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Rocket Belt Invention Sends Entertainment Booker's Career Into Orbit : Flying Without Wings a Big Boost to His Business

November 09, 1986|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

The words of TV announcer Jim McKay still echo from the Olympics here two years ago:

"Well, there he is, Jetman, flying into the stadium, no wires, no tricks, just as you see it. . . . What a beginning!"

The man riding the rocket pack into the Coliseum a la Buck Rogers did indeed get the Opening Ceremony off to a memorable start. It was, by his own decision, his last trip via what is known as the rocket belt.

But the device itself, said to be the only operational one of its kind in the world, continues to be flown by a different pilot at special events. Considering the asking fee of $7,500 and up per appearance, and that the flight duration is a maximum of 21 seconds, this is as expensive as entertainment gets.

"In 1962, I was watching TV in my Woodland Hills home when my teen-age son, David, burst in with a magazine," Clyde Baldschun recalled. " 'Dad,' he said, 'here's a new gimmick for your fairs.' "

The elder Baldschun, a former saxophonist and bandleader, had gone into the business of booking entertainment for state and county fairs. Little did he know that the move he was about to make would involve him with events in just about every corner of the Earth.

The previous year, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., an assistant chief engineer with what now is Bell Aerospace Textron--Wendell F. Moore--had invented a rocket belt. It allowed the wearer to propel himself aloft and, using hand controls, to guide himself as long as the fuel lasted, 23 seconds maximum.

"It happened that in 1962, I was furnishing entertainment for the Calgary Stampede in Canada, and the theme that year was transportation, starting with the covered wagon," Baldschun said. "I called the general manager of the stampede and told him I might be able to book a topper that would be unbelievable. His reply was: 'Get it!'

$20,000 a Week

"The next morning I called the president of what was at that time Bell Aerosystems and explained that I could probably get $20,000 a week for appearances of his new rocket belt. The day after that, I was in New York and we were discussing it over lunch.

"They supplied one of their engineers as the pilot, and he appeared at the Calgary Stampede once a night for a week, for which the event paid $25,000."

It was the start of a beneficial relationship for both the company and Baldschun: "I got a 20% commission. They supplied the pilots."

The World's Fair in New York, the Paris Air Show, the carnival in Rio, the Royal Easter Show in Sydney--promoters of events worldwide stood in line, figuratively, to see someone fly without wings.

Subsequently a more advanced jet belt was designed by Bell, and in 1970 that company granted a Michigan firm the rights to develop it, although a spokesperson for the latter said it hasn't seen any public or commercial use. Inventor Moore had died. "The Bell president called and told me to cancel all engagements I had lined up for the rocket belt," Baldschun remembered.

A second version of the one-man rocket propulsion systems had been built by Bell, and both were being retired. One went to the Smithsonian Institution, the other to a display at the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York.

At about the same time, Nelson Tyler of Van Nuys had developed a similar device.

Tyler is head of Tyler Camera Systems, known throughout the movie business for its camera stabilizing equipment for aerial photography.

"I had seen Bell's, and as a hobby I decided to invent one of my own," Tyler said.

Enter Baldschun again:

"A guy who was in the limousine-leasing business in New York called after getting my number from Bell and said he wanted to buy their rocket belt.

"I had heard of the one developed here, made a call to the Tyler company and was told that it was flyable, and had already appeared in TV commercials."

Although the deal with the would-be buyer from New York fell through, Baldschun said, he arranged with Tyler to once again book the rocket belt. This time, however, he had to train and supply the pilots.

'I'm Chicken'

Baldschun, now 65 and living in Sun Valley, said he has never himself strapped on the device and taken off: "I'm chicken."

Others, however, were willing. One was a man from Youngstown, N.Y., who, while in the employ of Bell, had flown their devices during hundreds of the estimated 2,500 flights.

And now Bill Suitor would be doing hundreds more--his adventure with the Tyler model ending gloriously before more than 92,000 spectators packed into the Coliseum and a couple billion more watching television around the world.

"It lasted 17 seconds," Suitor said by phone. He is a father of seven, now age 41, and works solely as a senior operator at the Niagara Power Project.

"I could have done a little more than 17 seconds, but all that Tommy Walker (the late special effects director of the Olympics Opening Ceremony) wanted was something to get everyone's attention. It was to be the very first thing."

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