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Bell Rocketbelts

The dream of flight was captured on a chilly morning of April 20, 1961 . On Niagara Falls Airport , New York .

The demonstration of man's first untethered, individual free flight with a rocketbel, no strings, no wings.

The thought of combining a man with a rocket and let him have complete control was not new, nor untried by the time WENDELL MOORE gave it its first thoughts in 1953. Moore, who was a rocket engineer at Bell Aerosystems Company, a Textron company, was assigned to Bell 's X-plane program at Edwards Air Force Base in California . Bell was leader in small rocketry technology. The first drawing from Moore was with a pointed stick in the desert sand, discussing that with Jim Powell, also from Bell , and assigned to the X-2 rocket aircraft.


In the mid 50's the plans came to practice and testing began. A 15 foot high support was build, and a nitrogen gas test rig, entirely made of steel tubing was constructed.

A flexible hose supported the nitrogen flow into the device, operated by a test engineer on the ground, by means of a valve which increased or decreased the nitrogen flow. The gas-flow was divided equally to both sides of the downward pointed tubes, the "nozzles" that were fitted with control orifices. The whole thing was fitted behind and above the operators head. He could operate it with by two fixed arm pieces attached to the tubing with limited control.


Test made it clear: man is an unstable flying object.

This was of more concern than to make a proper rocket propulsion system. The test rig gave the engineers data about stability characteristics, to determine where the nozzles should be positioned, to what portion of the human body the lift force should be applied, the absolute must to stiffening the human body and so on.


On a day in the winter of 1958 Wendell Moore tried it on his own. With safety ropes tied about his waist, he gave the signal: Take it up. He made some crude up-and down maneuvers, but the beginning was made.
Wendell Moore on the nitrogen rig. 1958


In the meanwhile Jim Powell returned to the Bell 's Niagara plant. There he did something never measures: He translated the fore and aft movements by tilting his arm control levers. Jim tried it several times by his self, but things did not go well.

At one time, the Bell Sr. photographer, Tom Lennon tried it. Away he went, up, down, up down, almost fifteen feet in the air for the next three minutes without instability. Operator attitude would play a significant role in operating!


The nozzles were deployed further away from the body, and slightly canted outward, after an engineer blasted his sleeves of his sports unraveled by the jet blast while in flight.


So, you've got a nice device and interest was born (by the military off course).

The Army made a request for proposals for a study program regarding a SRLD, Small Rocket Lift Device.
Aerojet-General Corporation got the first contract.

Aerojet General study, july 1, 1960                                             The Aerojet General Aeropack

But in August 1960 Bell got a contract from U.S. Army TRECOM (Transportation, Research and Engineering Command).

The project officer for the Army was Robert Graham. It was a minimum cost contract, so W. Moore , now technical Director for this program, used "from the shelf" items, such as USAF D2 oxygen bottles and parts of other Air Force of Gemini space capsule parts to make it as cheap as possible. Moore explained that they were trying to prove the man-rocket concept and were not going for the perfect machine. Eddie Ganczak was the Project Engineer, and Ernie Kreutinger the rocket technician. There were others off course, to numerous to mention.


Because initial SRLD design was compatible with that of the Aerojet study, fabrication began. A 280 pound thrust rocket was chosen, with H202, hydrogen peroxide as rocket fuel. The first types had squeeze throttle handgrips instead of the later motorcycle throttle types on the right had side. The left hand site had handgrips for controlling jetavator type gas deflectors, and arm rings for support were set in place

First model A-belt. With NWL valve and squeeze handgrips

 Now the biggest challenge was to support the 125 pound propulsion system to a man's body. A form-fitting fiberglass corset was made to the one who had the honours to test the new all-in one SRLD, W. Moore . In that time the honours were dubious. A harness was added to snug the pilot in, and fixing his body to the rocket-pack. More tests were made, control valves were flow tested, and after a while Moore was tethered at the waist, wore a crash helmet and protective coveralls.

Because it was winter, the outdoor tests were gone after a while indoors, because the rapid condensation of the steam obscures the observation of Moore .

After about 20 flights Moore had located many bugs in the system. Jetavators eliminated the tendency to yaw (rotation of the operator about his vertical centre)

Whilst in flight, at February 17, 1961 at about 8 feet height, Moore went out of control due to a tethering line.He went horizontal, with his left side down. The line broke, taking Moore rapidly to the ground and breaking a knee cap. End of his fulfillment: a free flight.
Flightlog of "flight 20" ending his rocketbelt pilot dreams (from SRLD report 11/1961)


Harold M. Graham, a resident of Kenmore , N.Y. who had worked with some parts of the project, was set in place, and began with the tethered flights on March 1, 1961 to build up experience. After 36 tethered flights and debugging, additional pads and supports under arm and waist were placed.

One of the supports was suggested by the plant physician, Dr. Kelly. It was the abdominal support plate, now called the "Kelly Belly Plate" for more rigid ness to fix the body. More first-time options were the arm rings, squeeze handle bars instead of

And then on April 20, 1961 all systems and conditions were "go"

At about 7 AM a crew of 20 people stand aside, observers, photographers, cinematographers,firebrigade Dr. Kelly, Nurse Milly, Ed Ganczak with the check list, well practiced in the 36 previous tethered tests, Ernie Kreutinger (crew chief) and off course Wendell Moore. The safety pin was removed and Harold Graham was on his own.

After a short burst to check his system, he rose to a height of about 50 cm and began to move forward, with a speed of about 20 km/h.  After 40 meters flight ( 3 meters less than the Wright brothers) and 13 seconds later Harold Graham made history in the dream of flight. Many flights followed, made Graham more and more skilled to perform more difficulty indisplaying the flight abilities of the belt.

The first public demonstration, requested by the Army, was on June 8, 1961 at Ft. Eutis, Virginia. Harold had made 28 free flights by then. Before hundreds of officers, VIP's and other guests Graham flew over an Army truck.

Click here to see the progress report #1 on the rocketbelt      


The audience watched awestruck. Within a week after this, Graham did a demonstration on the Pentagon lawn. Over 3.000 Pentagon employees took a break to see the Army's gadget.

Click here to see great colour footage of that flight with the "Army A-Belt"

Harold Graham made 83 free flights and 36 tethered flights before retiring from the program. It took him to Canada , Mexico , France , Brazil , Australia , and Hawaii to name some. Over 5.000.000 people watched the demonstrations.He later on got 7 successors (see Bell pilots)