The Rocketbelt Caper

A true tale of invention, obsession, and murder.

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)

In British author Paul Brown's book, Houston-based friends who scramble to raise the funds to design, build and fly their homebuilt jet backpack, which they call the Rocketbelt 2000. Before long, though, the friendships sour to the point of death threats. There are money troubles, thefts, assaults with a hammer, nights in jail, a kidnapping, and rascals on the run, Texas-style. When one of them becomes the victim of a horrific murder, an entertaining story becomes a shocking thriller. The Rocketbelt Caper was published in the U. K. in 2007, and will be rereleased this summer in the United States. The following excerpt is reprinted by permission of the author.

From This Story

It was just past midday on a January Sunday in 1995, and Brad Barker was getting nervous. It was warm and dry, but grey clouds were gathering overhead. A light breeze whipped at the long grass that ran along the edges of the runway. The water in the airport's sea-lane rippled and mirrored the dull sky. Barker strode out to the runway in white sneakers, jeans and a denim shirt, a cellphone clipped to his belt, and a pair of unnecessary sunglasses perched on his nose. Around him, a handful of colleagues busied themselves with preparations. This was supposed to be the beginning of the dream, but just one mistake could turn it into a nightmare. And what the hell would he do then?

He'd tested it, of course, as much as you could without strapping a man into it and blasting him into the air. Now it was time to do just that. Barker looked at his pilot, bespectacled and slightly out of shape, wearing a white helmet and a jumpsuit. Barker was sure he had the right man for the job. Bill Suitor was nothing if not experienced. He'd flown these things hundreds of times before. Suitor wouldn't have agreed to do this unless he thought it would work. And there was no reason to think it wouldn't. That's what Barker told himself as he strapped Suitor into the Rocketbelt 2000.

It had taken five long years and several hundred thousand dollars to reach this point. Was it an obsession? You could say so, as the idea of building a rocketbelt had dominated Barker's thoughts ever since he first saw the amazing device, in a James Bond movie, as a nine-year-old boy. There had been sacrifices made, friendships lost, legal wrangles, and a bunch of other stuff he didn't want to think about right now. It had been quite an ordeal, but that was all in the past. Barker slapped Suitor on the back and retreated to a safe distance.

The pilot offered a thumbs-up, and there was a silent moment of anticipation. Barker studied his 'Pretty Bird' - its lovingly polished fuel tanks, curved exhaust pipes and control handlebars he'd worked so hard to put together. It was a unique device, but it looked oddly familiar, being as it was the realisation of a childhood fantasy. Then Suitor twisted open the throttle. The test flight began.

It was the noise that hit the small band of onlookers first. A high-pitched wail – an explosive scream of superheated steam, as loud as a jet engine. It was an assault on the eardrums, like having an aerosol fired into each ear. And this from a device not much bigger than a portable vacuum cleaner, strapped to the pilot's back like a hiking rucksack.

A white cloud of steam erupted from the exhausts, kicking up a swirl of dust around the pilot's feet. And then – in a defining moment for Barker – pilot and machine lifted into the air. There were no wings and no strings. This man was flying solely on the power of the rocketbelt.

Suitor hovered for a moment, a couple of feet from the runway, then maneuvered out over the sea-lane, blasting a spray of water into the air. He banked into a graceful circular flight path, increasing his altitude to ten, fifteen, thirty feet. Barker watched the figure of the rocketbelt pilot silhouetted against the sky, his shadow becoming increasingly longer on the runway below. It worked. It really worked. And all Barker could think was, when do I get a turn?

Fuel was limited, and the flight needed to be short. So Suitor arced back towards his starting point, and began his descent. The landing was feather-light and perfect. The pilot bounced on tiptoes, steadied his feet, then offered Barker a salute.

'Yeah!' whooped Barker. He rushed over to congratulate the grinning Suitor, and said, 'Let's fuel it up and go again.'

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