounds, so it was essentially strapping a chunky middle schooler filled with explosives to your back. Bell showed off the rocket belt numerous times for government officials, but could only hit heights of a few meters above ground for very short intervals. The Army wasn't impressed.
So the Army didn't want a jet pack? Fine. The company began taking private gigs and raking in cash. They tasked their best pilot from the early Army testing days, Bill Suitor, with flying it at fairs and carnivals. Though this part is unreported, it's safe to assume that the entire time Suitor was absolutely swimming in sweet, sweet mid-'60s carnival ass.
Soon, their rocket belt started turning up everywhere, from Lost In Space episodes to the James Bond film Thunderball. It had captured the public imagination. There was absolutely no way of stopping the rocket belt's momentum at this point. The only conceivable thing that could halt such a force of nature would have to be a heart attack or something.
Then Private Jet Pack Enthusiasts Took Over
Wendell Moore was killed dead by a heart attack in 1969. With him gone, the project was shuttered and Suitor left the company. But, much like the mafia, nobody gets out of the jet pack game that easily. Suitor was soon put in touch with a California-based inventor named Nelson Tyler, who informed him that he had been working on his own rocket belt and needed a pilot.
Together, Tyler and Suitor continued the tradition of bringing a jet pack to a place, flying a jet pack at that place, collecting a paycheck, swimming in jet pack groupie ass, and rolling on to the next town. The jet pack heyday climaxed at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. During the opening ceremonies, Suitor would enrapture not just the 90,000 people in attendance, but also the millions watching on TV, all by completing a successful 17-second ride. The planet went apeshit. Jet packs had finally arrived, human flight was here, and the world would never be the same again.
Except it turned out that the world would stay the exact same. Jet packs are quite expensive and hard to make, and piloting one requires a perfect blend of technical skill with a complete disrespect for both gravity and your own well-being (there were no parachutes for these guys).
Tyler's jet pack eventually fell into the hands of Hollywood stuntman Kinnie Gibson (stunt work is arguably the only job in the entire world where a jet pack can just come into your life and it's not that bizarre). Gibson was dead set on continuing the device's storied legacy of getting people to pay him a boatload of money to maybe die in front of them.
After a while, Gibson enlisted the help of an old friend named Brad Barker, whose personality by all accounts could be best described as "Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, only moreso." Here is where things take a turn for the stupid. I should note that many of the ludicrous/gruesome details you're about to read come from The Rocketbelt Caper, Paul Brown's incredible book on the story. Buckle up.
Jet Pack Jealousy Led To A Burglary And A Karate Battle
Barker was a handsome and charming guy with a propensity for violent outbursts. He wandered from place to place and job to job, bringing an erratic, unsettling vibe everywhere he went. He was also deeply obsessed with jet packs. After seeing James Bond's rocket belt in Thunderball as a kid, he was hooked.
Gibson knew him from when they both lived in Houston. While Gibson had left home to become a stuntman, Barker stayed behind to have kids and a family. And like all maniacs, this life of stability and unconditional love just made him more antsy. Sure, he had tasted everyone else's version of it, but he hungered for the real American dream: jet pack ownership.
Barker joined Gibson in their bootleg propulsion lab and got to work. Things actually went pretty well for a while. They got the jet pack up and running, and Gibson even scored a contract to go on tour with Michael Jackson, making a ton of money in the process. But their fame caught the attention of a third guy they knew from back home, who had money and was also obsessed with jet packs. His name was Larry Stanley, and he knew Barker from a failed smuggling venture (itself a long and stupid story). After seeing Gibson flying on television one night, Stanley just couldn't sit around with his money and good life back home. He too decided he needed a jet pack.
With Gibson away doing stunt work in the Philippines, Stanley broke into his storage facility and jacked a bunch of their rocket belt equipment. When Barker learned about the heist, he did what anybody would do in this situation: He called up a friend who had a black belt in karate and rolled out, ready to kick someone in the head to get a jet pack back.
When they arrived at Stanley's property, they found Stanley's own henchmen, an former Navy SEAL, waiting for them. Now you've got your classic standoff: a contracted black belt, but definitely that Florida strip mall studio-style white guy with a mustache and a tight ponytail, facing off with a former SEAL, who probably looked exactly the same as him.
In this round of redneck Mortal Kombat, the karate master prevailed, dropping the SEAL and allowing Barker to move in for interrogations. Barker proceeded to beat the SEAL's legs with a bat, hollering questions about the equipment's whereabouts until Stanley showed up and agreed to give it back. This incident would go down as probably the tenth-dumbest thing to occur in the course of this story.
A Bitter Jet Pack Rivalry Was Formed
The rocket belt is not some cold, lifeless hunk of metal. It's a living, breathing, demonic hunk of metal akin to the One Ring. And much like those Hobbits and elves and shit who came into contact with the Ring, friendships just can't last in the jet pack's presence.
After Gibson broke their jet pack's throttle while preparing for a stint at Disneyland, Barker took it in for repairs. For Barker, "repairs" meant secretly taking notes on the design, just in case he needed to make his own one day. He reached out to his friend Joe Wright (an otherwise normal person who, like everyone in this tale, fell in love with the jet pack once he saw it), and Gibson got annoyed when he caught the two of them videotaping the device. After all, what fun is a rocket pack if you're not the only one who owns one? The whole point is to be able to soar above the filthy, gawking peasants below as they grind their teeth in envy.
Gibson and Barker had a falling out soon after. Gibson would split off to go form his own jet pack company, away from all of the madness that was about to ensue. Barker then decided to start up his own operation using all of the technical information he'd gleaned. He roped in Joe Wright, and they got to work in Wright's stereo shop.
It turns out it's kind of expensive to make one of these from scratch, so Barker knew he'd have to call in help from a friend with cash ... and that friend was goddamned Larry Stanley, the man with the Level 1 NPC Navy SEAL guardian from earlier, who had robbed them and only returned the goods when Barker threatened to bludgeon him with a baseball bat. And because everyone in this story is crazy, Stanley of course said yes.
And They Jet-Packed Happily Ever Aft- Wait, No, It Turned Into A Hammer Fight
This new operation was getting close to having a functioning rocket belt design of their own by the mid-'90s. They'd brought in engineers and burned through a ton of money -- some of it theirs, most of it other people's. Then it was finally time for liftoff, so you know what that means: Somebody's calling Bill Motherfuckin' Suitor. The Aragorn of our tale. A man somehow untainted by the evils of the device.
Suitor was stunned by the quality of the rocket belt after laying eyes on it, probably because he had just met Stanley and Barker minutes before and convinced himself that he was about to walk in on a "jet pack" that was nothing but a PVC pipe spray-painted silver with a bunch of spaghetti pouring out of it. A few upgrades later, she was ready for flight. All she needed now was a name, so Stanley and Barker left that honor to Suitor. That was a mistake. Suitor sized the thing up and came up with "Pretty Bird." Barker absolutely hated that, but a deal is a deal. Pretty Bird it was.
With Stanley and Barker finally positioned to make some cash off of this bad boy, there was absolutely nothing standing in their way, except for each other and human nature. Never forget the moral of this tale: Jet packs are too good for us.
Stanley soon learned that Barker had been skimming cash off the top of the operation. Then they began to bicker over who would get to fly the sucker. Barker believed Stanley was too fat to fly, and Stanley insisted that he'd been trying to get into better shape. This led to a standoff at Wright's stereo store in which Barker allegedly put a gun to Stanley's head and ordered him to leave. (Barker denies this, but doesn't deny many of the other equally insane details of this sordid tale.) A few days later, another disagreement over money brought Stanley back to the shop.
The two quickly got into a fistfight, tossing each other around like it was a superhero fight, crashing through walls and shit. Eventually Barker had to be taken to the emergency room, which gave him just enough time to calm down, regroup, and return to the shop to restart the fight. This time, Barker decided to get a little zesty and grabbed a hammer, his left arm still in a goddamned sling from that morning's bout.
He tonked Stanley over the back of the head with the hammer while a friend of Stanley's tried to intervene. Barker, in a frenzy of jet pack rage, kept swinging and managed to connect a few more hammer shots, one of them severing one of Stanley's fingers at the knuckle. Eventually, Brad put down the hammer and returned to the back office. But because this was the real-life version of the alley fight from They Live, Stanley marched back for a little more and the men began to go at it again. Mercifully, the cops finally showed up and put them in jail for several hours.
We're sad to say that their friendship would never fully recover from this dispute.
And Then, A Murder
Some legal shenanigans ensued, with Barker and Wright quickly filing a claim over all of the operation's assets, including the rocket belt. Stanley responded with a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Barker kept working on the device with the help of Bill Suitor, and they were finally ready for Pretty Bird's first public flight. They took it to a Houston Rockets game, where it was a massive success. But Suitor, being the jet pack Aragorn he was, wasn't an idiot. He knew there was too much bullshit going on, so he bailed out. Meanwhile, Stanley was desperate to get his hands back on the rocket belt, but Barker always remained one step ahead, keeping the device just out of reach.
Joe Wright, really just a poor car stereo store owner who was caught in the middle of a bad situation, then fell out with Barker (it kind of seems like everyone eventually falls out with Barker). Stanley saw that as his way in. He promised to take Wright out of his civil suit and help out with some money problems if he agreed to help track down Pretty Bird. Though he was terrified of crossing Barker, Wright had no choice but to say yes.
A few days later, on July 19, 1998, Wright was found dead in his home. He'd been beaten to death with a blunt object.
Naturally, the first suspect who came to mind was Barker, and he was arrested immediately. He was turned loose after three days of interrogation. Ultimately, police couldn't verify his alibi or connect him with the crime (the assailant had carefully cleaned up the evidence). There were some other suspects, like a bookie Wright owed money to and an unsavory drug dealer. Stanley totally believed it was Barker, and promised Wright's family that he would do something about it.
And Then, The Kidnapping
In 1999, a judge awarded Stanley sole ownership of the rocket belt. There was just one problem: Barker didn't show up for the proceedings, and even though Stanley won, there was no Pretty Bird there for him to own. Barker claimed that he didn't get any mail about the court date, and that he didn't have the jet pack anyway.
Meanwhile, Barker partnered up with yet another jet pack operation (they wanted to make one shaped like a giant beer can, counting on some sweet sponsorship deals). That relationship also fell apart, and Barker wound up in jail for -- you guessed it -- trying to break into their facility to snatch their rocket belt. While he was in jail, Stanley quickly asked to search their facilities for the Pretty Bird (which he now rightfully owned). It was just an orgy of people sneaking into places and failing to find jet packs, is what I'm saying.
Barker was released from jail, and in what had to have seemed like a bit of good fortune, he then got a phone call asking him to head to the California desert for a few days of stunt work. Not being a stuntman or in any way qualified for such an odd, out of the blue offer, Barker of course signed up immediately. He landed in Los Angeles and met up with a few shady "stunt guys," who instead instantly interrogated him about the rocket belt.
As usual, Barker didn't say a word. So they pulled out a gun, handcuffed him, blindfolded him, and threw him into a tiny wooden box which they proceeded to screw shut. They transported said box to an apartment somewhere in Hollywood. From then on, Barker was only brought out of his coffin to be beaten and interrogated about the jet pack. And still he didn't break.
After about a week of this (during which he lost nearly 30 pounds), Barker was informed that they were bringing an honest-to-god, bona fide notary over, and that she was going to sit down across from this kidnapped, tortured man and have him sign away the jet pack rights. And you know what? They did exactly that. Barker signed. The notary got up to leave and handed the papers over to a man in the corner. Unsurprisingly, it was Larry Stanley.
He took his new, completely useless papers and put Barker back in the box. Panicked and terrified, Barker believed he was a dead man if he couldn't get out. Later that night, Barker found a way out of his handcuffs and escaped the box and apartment before trucking into the Hollywood night.
... And Pretty Bird Was Never Seen Again
The cops got involved and arrested Stanley and one of Barker's kidnappers. Stanley refused a plea deal that would have somehow only sent him away for a few years, so he was instead facing life in prison. During the trial, however, Stanley mostly just bitched about getting his jet pack back, and Barker mostly said he didn't have it.
After belatedly coming to the realization that being in jail for life isn't super cool (since there are no jet packs in jail), Stanley admitted his guilt and the DA and judge threw out some of the charges, reducing his sentence to eight years. (Barker claims he generously reached out to the DA to plea on behalf of his kidnapper. It's unknown if this had any effect.)
Barker, meanwhile, would move from place to place, evading court appearances before inevitably ending up before a judge again, where he would continue to insist he had no idea where the jet pack was. This was 2004, five years after the kidnapping incident and nine goddamned years after Stanley sued for the rights to Pretty Bird. The judge threw him in jail on contempt charges, saying the sentence would be extended indefinitely if Barker refused to turn the jet pack over. He, of course, chose indefinite jail over surrendering Pretty Bird. After six months, the judge just gave up and let him go.
And that was that. Larry Stanley has since been released from jail. The murder of Joe Wright remains unsolved. Kinnie Gibson died in 2015, from cancer, of all things. Bill Suitor is most likely still up to his eyeballs in carnival tail. The whole affair got turned into a little-seen movie starring Paul Giamatti.
And Pretty Bird was never seen publicly again. If someone ever stumbles across it, we'll probably know only from the sheer mayhem that ensues.
Note: Seriously, read The Rocketbelt Caper by Paul Brown. t contains far more details and twists than we could include here, including many quotes from the actual people involved.
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