PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Jetpack Dreams by Mac Montandon

The story of the jetpack is a swirl of science fiction, media images, technology and large doses of failure. It is the failure and the people who fail that make it worth telling.

Jetpack Dreams: One Man's Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was

Publisher: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition
Length: 272 pages
Author: Mac Montandon
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2009-12

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.