The goofy history of jet packs (pictures)

Two jet-pack-clad guys recently soared over Dubai. But mankind's quest for individual flight has been a long -- and weird -- one.

Jefferson Reid
Jefferson Reid is a writer, author and editor who was worked for NBCUniversal, CBS, AOL, Yahoo! and many others.
Jefferson Reid
1 of 17 Jetman.com

Sky high over Dubai

It seemed like a long-delayed future had finally arrived when jetpackers Yves Rossy and Vince Reffet soared over Dubai for 12 crazy minutes in May of 2015.

It's been a long, strange trip for the jetpack. How did we get here?

2 of 17 Mark Avino, Smithsonian Institution

Jetpacks: The glorious future

Humans have always envied the carefree flight of birds (never mind that whole "eating half your body weight daily" thing).

Leonardo da Vinci famously tinkered with the idea of a one-man flying machine. (Here's an interpretation of his design, built by Opera Laboratori Fiorentini, recently on loan at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.)

A tightrope walker in the court of France’s Louis XIV also reportedly toyed with the notion. And then there was this guy…

3 of 17 Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Allez! Only don't look down!

In 1678, a French locksmith named Besnier built a pair of oscillating wings.

According to a railroading journal from the 1800s, Besnier's contraption "consisted of two bars of wood hinged over the shoulders, and carrying wings of muslin, arranged like folding shutters, so as to open flat on the down stroke and fold up edgewise on the up stroke."

Besnier was apparently able to fly over a "the roof of an adjoining cottage" and even sell a pair of wings to a traveling "mountebank."

4 of 17 U.S. National Archives

Crazy like a...flying fox

A staple of crackpot inventors and steam-punk sci-fi stretching back to the Jules Verne days of the Victorian age, the self-propelled flying machine was a dream that simply wouldn't die.

Unfortunately, we can't say the same for all the test pilots.

Here’s a patent application drawing from 1869.

5 of 17 "Amazbuck" by Frank R. Paul

Up, up and away!

By 1928, when heroes like Buck Rogers jetted onto the scene in pulpy magazines (like this one, from that exact year) the idea of fuel-powered personal flying gizmos was already getting a grip on our fevered imaginations.

When Superman cruised onto the scene a few years later, it was clear there that mankind was definitely ready to fly without a net...or a space on an airplane.

6 of 17 U.S. Patent application/Public domain

Jetpack pandemonium: Um, not so fast

It wasn't until after WWII that actual hands-on engineering work began on the jetpack. That's when folks at Bell Aerosystems started taking the government's money to get the whole program going.

But working at standard bureaucratic speeds, they wouldn't have inventor Wendell Moore's working prototype airborne until the '60s.

7 of 17 iStock

Nazi jetpacks shot down

There are stories floating around the ever-reliable Internet that the Nazis had the jetpack before the Americans, and the Yanks stole if from Hitler's henchmen, but don't you believe it. Steve Lehto, author of "The Great American Jetpack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device" meticulously shoots that hoax down.

This widely disseminated big lie was just a Holocaust denier's piece of Web propaganda.

8 of 17 Republic Pictures

Rocket Man: Serial thriller

If real-life jetpacks were slow to gain momentum, the concept was soaring in pop culture. Rocket Man was a hugely popular character through the mid-'50s in movie serials.

Sometimes known as Commando Cody, and by other aliases, because, apparently, no one was paying attention in the '50s, Rocket Man kept the jetpack flame burning bright until scientists could actually figure out how to make these things work without burning people's legs off.

Thank you, Rocket Man.

9 of 17 Corbis

Branding brouhaha

Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to. I say jetpack, you say Rocket Belt.

Or at least, that's what Bell Aerosystems called the jetpack-ish device they finally built for the US Army in the 1960s (also poetically known in Army-speak as the Small Rocket Lift Device, or SRLD).

The belts were also used to entertain state fair crowds in the 1970s.

10 of 17 Corbis

Up and down

The strap-on jet belt was extensively tested and worked well after a fashion.

But if the test period was long, the flights certainly weren't -- only lasting about 20 seconds or so. Luckily, the Rocket Belt rig included a safety buzzer that went off in its helmet when the wearer about to run out of fuel.

11 of 17 Corbis

A fuel's errand

The difference between a jetpack and a Rocket Belt is actually more than semantic.

Instead of being a mini jet engine, a Rocket Belt is powered by a chemical reaction where hydrogen peroxide is mixed with liquid nitrogen and a silver catalyst. Regardless, both kinds of engines run hot and are also expensive and cumbersome.

Case in point: A 30-second rocket belt ride uses roughly $1,500 in fuel. So obviously, you're not using your rocket belt to run errands.

12 of 17 NASA

The challenge of free flying

One place jetpacks really do work like a dream is in outer space. When we finally got there, we discovered that the near zero-g environment of Earth's orbit was the perfect place for this kind of propulsion.

For instance, Challenger astronaut Bruce McCandless demonstrated this exhilarating and somewhat scary freedom on a 1984 spacewalk wearing a nitrogen propelled backpack and free-flying 320 feet from the mother ship.

13 of 17 Discovery Channel

DIY, and why not

If you're a DIY guy or gal thinking of building your own jetpack, go for it, but we'd advise you to avoid buying your plans online.

In 2005, TV's smartypants "Mythbusters" gave it a try. But even with their pyrotechnic genius, the result was less than spectacular...

14 of 17 Discovery Channel

Don't try this at home

Their pricey device couldn't even lift its own weight off the ground.

Epic fail. Not surprising. It's what the Internet does.

15 of 17 Corbis

Flying Wing: It's a thing

In 2006, Swiss pilot Yves Rossy flew his kerosene-powered flying wing through the Alps and later across the English Channel.

Maybe what Rossy's flying wasn't quite a traditional jetpack; he didn't take off from a standing position. Instead, he got dropped from a plane to start.

16 of 17 Jetman.com

Two wings over Dubai

In May, Rossy and new protege Vince Reffet brought the idea of jet packs closer to reality than ever before. During that flight, their powered wings flew at speeds of up to 125 mph.

17 of 17 Jetman.com

Blue yonder

The flight was the culmination of years of experimentation involving 15 different jet-pack prototypes. The winning version, a 120-pound device, still required the wearer to jump out of an aircraft above 7,000 feet before free-falling to gain speed.

But we all have to start somewhere.

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