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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 MGoBlog.com 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. “It’s a total finesse thing, and you have to learn not to be too excited, too anxious.

“You find your mind racing harder and faster than anything you’ve ever experienced in your life. If you’ve ever done a sport, this thing is …”

His voice trailed.

“You know, I don’t like saying it, but if you’re riding a bicycle and fall off, it’s not like falling out of the sky.

“Some people work well under pressure.”

Scott was a pro by the time Smirnoff called in 2004, looking for a pilot to help promote its new bottle label. In London, Scott flew 152 feet in the air — a Guinness World Record — getting high enough to land on a 10-foot-by-10-foot platform atop a castle turret.

In 2007, he set the speed record when he reached 80 miles per hour. Then, in 2009, he met a “personal challenge,” when he crossed a 1,000-foot deep gorge — the same chasm the 1,500-foot Royal Gorge Bridge spans in Colorado.

Standing outside Michigan Stadium, Scott felt comfortable with the 85-pound machine on his back. Thirty pounds of force were about to be exerted on his hands. Scott compared the feeling to standing on top of a ball, trying to balance yourself, with two fire hoses turned on.

But there was no reason to panic.

“Trust your mind,” Scott said. “Over time, you figure out what you are capable in the machine. You can push it as much as you want and go outside the envelope. When you start getting too far ahead of yourself, you can get some issues.

“I don’t ever want to find myself making decisions like that — because I’m not some crazy, wild man. I’m a very calculated individual when it comes to my life and limbs and stuff. I’ll push it, but I’m not going to do something that’ll kill me.”

The PA announcer boomed, “Presenting today’s Homecoming 2011 game ball, ROCKETMAN.”

Scott shot straight up into the air, appearing just above the massive luxury suites in the southeast corner. The stadium erupted, but Scott couldn’t hear a thing.

Up that high, above the stadium, Scott looked out and enjoyed his view of Ann Arbor. Then he headed towards the student section — and fast. Everyone in the stadium who was first witnessing Rocketman didn’t know he was in control.

But Scott smoothly turned and glided towards the block ‘M’ at the 50-yard line.

“When you land, there’s all that noise (from the jet pack), then when it shuts off there’s silence,” Scott said.

For every one of his 15 to 30 flights he takes each year, it's always the same.

“Then you hear the crowd screaming for me,” he continued.

“It one-upped every show that I’ve done before. It just keeps getting better every time. It was (my) pleasure.”

No, Mr. Rocketman. Thank you.

—Rohan can be reached at trohan@umich.edu or on Twitter @TimRohan


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