Rocket Man

For Kelly~

Kittens before you begin reading this delightful tale, you really must watch that YouTube footage to truly grasp the moral of this story.

When I was a wee man I watched that footage with my father on the family couch after one of Mums delightful dinners of some kind of horrifying grey British food.

Dad and I watched the opening of the footage about the daredevil Kenny Powers and how he planned to jump a car 1 mile across the St Lawrence river. “This could be interesting” we said.

Then we saw the car.

It seemed the hero of the story Ken Carter went out and bought a Lincoln Continental. He welded a roll cage inside of it and painted it yellow. Oh….and he also stuffed a rocket into it, built two small wings out of what appears to be a snow shovel lit the wick at took off at over 280 mph.

You can imagine what happened my Kittens.

Ken didn’t quite make it. He chicken out and a man named Kenny Powers jumped in and gave it a try.

Carter was born in Montreal and grew up in a working class neighbourhood. With little education, he dropped out of school to perform car stunts with a team of traveling daredevils. Soon he was a solo act, jumping at racetracks all over North America. He became a notorious showman, earning the nickname “The Mad Canadian” for his death-defying antics.

In 1976, after 20 years of car jumps, Carter launched his most ambitious project: an attempt to jump over the Saint Lawrence Seaway — a distance of over one mile — in a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental. The preparations for the jump were the subject of a documentary called The Devil at Your Heels, directed by Robert Fortier and produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

For months, Carter prepared his car and looked for sponsors, with his persistence in self-promotion paying off when U.S. broadcaster ABC gave him $250,000 to air the stunt on the episode of Wide World of Sports scheduled for September 25, 1976. Carter anticipated a live audience of 100,000. Construction of a 1,400-foot takeoff ramp began on fifty acres of farmland near Morrisburg, Ontario. Evel Knievel visited the site as a special correspondent for ABC and concluded that there was little chance of success. Delays in finishing the car and completing the ramp caused Carter to miss the broadcast date and ABC withdrew its support.

Carter resumed preparations the following year and again in 1978, but the jump was cancelled both times. On September 26, 1979, Carter got to within five seconds of takeoff before aborting the jump following a mechanical failure. The planned jump had been sponsored by a film producer in exchange for exclusive film rights. Believing that Carter had lost his nerve, the film crew secretly arranged for another stunt driver, American Kenny Powers, to perform the jump while Carter was in his hotel room in Ottawa. The Powers jump was a failure.

If fact, not only did he not fly for one mile in a rocket powered luxury car that is as aerodynamic as a cargo container (and roughly as heavy) he didn’t make it very far at all when basic physics caught up with him and the car was torn apart.

Kenny splashed into the river and rescue boats came after him, as if they expected some other outcome from Kens jump. The said he was “lucky” and had broken his back during the jump, something which Ken had done 6 times prior to the jump. Kenny wasn’t a fast learner.

At no time during the footage did they mention where Kenny planned on landing either and just that it was an island. They just said that he was going to send a rocket powered bulldozer hurling across the river for 1 mile that had no possible way to navigate itself and reach the other side.

There was no landing ramp and one assumes that since it was a rural area Ken thought he would just gently land…somewhere. Possibly crashing at 280 mph into a farmers flock of sheep igniting them into fireballs running around and setting his barn on fire kind of the like great fire of London.

Kenny probably figured after safely crashing into a field at over 200 mph he would simply exit the car now crumpled and burning a jet fuel fire at over 1000 degrees, lift himself out of the crater he created he would pick the gopher meat out of his teeth, take a bow and sign some autographs.

You may have noticed that besides the spectators there were lots of ambulances and speedboats ready “in case of a disaster.”

When Kenny was rescued he asked “Did I make it?”

By now Kittens I’m sure you all have the same look of disbelief on your faces that my Dad and I did the second we saw what Kenny was planning to do and with what vehicle he wanted to do it with and why it just wasn’t going to work out very well.

If, as the narrator informs us, the car achieves a takeoff speed of 280 mph, then using the equations of projectile motion, we can easily calculate that without air resistance (estimating a launch angle of about 30 degrees) the maximum distance the car could achieve is around 1500 meters, or just short of a mile. (I’ll leave it to those of you with a little physics background to confirm this is true.) However, at speeds of this magnitude, air resistance will have a major effect on the flight of the car. The force of air resistance is proportional to the square of the velocity, so if you double the speed you quadruple the air resistance. Incorporating the effect of air drag into the calculations we find that Kenny won’t even make it a quarter of a mile before falling ignominiously into the river.

Therefore we assume (even though we can’t see any fuel being ejected out of the car’s modified rocket engines after the initial thrust) that the rockets must be supposed to continue firing throughout much of the jump (flight). But even so, when speaking of air resistance, we are inevitably confronted with what appears to be the most problematical issue with this stunt: aerodynamic stability.

Most model rocket enthusiasts know that for a rocket to be stable in flight, its center of gravity (the point on the rocket where gravitational forces balance) must be in front of the rocket’s center of pressure (the point on the rocket where the aerodynamic forces, such as lift and drag, balance). If the rocket starts to veer off of its line of motion, as long as the CP (center of pressure) is behind the CG (center of gravity), the aerodynamic forces will apply a restoring torque, pushing the rocket back into its line of motion. However, if the CP is in front, the torque acts to destabilize the rocket, causing it to tumble. Fins on the tail of a rocket provide for a CP towards the back.

In the case of our not-very-aerodynamic-looking Continental, notice how the car is forced nose-up almost the instant it leaves the ramp. We strongly suspect the CP is too far forward! There seems to have been no attempt, aside from some rather minimal-looking fins placed near the center of the car, to account for this important effect.

In a much more well-known unsuccessful jump, the late Evel Knievel’s crew seemed to recognize this potential problem. For his attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, the vehicle they designed was in fact a classic streamlined rocket, complete with narrow body and substantial fins placed at the rear. Rumor has it Knievel might have made it if his parachute hadn’t deployed too early. Nevertheless, just to drive home the point, we are not talking about jumping over stuff here. We are talking about flying.

Nobody sat down and explained any of this to Kenny, or the people who invested a million bucks.

So Kittens now that we know all of that dorky Mythbusters science junk about why Kenny didn’t make it, let’s ask ourselves something.

Did we need to know it?

Wasn’t it slightly evident from the very beginning that Kenny was going to have a bad hair day?

Did Kenny ever have that moment of regret when the car exploded and something besides his ass went through his head?

Kenny Powers isn’t alive anymore and died in 2009 so we can’t ask him, and Ken Carter (the guy who chicken out) died in attempting to jump a pond in Peterborough, Ontario. During the jump his car, a modified Pontiac Firebird had a malfunction and Carter crashed badly but vowed to try the jump again. Several months later he did. The vehicle overshot its landing ramp by 30 meters and landed on its roof. Carter was instantly killed. He is predictably buried in a unmarked grave at the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montreal.

Is there a moral to this story Kittens?


It isn’t that no matter how much you may want too, you cannot jump a rocket powered brick across a large stretch of distance.

The moral of this story is that I have recently had to add a brand new file to “My Favorites” on my computer. It is called “Stupid Humans” and is already bursting with stories from around the world of people who on the surface might act and seem like they may be reasonable people who can pay their bills, keep food in the fridge and occasionally not wander into a moving train, but then they go on to exceed human stupidity on an epic level.

I hope you enjoy their stories the morals to them.


~ by jeff on February 10, 2010.

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