The first Super Bowl featured Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers, Len Dawson, Hank Stram and the Kansas City Chiefs — and a 22-year-old named Bill Suitor who could literally fly across a football field.
The game’s halftime show went on to became a global stage for superstars such as Michael Jackson, Prince and the Rolling Stones, but on Jan. 15, 1967, Suitor was there, hiding in an oversized football as the Packers and Chiefs took brief respite in the locker rooms.
Strapped to his back was enough hydrogen peroxide to propel Suitor and his space-age jetpack over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum crowd, helping make the Super Bowl feel like something much bigger than four quarters of football.
“Space age was at its height,” Suitor said in a telephone interview last week. “No matter where we went, we were treated absolutely wonderful. It was a big deal. Speaking for myself, it didn’t sink in until years later what we actually did.”
At the time, the game was known only as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The halftime show was titled “Super Sights and Sounds,” and it featured marching bands from Grambling College and the University of Arizona, a 200-person chorus, 300 pigeons and 10,000 balloons. The centerpiece, though, was a pair of rocketmen: Suitor and his colleague Robert Courter.
Suitor had been flying in the jetpack — technically, the late-’60s design was called a rocket belt — for barely two years. A man named Wendell Moore invented the high-tech device for Bell Aerosystems, funded in part by the U.S. Army, which wanted a pilot who had no prior flying experience and who was of “draft age.” Suitor was studying architecture at the time. He also happened to be a neighbor and family friend of Moore when he was recruited to fly, taking him into a world far away from his studies.
“His nickname was ‘Mr. Jetpack,’ which gives you an idea of his place in that universe,” Mac Montandon, author of the 2008 book “Jetpack Dreams,” said of Suitor. “He’s probably the most famous jetpack pilot of all time.”
Suitor ultimately manned more than 1,000 flights. That first Super Bowl was among the biggest, even if no one at the time realized that the game would blossom into a world-wide phenomenon. The halftime show was orchestrated by Tommy Walker, who formerly held the title of director of entertainment at Disneyland. That’s where he met Suitor and the crew from Bell Aerosystems, who had done demonstrations at the theme park one year earlier and impressed Walt Disney in the process.
Walker “knew it was an attention-getter,” Suitor said. “How could the sight of a man screaming overhead at 70 miles per hour, blasting out 135 [decibels] not get anyone’s attention?”
The jetpack did not pan out as a military weapon, but it still wowed onlookers who fantasized about someday visiting the moon or using flying vehicles on their morning commutes.
“The end of the decade was sort of peak interest where the technology was becoming much more real: This stuff that only existed in science fiction stories was starting to exist in the real world,” Montandon said. “It was hugely compelling, the idea that this stuff could be real and in the future we could be flying around like birds.”
The Bell device consisted of three tanks worn on the back. Two contained hydrogen peroxide, and the third had pressurized liquid nitrogen, which served as a trigger of sorts and caused the mixture to discharge into a super-heated (1,300 degrees Fahrenheit) blast of steam.
It was enough juice to stay afloat for 20 or so seconds, lifting the pilot several stories off the ground. Walker envisioned a dual flight — one pilot representing the NFL and the other the AFL. Suitor had a test run of sorts a week earlier in a demonstration for Vice President Hubert Humphrey at Bell’s western New York headquarters, but there was no formal rehearsal at the Coliseum.
Suitor knew the game was a big deal but wasn’t a football fan. At the stadium, he shook hands with members of both teams, including Lombardi, but was more focused on his task than the game.
“I knew the folks back home would be watching and that I had better not screw up,” he said.
Suitor and Courter dressed in replica football uniforms. Suitor wore a blue jersey with a blue sign safety-pinned to his chest that featured three letters: NFL. As the first half wound down, the two men fueled their tanks and were positioned on the sidelines, hidden inside giant foam footballs. The game was broadcast on two networks, so plenty — ratings suggest more than 51 million viewers — were tuned in.
“I don’t think anyone had any idea what was coming,” Suitor said.
Scant video remains today of the performance, but Suitor said the marching bands assumed formations resembling a pair of players and that the giant footballs were positioned at each 45-yard line. When the oversized players appeared to kick the balls, Suitor and Courter exploded out, soaring above the field in a burst of steam.
“That was when we took off,” Suitor said, “flying across the field away from each other.”
Nearly 62,000 fans were in the stadium, and most had never seen anything like it live. They roared with approval.
“For survival itself, you have to block it all out,” Suitor explained. “You had to forget everybody was there. Pretend you’re an ostrich: ‘I can’t see them; they can’t see me.’ ”
Staying about 50 to 60 feet above the field, the two men circled back inward and landed near midfield. The AFL and NFL shook hands at the 50-yard line.
The two men found their way to the bowels of the stadium to drain and rinse their tanks. Suitor doesn’t remember whether he was able to watch any of the second half, when Lombardi’s Packers held the Chiefs scoreless en route to a 35-10 romp for the NFL.
“It didn’t matter to me,” Suitor said. “I wasn’t a football fan. I didn’t feel I was missing anything.”
Courter died in 2013. Suitor is now 72, retired and living in Youngstown, N.Y. He saved the blue NFL placard and the sneakers he wore that day. He went on to make hundreds more flights, serving as Sean Connery’s stunt double in a rocket belt in the James Bond film “Thunderball” and making appearances in several other movies and television shows.
His biggest flight came at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where the entire world tuned in. But the Super Bowl will always be special. It was a giant step for football and a memorable flight for jetpacks — and imagination — too.
“That’s what kind of put us on the map,” Suitor said.