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Alternative Aviation: Rocket Men and Flying Platforms

by on April 23, 2014


This post was written by Heidi Holmstrom. Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.

You may recall our blog post from the beginning of April about the Avrocar, the U.S. Air Force’s flying saucer. The Avrocar wasn’t the only futuristic mode of air transport developed by the military, and it certainly isn’t the only captured on film. At the National Archives and Records Administration, we also hold films depicting tests and demonstrations of jetpacks and flying platforms.

 Jetpack

A pilot demonstrates the Jet Belt in Ft. Myers, Virginia, 1969.

Most of the military’s jetpack development was carried out by Bell Aerosystems. Tests of the Bell Rocket Belt began in 1960, starting with tethered indoor flights and gradually moving to untethered flights outdoors. The film below shows a demonstration flight from June 1961. Notice the pilot’s heat resistant jumpsuit, necessary to protect him from the rocket belt’s exhaust. Due to the limited amount of fuel it could contain, flights of the rocket belt were limited to about 20 seconds in duration.

111-LC-45135Test engineer Harold M. Graham demonstrates the rocket belt, 1961.

While the rocket belt used concentrated hydrogen peroxide as a fuel source, Bell Aerosystems also developed a Jet Belt propelled by kerosene jet fuel. The final segment of the film below shows a 1969 demonstration of the jet belt. This prototype was much heavier than the rocket belt and the pilot required a support frame to hold himself upright while wearing it on the ground. It was capable of flights lasting several minutes, but the complexity and real danger of pilot injury convinced the military to abandon development.

111-LC-54454The jet belt flew for several minutes, but was weighed down by extra fuel.

Like the Avrocar, the military’s flying platforms resemble flying saucers. The Hiller Aircraft VZ-1 Pawnee contained ducted rotors inside its saucer-shaped body and the pilot stood on top, steering it by shifting his weight. The film below shows 1955 test flights of the VZ-1, first with the pilot and platform on a tether, and later in free flight. The film also features an interview with the pilot about the aircraft.

428-NPC-11636A pilot tests the Hiller Aircraft VZ-1 Pawnee flying platform, 1955.

In 1959, Hiller Aircraft performed tests of a beefed-up flying platform designated the VZ-1E. The platform was much taller and the pilot controlled it with a joystick from a seated position. In the film below we can see both tethered and untethered test flights. While the platform does hover successfully, it appears to be difficult to control and does not achieve a high forward velocity.

72-CF-5:  The VZ-1E was larger than the VZ-1 and was controlled like a helicopter.

Like the jetpacks, these flying platforms were abandoned by the U.S. military, with the surviving prototypes now housed in museums. Still, the military has continued to show interest in these types of vehicles, testing the Williams X-Jet in 1983. Photos of these tests are available in NARA’s OPA catalog. Try searching for “flying platform” and “rocket belt” and see what else you can find!


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