Only one man flew BOTH of the devices you see on the left: the Jet Belt and the Rocket Belt. He passed away recently and it is only fitting that we pause for a moment to reflect on the remarkable career and life of Robert F. Courter, Jr, the man who had the coolest job on Earth.
On January 28, 2013, Robert F. Courter, Jr. passed away. He was 87 years old and I was lucky enough to interview him by phone just a few months earlier. I was putting the finishing touches on a book chronicling the history of Jet Pack technology and Courter’s life story was woven into the history. Not enough people outside the community of those who study this technology know who Bob Courter was and that needs to change. Once you hear his story, you will see why.
In 1961, a Bell Aerospace engineer named Wendell Moore unveiled the first working rocket belt. The device, which many people would refer to as a “jet pack,” would soon be seen everywhere. It appeared on Gilligan’s Island, Lost in Space, the James Bond film Thunderball, and at sporting events. Perhaps its most visible appearance would be at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
When Moore developed the rocket belt, he had hoped to fly it himself but broke his kneecap in a training accident and was grounded. He was forced to turn flight duties over to others and Courter was eventually hired to fly the rocket belt and to train more rocket belt pilots. Courter was an experienced combat pilot before Moore hired him. He had studied engineering before entering the military. In 1945, he was trained as an airplane pilot by the U.S. Army and was so good at it that he continued training and became a flight instructor. He moved to the Buffalo area and got a job with Niagara Falls Aeronautical Corporation, where he trained a hundred students to the point where they could fly solo. In 1951, his instructing duties were interrupted by the Korean War. The New York Air National Guard activated him, sending him to fly several hundred hours of combat in a P-51 Mustang over Korea. In 1953, he was discharged and he returned to Buffalo. When he arrived at Bell, he was a combat veteran, certified pilot and licensed to fly single and multiengine aircraft. He also held an instructor’s rating. He first flew the rocket belt in July 1962.
Many people saw the rocket belts fly but do not know that the belts could only hold a man aloft for 21 seconds. The fuel they carried was volatile but expended quickly. This meant that the devices were not quite ready for any practical applications beyond demonstrations. Still, the demonstrations were spectacular and Bell sent its belts all over the world to show off the technology. Courter and the men he trained flew the belts everywhere. He flew at the Paris Airshow and over the Superbowl. He was one of the pilots who did regular flights over the New York World’s Fair. And, he and his men did stunt work for Hollywood. When Gilligan flew one trying to get off his island, the flight scenes were performed by Courter. When James Bond flew one evading bad guys in Thunderball, the pilots who did the flights on camera were trained by Courter. Courter also flew on Lost in Space.
In 1964, Bell worked with Williams Research, a builder of small jet engines, to create a flying belt powered by a small turbine. With financial support from the U.S. government, Bell and Williams made the belt and only let one man fly it: Bob Courter. The jet belt was a huge step forward from the rocket belt. Its flying time was measured in minutes and it ran on jet fuel. Although it was a bit heavier, it was much more practical than the rocket belt. Courter demonstrated the jet belt for the military. They were mightily impressed but wondered: What can a man accomplish while flying the thing? The controls took both hands to operate, it was fairly expensive to build, it was quite loud, and it had the same problem all individual lift devices have. What happens if it loses power in flight? The engineers called the problem “Lift Degradation,” but the euphemism wouldn’t soften the landing any. You can’t glide back to earth with a powerless rocket or jet belt strapped to your back. Bell threw in the towel on the program when the government opted to not buy the jet belt.
Williams Research bought the device, the patents, and hired Courter to continue as test pilot. Williams would continue developing the jet belt to see if a market could be found. After a few refinements – like the addition of a ballistic parachute – Williams decided to move on. One of the problems with the jet belt was that it was heavier than the rocket belt. A fully fueled pilot would have a hard time standing with the weight of the device on his back. A small stand was used to help support the weight before takeoff but it got them thinking: What if they made something that supported its own weight?
Williams developed the WASP – the Williams Aerial Systems Platform – essentially a jet engine with a small frame which allowed the pilot to straddle it and hover. Of course, Bob Courter got to be the test pilot. The first iteration looked crude. The device had no housing and it appeared that Courter – when he demonstrated it to the military which had partially funded its development – was simply hanging onto a vertically-mounted, running jet engine. The first version of the WASP sat atop steerable exhaust vents, added to allow for more flight control. The earlier flying belts had largely used kinesthetic control. That is, the pilot’s body movements were the controls. After flying the WASP, Courter told the Williams engineers the variable exhaust ducts weren’t necessary. The engineers went back to the drawing board and built the WASP II. It would have a streamlined housing and look a lot cleaner than the first version. It would also be steered by the pilot’s body movements.
Courter worked with the engineers through design and construction and hopped aboard the assembled device, attached to a gimbal. After a few modifications and more tests, Courter took it for a free flight. The WASP II stunned audiences. Courter would step into the housing – which some described as a “flying pulpit” or a “flying garbage can” – and fire the engine. The small jet engine at the heart of the device would blast the WASP II into the air and Courter would hover. To move, he would lean slightly in the direction he wanted to go. The device had only two controls: a throttle and a twist grip which controlled the yaw, allowing the WASP II to rotate on its vertical axis. Courter mastered the flying platform to the point where he could zip around in ways that your brain will tell you are impossible. Williams filmed many of the flights and now, thirty years later, they still look unbelievable. And, like the jet belt, it could stay aloft for minutes. The WASP II could easily stay airborne for more than ten minutes. Better, the pilot didn’t have to carry the weight of the machine on his back before taking off or while landing.
Bob Courter demonstrated the machine for the military. Perhaps it could be used as a reconnaissance vehicle, or by artillery spotters? Everyone who saw the WASP II fly was awed by Courter’s aerial work. He even trained three soldiers with no previous flight experience to prove that the WASP II could truly be flown kinesthetically. After all was said and done, the military passed. The brass really wasn’t sure what they could do with it. Williams reimagined the WASP II as the “X-Jet” and pitched it to the civilian market. If someone had bought the pitch, Courter was available to train the pilots. No one bought it and the technology was shelved. Two of the X-Jets were placed in museums and Bob Courter retired in 1987. On his resume he could list an amazing array of aircraft flown: P-51 Mustangs, the Bell Rocket Belt, the Bell Jet Belt, the WASP and the WASP II/X-Jet.
I was always struck by how Courter’s career began with a prop plane at the end of that era – the era dominated by piston engine-powered prop planes. He flew them in combat in Korea at a time when he might encounter a MiG in his neighboring airspace. He then transitioned over into and through the rocket and jet belts to the flying platforms. It was a remarkable career. And I know that last sentence is an understatement. I’m a writer, but I don’t know how else to put it. As I mentioned at the top, I interviewed Bob Courter late in 2012. I was researching a book on the history of jet pack technology and tried to track down as many people as I could with firsthand knowledge of the program. Bob was kind enough to speak to me several times and, at 86 years old, was remarkably sharp. His hearing was off a bit, which is understandable considering how much of his career involved testing some of the loudest transportation devices ever built by man. He remembered it all and told me stories I never could have heard elsewhere. For example: in the 1960s, Bell experimented by reconfiguring their rocket belt motors to see what else they could get to fly. At one point they swapped the harness of a rocket belt for an office chair. Walter Dornberger, a Bell executive who had worked on German military rockets with Von Braun, bet Courter a bottle of good whiskey that the chair would kill anyone who tried to fly it. Courter flew the chair and received the spirits from an amused Dr. Dornberger. Check the 5:00 mark here to see the cuting edge of flying chair technology.
I received word a few weeks ago that Robert F. Courter, Jr. had passed away in Venice, Florida. He was 87. I didn’t get a chance to meet him but I feel that I know him through his legacy. That, of the Individual Lift Device. The “jet packs” might not have become as ubiquitous in our world as some scientists might have predicted back in the 1960s. But, for Robert F. Courter, Jr., they were his life. And what a life it was.