Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jet Packs, Turbine Cars, and Steve Lehto

If you've ever thought it would be cool to fly over Flint in a jet pack, you definitely want to check out Steve Lehto's latest book, The Great American Jet Pack. You may remember Steve from his work as a DJ and talkshow host in the '80s and '90s at WTRX, WWCK, and WFDF.

So just how did he come up with the book idea? Steve explains:  
I wrote a book on the Chrysler Turbine car and doing that research, I found out that Sam Williams had been instrumental in both the engine in the turbine car and the engine in the jet belt. I mentioned this in the book and my publisher asked me if I thought I could write a book on the history of jet pack technology. It sounded like a cool idea and a great excuse to study a fun topic. And, it turns out, there WAS a whole book of material out there. I interviewed guys who flew the old rocket belts – the ones which could only fly for 21 seconds and I also spoke to the one and only guy who EVER flew the jet belt (the one with the mini-turbine engine in it). It was a lot of fun to research.


  1. Before the Chrysler Turbine Car, there were the GM Firebirds...I, II and III. I was the ultimate manifestation of the post-WWII design fascination with all things jet-like, with its tubular fuselage, bubble canopy and almost complete lack of automotive practicality. II and III got progressively closer to being "practical", but they remained in show car design territory, intended to generate excitement rather than to be production precursors.

    A number of years ago the Meadowbrook Concours featured GM as one of the honored brands, and I had the odd good fortune to be standing by one of the many unmarked transporter semis when all three of the Firebirds were unloaded, and Firebird I was jump-started and warmed up by a quite old gentleman...I assume one of the original development team, perhaps one of only a few persons experienced at driving it, asked to come back from retirement...and then driven slowly onto the stage to receive its honors as a design exemplar.

  2. Here's a link with a picture of a Chrysler with Steve Lehto and Jay Leno:

  3. It might well be possible now to build a three- or four-engined vertical-thrust flying cage, using modern simplified engines from one of the miniature turbine makers such as JetCat in Germany.

    Yves Rossy, widely known as "Jet Man" for his human+wing jet flights--look him up on YouTube if you've ever dreamed of flying without an airplane wrapped around you--uses four JetCat turbines in his current design.

    Williams International of Walled Lake is very successful in the turbine business, but their global focus now is on intermediate-sized engines for business jets, drones, cruise missiles and other more-conventional aircraft.

    One of the things that the early jet- and rocket-belt experiments established that wouldn't have changed, though, is that vertical engine thrust produces completely intolerable conditions under you as you take off, land or fly at low altitude. As it happens, those are the entirely of uses for a flying belt/cage/whatever as an urban transporter.

    It'd work great if you were the only resident of your city, and everything on the ground was made of concrete and well anchored. Otherwise, not so good. I'd guess that reality is why no one has bothered to build an updated human flying belt/cage for civilian use, even though the needed technology is readily available now.

    There *are* some military uses...aerial observation robots, mostly...for vertical thrust. It does allow hovering in place in small spaces, such as between trees in forests, where a similar-payload helicopter wouldn't fit. But, those applications don't have much to do with the original human-flight dream. For that, vertical-thrust lift seems to be a dead end.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at