Super Bowl I halftime took off with infamous rocket belts - The Buffalo News
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Super Bowl I halftime took off with infamous rocket belts

Forget Beyonce. Never mind the Rolling Stones.

At the very first Super Bowl halftime show, before the Super Bowl was even called the Super Bowl and the halftime shows morphed into the slick, music-video style mini rock concerts they are today, the 60,000-plus crowd was treated to a Space Age spectacle.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Historical look at the rocket belt]

Two guys from Niagara County – William P. Suitor and Robert Courter – strapped on helmets and "rocket belts" developed by Bell Aerosystems engineer Wendell Moore and blasted over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for what was then called the AFL–NFL World Championship Game.

"People went nuts," Suitor recalled.

They always did, when they saw Suitor, Courter and the other rocket belt test pilots at Bell burst out of a thunderous white cloud and zoom through the air like Buck Rogers, flying as fast as 60 mph.

An image from an NFL program featuring William Suitor (in blue) and Robert Courter, Bell rocket belt test pilots at the first Super Bowl in 1967. (Provided by William Suitor)

In 1960, the U.S. Army contracted Bell to build a small rocket lift device "to increase the mobility of individual soldiers," as recounted in "The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Life Device," a book published in 2013 by Steve Lehto.

Moore already had been working on one at the Bell plant in Niagara Falls.

He was part of the team working on Bell's X-1 planes, the ones that Chuck Yeager flew to break the sound barrier. To fly at extremely high altitudes, Moore developed "a system of small hydrogen-peroxide-powered rockets throughout the plane." When fired, the rockets helped propel the jet, Lehto wrote.

It occurred to Moore that the same technology could be used to power a jet pack.

After repeated experiments and trials with dummies, Moore put his device to the test on Dec. 29, 1960. It had three tanks, similar in size to air tanks used by SCUBA divers, and motorcycle handlebars, all mounted on a harness worn on the pilot's back.

With the device tethered to make sure it stayed under control, Moore strapped it on and tested it himself, Lehto wrote.

It worked.

But there was one problem he could never solve with his design. The jet pack could only keep a pilot flying for 22 seconds.

[RELATED -  Buffalo in the '60s: Rocket belting around Lafayette Square]

The following year, Harold Graham, a former engineer, had the honor of making the first non-tethered flight. Moore had to stop flying because he had hurt his knee, according to "Jet Pack."

Suitor was 19 when Moore asked him if he'd like to come work for him. Suitor was a family friend and cut Moore's lawn in Youngstown.

Moore needed "someone of draft age (I was 19) with no previous aeronautical training and teach him how to fly the machine,"  Suitor said in an email interview because he was out of town.

He remembered his first attempt. He was on a tether and the pressure from the tanks was low "so you could get a 'feel' for the input/output."

Suitor also recounted his 15th tethered flight.

"A critical weld that held the throttle handle to the control arm broke," he said. "What a wild ride I had, like a balloon inflated and then set free inside the Bell hangar."

He eventually did untethered flights and was recruited to do demonstrations for the public.

"Unbelievable," Suitor said, trying to describe the sensation of flying through the air. "Once you become proficient and relaxed while flying, it is unlike anything you have ever done… All you see in front of you are your two hands on the controls … You are literally free as a bird."

Suitor was paid $147.50 per week, Lehto wrote, and a little extra if he had to travel more than 50 miles for a show.

He would go on to do more than a 1,000 flights. He told Lehto he once was able to fly 1,200 feet and reach a top altitude of 140 feet. And he said he also once hit 60 mph.

"He was simply trying to get back to shore after flying out a bit too far over the water," Lehto wrote.

Among Suitor's proudest moments was flying during the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He also was a stunt double for Sean Connery as secret agent James Bond in "Thunderball."

Suitor left Bell in 1970 and went to the work for the New York Power Authority. He still consults on jet pack related projects and gives talks about his experiences. He wrote a book called the “Rocketbelt Pilot’s Manual: A Guide by the Bell Test Pilot,” about his experiences.

William Suitor wrote about his experience flying rocket belts called the Rocketbelt Pilot's Manual. (Provided by William Suitor)

Moore died at the age of 51 on May 29, 1969, the day a newer jet flying belt he designed for Bell was unveiled. Courter, Suitor's partner at the first Super Bowl, died Jan. 28, 2013.

The rocket belt – with its 22-second flight limit – was deemed too impractical. Other versions, including a jet belt that could fly longer, were developed but never found wide use because of cost constraints.

But the technology behind the rocket belt ended up being used in other ways.

"The rocket belt and the jet belt, especially the rocket belt, were the most unique things Bell ever did," said Hugh Neeson, who is on the board of directors of the Niagara Aerospace Museum at the Niagara Falls International Airport. "Frankly, they were inefficient. But, the U.S. military ended up with a very nice, small thrust turbo engine that was used for remotely piloted vehicles and missiles.... The technology of the engine found extremely wide use."

Two Bell rocket belts, including the one used in "Thunderball," are on display at the Niagara Aerospace Museum. Another is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Neither Suitor nor Courter caught much of that first Super Bowl game on Jan. 15, 1967, when the NFL's Green Bay Packers beat the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10.

"Right after the show, we had to cool and drain the belts and get them ready to travel," Suitor recalled. "By the time that was done, there was very little left of the game."

And that was OK by Suitor. He's never been much of a football fan.

Suitor's Space Age contribution to the historic first Super Bowl was featured in the Washington Post a few weeks ago.

This Sunday, he'll do what he usually does for the Super Bowl.

"Gather with the family, put another log on the fire, watch the commercials and hope somebody breaks (Tom) Brady's arm," said Suitor, now retired and living in Youngstown.

He's not a fan of the Patriots' star quarterback.

"Winning isn't everything," he said.

As for halftime entertainment – this year it's Lady Gaga doing the Pepsi Zero Super Bowl LI Halftime Show – Suitor says it's become a musical sideshow.

"Each year trying to outdo the previous 'malfunction' in order to get attention," he said.

"Maybe next year," Suitor joked, "one of the Kardashians can have live childbirth on the stage."

How about with a rocket belt strapped around her waist?

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