Thursday, April 17, 2014

Advertise with us »

SportsMonday Column: The flight of the Rocketman

Courtesy Eric Upchurch/Ann Arbor Observer
Rocketman Eric Scott flies in to Michigan Stadium. It was one of about 15 to 30 flights he takes each year. Photo was taken for Buy this photo

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 30, 2011

Eric Scott gripped the handles on his jet pack, waiting in the southeast corner of the concourse, just outside Michigan Stadium's bowl.

Scott had never stepped foot inside the Big House. His friend had to tell him that the stadium was even called the Big House. But he had the famous Michigan wings on his helmet and a huge block 'M' on his back.

Growing up on a small ranch in Helena, Mont., Scott didn’t have time to watch football. There wasn’t enough time to watch TV, particularly on the weekends.

He’d wake up, feed the horses, clean the chicken coops — maybe kill a chicken, if his family needed him to. In the fall, Scott and his four siblings were busy preparing for the cold winter months. As he put it, “TV was a privilege.”

“There weren’t a lot of pro sports in Montana,” he said. “And for college, I probably would’ve rooted for the Montana State University Bobcats. But they always kind of sucked anyways.

“It wasn’t anything like Michigan.”

He couldn’t imagine how big Michigan Stadium was until he was right next to it.

Now, he was about to surprise the 100,000-plus people seated inside. They'd only remember Rocketman for the 25 seconds he spent streaking through the air, inviting the usual did-you-see-that or jet-packs-are-so-freaking-cool comments.

Always a very calculated man, Scott wasn’t nervous for this flight. Nearly 19 years of flying his jet pack had prepared him. It didn’t bother him that he didn’t have a “prayer-shute.” He never had one.

“I just have to remember plan B, which is don’t fuck up plan A,” Scott said.

He didn’t have a plan B when he made a mistake during his training in 1993. During a flight, he was about 40 feet in the air when he made a critical mistake, pushing the jet pack too hard. It started shooting down — 60 miles per hour, right towards the ground.

Luckily, he thought enough to turn the jet pack off a few feet from the ground. Still, his shoulder had to be recreated. His knee was busted up. Six months after the accident, he went back and found pieces of himself in the asphalt.

It takes a certain type of person to fly a jet pack. Scott was always that type of person.

“I grew up out in the country, so there wasn’t a lot for entertainment, so I was always blowing something up,” Scott said. “Just doing something stupid. Riding my dirt bike and pulling off some crazy stuff.

“That’s the story of my life, I guess.”

After high school, he joined the Air Force, where he was a Pararescue special operations team member for four years. His job was simple, save “anybody from anywhere in the world.”

Oceans, valleys, cliffs. Behind enemy lines. Anywhere. If someone needed a ride home, Scott and his team provided it.

Four years later, he was starting his family and found a less intense job in construction. But by 1990, a friend helped him get into show business. There was a market for people who worked in the military because they made for great stunt doubles.

That same friend introduced Scott to Kinnie Gibson, who was working at the time as Chuck Norris’s stunt double on “Walker Texas Ranger.” Gibson was also one of the few people who knew how to fly a jet pack. And he was the first person in the world to make a business out of it.

Gibson got Scott a part on Walker Texas Ranger, where Scott usually played Bad Guy No. 1, 2 or 3.

“(I'm) usually always getting my butt kicked,” Scott said.

“I got to beat (Norris) up once. But that was out of like 60 episodes I was in, in eight years.”

In his spare time, Gibson did promotional work with his jet pack. He had asked Scott’s mutual friend if he’d be interested in filling in when Gibson was too busy. But the friend wasn’t the right kind of person. So Gibson asked Scott.

Scott’s first impression of the jet pack was that the pilots always made it look so easy.

“People call them jet packs — they’re rocket packs, if you will,” Scott said. “In the military, we called them rocket belts.”

Scott had never flown one before Gibson taught him everything he needed to know in a three-month span in 1993. Gibson had taught himself how to fly it after he found it covered in dust in a Bell Technologies lab in 1981. Nelson Tyler, the inventor of the jet pack, had built it, but even he didn’t fully know how to control it.

“There’s nothing easy about it,” said Scott, who’s now fully employed by Gibson’s “Rocketman” business.