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Urban Legends

JATO

The Legend

There was initially a great amount of confusion and the buzzing rumors about alien visitors and secret government projects when the highway patrol discovered a smoking pile of twisted metal and flesh embedded in the side of a cliff just off a little-used road in Arizona. A crime scene team took days to discover that what they had found was not the remains of some self-destructed cyborg, but those of a human male intermingled with a military aircraft engine and a Schwinn Fastback LTD 10-speed.

It turns out that Burling "Mach" Gadolpho, a former Air Force sergeant, had purchased a pair of surplus solid-fuel jet-assisted take-off (JATO) engines through one of his old military contacts. JATO engines are usually used to help heavy military transport airplanes achieve takeoff speed on a short runway, but Gadolpho thought he could use them to set a new bicycle land speed record.

He attached the JATO engines to his bicycle -- one on each side, for balance -- and took the modified vehicle to a salt flat so that he'd have a long, level stretch of ground on which to set his record. With a few friends watching, he hopped on his bike, peddled it to as high a speed as he could attain with the added weight, and ignited the engines with the red-hot tip of his cigar.

Judging by the scorch and other marks on the rock where he ignited the engines, investigators were able to piece together his route from that point. The bicycle apparently reached a speed of some 300 MPH in seconds, delivering G-forces that Gadolpho probably hadn't experienced since his years as a test pilot. It continued in a straight line for about 18 seconds (2.6 miles) before Gadolpho applied the breaks, instantly vaporizing them. The jolt to the tires sent the bicycle airborne, and it stayed in the air until it impacted the cliff wall. How far did the bicycle go? We'll give you a hint -- the remains found in the wall of the cliff were in central Arizona, and the scorch marks from the JATO ignition were in southern California.


Behind the Legend

The version of this story related above was collected in 2005, but it is significantly similar to the story of NASA chemical engineer Joseph "Turbo" Cancilla who, in the 1960s, strapped home-made hydrogen/LOX engine to a custom BMX bike and made a spectacle that inspired the creation of the X-Games.  Burling Gadolpho may have been influence by Erudare, but Erudare himself was simply updating the efforts of Civil War secret-weapon researchers who strapped a couple of cannons to a thoroughbread to see how fast it would go (with disturbing results captured in unnecessary detail by photographer Mathew Brady).

We just hope nobody is crazy enough to try such a stunt with a car.


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