Weekly Feature

2008-12-24 / Front Page

Gordon Yaeger's untold story

Former town resident flew Bell Rocket Belt in 1960s
by JESSICA L. FINCH Associate Editor

Gordon Yaeger flies the Bell Rocket Belt in Niagara Falls during the 1960s. While there is no official record, it is estimated that he completed more than 700 flights. Gordon Yaeger flies the Bell Rocket Belt in Niagara Falls during the 1960s. While there is no official record, it is estimated that he completed more than 700 flights. Not many people know Gordon Yaeger's story.

They don't know he flew over Rich Stadium —without an airplane or blimp — or that he appeared in the James Bond movie "Thunderball" or that he was the "tallest" person at the World's Fair in New York City in 1964.

He did all these things — with the Bell Rocket Belt around his waist.

A 36-year employee of Bell Aerospace, Yaeger was one of only three employees trained to operate the Rocket Belt from 1963 to 1968.

Yaeger passed away at the age of 77 in 2005.

His widow, Nancy, recalls when Yaeger came home and told her about the idea.

"I asked him, 'What did you say?'" she said. "He asked me what I thought, and I said, well, if he wants to do it, I'll have to let him do it."

Nancy said there is no official record of how many flights Yaeger completed, but there were approximately 700, and they were all successful — he never fell once, she said. But, he did break his nose a few times and bumped into things at the training facility, his son, Rick, said.

"He was not about publicity at all," Nancy said.

Although quiet about his flying, Yaeger was seen by thousands around the world. He traveled to other cities and other countries, such as Venezuela, South Africa and Australia. Nancy has columns and magazine articles about Yaeger in Spanish, Italian and various other languages.

Yaeger went to France and flew the Rocket Belt in the movie "Thunderball," starring Sean Connery as James Bond. The tag line read, "Look Up! Look Down! Look Out! Here Comes the Biggest Bond of All!" But Yaeger and a Bell colleague were the only two who would be seen if someone "looked up."

Nancy said Yaeger stood in for Connery in many of the scenes and that the actor never flew the Rocket Belt.

But there was one actor who tried to convince Yaeger to let him fly, Rick said. During the World's Fair in New York City, Yaeger was exhibiting the Rocket Belt when he was approached by William Shatner, who was starring as Capt. Kirk on TV's "Star Trek."

"Shatner told my dad, 'I want to f l y, ' and dad said, 'Well, sorry,' and (Shatner) asked him, 'Do you know who I am?'" Rick said with a laugh.

Given that use of the Rocket Belt required three months of training, there was no way anyone could learn how to operate it on the spot — not even Capt. Kirk.

Nancy said Yaeger enjoyed all his flights — the longest lasting just shy of 30 seconds.

"It was loud and messy. He was never afraid of doing it; he never so much as fell," she said. "He would say it was like a giant lifting him up."

She added that one thing Yaeger said he would never do was jump out of a plane. Nancy, however, showed her daredevil side by skydiving on her 80th birthday this past August.

Rick said that development of the Rocket Belt stalled when it became clear that it wouldn't become what creator Wendell Moore hoped it would be. He first started designs for the belt in 1960.

"They had big hopes for it, to rescue people, fly hoses over houses during a fire, but it couldn't go longer than a few seconds; it wasn't feasible," he said, adding that there was a time when the military was looking into the Rocket Belt for its use.

Nancy and Gordon moved to Amherst in 1955 and raised eight children. In 1965, Walt Disney flew the Rocket Belt — in an airplane — to Disneyland in California for two weeks so that Yaeger could exhibit it.

"The kids thought it was great; they would always take his picture in for show and tell," Nancy said.

When asked if her children ever thought their dad was really flying, she said yes — maybe when they were very young.

Yaeger had received a call to fly in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but he was already booked for another appearance.

One of the three Rocket Belts is showcased in the Smithsonian Museum, alongside a photo of Yaeger.

He also worked on the X2 — testing the speed potential of the propulsion airplane. Although his model did not go into the record books as first breaking the sound barrier, it was credited with many advancements for jet planes.

Another invention that Yaeger worked on was the air cushion vehicle, which travels on water and land through the use of a fan.

Yaeger was a graduate of Burgard Vocational High School in Buffalo and attended the University at Buffalo and UCLA.

The Amherst Town Board recognized Yaeger's accomplishments at its Dec. 15 meeting when it named a street after him. The access drive to the town complex on John James Audubon Parkway will be named Gordon R. Yaeger Drive. It previously was not named.

For additional information on the Rocket Belt, visit www.rocketbelts. americanrocketman.com.

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