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Bill Suitor takes flight in 1995 wearing the Rocketbelt 2000. Suitor was an experienced rocketbelt pilot, having flown one at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. (The Rocketbelt Caper)

The Rocketbelt Caper

A true tale of invention, obsession, and murder.

airspacemag.com

So they did, and the second test flight was just as successful as the first.

Then, on the third flight, things began to go wrong. In fact, if the truth were known, things had been going wrong for quite some time. They would get a lot worse before this whole sorry affair was over. And it was all because of one of the most sought after and revered machines in the history of flight. It was all because of the amazing rocketbelt.

Blame Buck Rogers, and James Bond, and Commando Cody, and the Jetsons. It was their fault that everybody wanted a rocketbelt. The iconic device was a ubiquitous feature in twentieth century science fiction. It became pivotal to the accepted vision of the future. Eminent science writers like Isaac Asimov confidently predicted that, by the year 2000, the citizens of Earth would be zipping about through the air using rocketbelts. That never quite came to pass. Brilliant inventors did build a small number of working rocketbelts, and a handful of pioneering pilots got to fly them through the sky. But, for most of those who coveted rocketbelts, the device remained tantalisingly out of reach, a technological holy grail.

Then Brad Barker and two of his friends got sick of waiting for science fiction to become reality. They formed a fractious partnership and set out on an ambitious quest to build their very own rocketbelt. Perhaps the least incredible thing about their story is that they actually succeeded in building and flying a working rocketbelt – in fact the very best rocketbelt that had ever been built. Then the incredible dream turned into an almost unbelievable nightmare.

For now, Barker was watching his rocketbelt fly through the air, grey skies closing in, wind brushing the back of his neck. Suitor circled over the sea-lane, and swung back around to the runway, but he came in too fast. Much too fast. His feet clipped the tarmac and flipped him around, hard onto the ground. The rocketbelt hit the runway at pace, too, with a sound like a car hitting a lamppost. The pilot cut the throttle and lay still on the tarmac. Miraculously, Suitor was unhurt, if a little shaken. Barker rushed onto the runway to check out the damage.

'The thing damn near killed me,' said Suitor, crawling to his knees and unstrapping himself from the device.

'You damn near killed my rocketbelt,' said Barker. He ran his hands along the dented stainless steel he'd spent so long polishing. Goddamn it, this would take months to repair. And it was not as if Barker didn't already have enough problems to deal with.

A few spots of rain began to land on the tarmac. Barker hoisted up the rocketbelt and loaded it into his trailer. He would have to put his plans for a public demonstration flight on hold for a while. Then, once the belt was repaired and public flights were arranged, the money would begin to roll in. Finally, he would be able to forget about his troubles. That's what Brad Barker reckoned. In fact, Brad Barker's troubles had barely even started.

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