By Julie Wesolowski
Of the five rocket belts created by Bell Aerosystems, four
remain in existence. There’s one at the Ira G. Ross Aerospace Museum in
Niagara Falls, N.Y.; one at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Fort
Eustis, Va.; and one at an annex of the Smithsonian
Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. As for the
fourth, it’s right here on UB’s North Campus, in the
corner of a Bell Hall engineering classroom.
After experimenting in the mid-1950s, Bell Aerosystems
engineer Wendell F. Moore built the first rocket belt, also
called the “man-rocket,” for the U.S. Army.
Developed to transport soldiers across difficult terrain, the belt
used a combination of nitrogen pressure and hydrogen peroxide fuel
to provide thrust.
While working at Bell Aerosystems, UB engineering alum David Coe (MS ’73) learned the company was getting out of the rocket belt business. He thought one of the prototypes might be available and that Bell Hall—which houses UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and was named after Lawrence D. Bell, the founder of Bell Aerosystems—would be an ideal place to keep it. The efforts of Coe and UB engineering professor Warren Thomas (now emeritus) led to the donation of the belt to the department in the late ’70s.
In 1961, in an open field outside the Niagara Falls
International Airport, the first outdoor, tether-free flight soared
a distance of 112 feet (the Wright Brothers flew 120 feet at Kitty
Hawk). More practice flights proved the rocket could carry a person
over obstacles almost 32 feet high and reach a speed of 34 miles
per hour, but flight times were a problem. A maximum of 21 seconds
in the air was deemed too short to be useful, and the project was
We can’t say whether it was the one belonging to UB, but
the 1965 James Bond film “Thunderball” used a rocket
belt as one of its 007 props. One of the five prototype belts was
also featured on the “Lost in Space” television series
in the 1960s and on “Ark ll,” a Saturday morning show
on CBS in the late ’70s.
From a private demonstration for JFK in 1961 to a Pentagon courtyard flight before a large military audience in 1962, the original rocket belt captivated viewers from the start. More recently, improved versions have been used in presentations at Disneyland, and at the 1986 and 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies.