[22 March 2010]
The story of the jetpack is cool. A mechanical, sci-fi fantasy that comes true as well as an obsession to achieve personal flight no matter the risks and set backs is a tale worth telling. The interplay between pop culture and technological reality, between the truth and the fantasy of the jetpack is remarkable. The story of an author and his family and his upbringing and his mundane travels and memories are not so cool. An author’s mid-life crisis is not interesting. The author’s relationship to his daughter, wife and father is not the stuff of great non-fiction.
You get the idea. This is the sort of mixed bag we get from Mac Montandon’s Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was. It is a book that is entertaining when it focuses on its proper subject: the jetpack and the people who invented it, its genesis in popular imagination and how its allure continues to lead people to try to build and perfect jetpacks. But too often the author leads us to his second favorite obsession: himself. Mac Montandon insists on writing this book in some sort of new journalism, first person style where he fancies himself and his “journey” to be as interesting as the subjects he pursues. He isn’t.
The shame is Montandon has more than enough interesting subject matter. The jetpack is an idea and a technology with more than enough depth and story and characters to sustain the book. The idea itself and its place in pop culture is a narrative which Montandon traces well.
Buck Rogers is the father of the jetpack. A science fiction character in the very early 20th century and then a wildly popular comic strip, TV and movie star, Buck Rogers popularized the idea of personal flight. The dream was and remains that of one person with a machine that allows humans to fly around as easily as riding a bike. That simple idea has proven to be an enduring notion, an entrancing image that repeatedly makes its way into various media. James Bond in Thunderball, Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi, and even the Lost in Space TV series made the jetpack seem cool, very cool. Watching an individual “blast off” brings the awe-inspiring power of the Apollo missions and the space shuttle and places it tantalizingly within our grasp.
In the strange history of the jetpack, this image, this idea, continually collided with and mixed with truth. It was Buck Rogers and science fiction fantasy that inspired real scientists to work and perfect an actual jetpack. Various companies lured by possible fortunes, government/military funding and devotion to the ideal came up with various inferior designs. Finally, an engineer working for Bell Aerospace named Wendell Moore perfected a working model.
Moore is the hero of the book, a devout 1950s Roman Catholic who was fond of beer, cigarettes, crew cuts and most of all, jetpacks. He helped invent small kitten size rocket thrusters that helped to control a spacecraft, and he then took that same technology and built his own jetpack using spare parts. On 20 April 1961, “a date that for jetpack obsessives carries as much significance as July 20, 1969 does for space nuts”, the first real jetpack took flight.
However, hard truths soon set in. It can only stay airborne for about half a minute and is incredibly difficult to pilot. It takes professionals years of training to master it. The best pilot, Bill Suitor, compared flying one to “standing on a beach ball bobbing in the middle of a swimming pool.” These obstinate facts remained constant through the following decades despite the determined work of many jetpack enthusiasts. The jetpack was simply a very, very limited contraption. Eventually the funding dried up as the technological progress stalled.
Yet the interplay between cultural image and scientific reality continued. Despite its limited effectiveness and failure as a real technology, the jetpack managed to capture the public eye as a real machine with a real person jetting across the screen at the Kennedy White House, in commercials, at the 1984 LA Olympics, and a 1995 Houston Rockets championship celebration. Even by the late date of 2005, P. Diddy made a splash by appearing at a press conference for the VMA awards on a jetpack.
In the second half of the book, Montandon shifts his story, narrating the aftermath of the jetpack’s appearance as a real but limited flight machine. Prohibitively expensive and bulky and dangerous, it can fly for less than thirty seconds. It ought to be long forgotten like quadraphonic sound and typewriters. But the jetpack spawned a community as obsessed with the device after its invention as the dreamers were when it was only science fiction. Montandon tracks down the inventors and engineers and entrepreneurs who are trying to bring the jetpack into its golden age.
They are compelling, sad figures. Stanley Hiller invented the Hiller Flying Platform which Montandon describes as a “kind of oversized duct fan powered manhole”. Nino Amarena managed to build a jetpack that flew for 90 seconds but his funding ran out. There is Rob Bulaga and Trek Aerospace which designed a Springtail flying car with millions in government funding only to end up with a model that doesn’t work. Juan Lozano, the famous “Mexican Rocket Man” who, on the eve of Montnadon’s visit to see him, suffers a serious setback that broke four ribs and snapped his clavicle. Bad luck and danger seems to follow the jetpack. Allegations of possible murder, torture and kidnapping appear in the case of the American Rocket Belt corporation whose founders end up fighting each other and find themselves in court and in jail.
Great stories all and Montandon manages to tell them with the humor and wit and sympathetic eye they need. But he also keeps butting into the picture like a pesky eight year old sticking his face into wedding photos, determined to be in every shot of the bride and groom. Montandon spends too much time on his wife and dad and child and old college friend and they are not nearly as interesting as the Mexican Rocket Man.
Even Montandon’s own midlife crisis, the putative thread which ties the book together is really boring compared to the real life quests of Buck Rogers wannabes. Their story pulls one in, a story of wishing to fly high and far and, more often than not, failing. It is humorous and dangerous and compelling. When Montandon tells that story, he succeeds.