Up Close & Personal with Billy Copeland “The Rocket Man”
by Chad Ison
A while back my son and I were sitting around the house watching the Guinness World Records Show. I usually don’t care to watch the program, because it features some unusual or weird characters that will do anything to become famous. However, this time I heard something that caught my attention. The announcer mentioned that they were going to feature a street luger who had mounted rockets on his sled to try to break the speed record for luging. I watched the segment with great interest and was intrigued by this luger’s endeavor. We’ve covered street luging in our past issues and have been to several races throughout the years. I was aware of the speeds lugers can reach and thought that surely the rider could get up to 90 or 100 m.p.h. with rockets mounted on one.
The rocket luge only reached a top speed of 70 m.p.h. after firing 8 rockets, but it was still impressive to see the rockets kicking in and leaving a fellow luger behind in its smoke. I was sure that the tight curves in the road he was attempting this record run on had something to do with it. I was intrigued and entertained, but soon forgot it. However, recently I had the opportunity to speak with the gentleman that achieved the glory to be known as the “Rocket Man” and found out a little bit more about the man and his rocket luge.
How did you become involved with luging?
I saw some guys from Southern California luging and built mine from watching the show they were on. I was instantly hooked and fell in love with the sport. I always wanted to ice luge, but being from the South no one ever got around to building an ice luge track here.
How did you come up with the idea to put rockets on the luge?
I saw some guys firing rockets on television one day — big rockets. I remembered when I was seven or eight years old watching some friends fire small rockets close to where I lived. It was at that point that I realized there’s my horsepower! I just knew I could install that same type of launching system on my luge to reach the higher speeds.
When did you decide to try it and what happened?
I first installed the rockets in 1996 using 4 D motors. On my first attempt to fire them, my wife and I were both scared, but I was determined to see what would happen. As I coasted down the hill with her following close behind, I pulled in the ignitions and heard a quick woooosh. When we reached the bottom of the hill she said, “Wow you should have seen all the smoke!” I knew at this point that the visual effects were there, but I still needed an increase in speed that I didn’t feel at all. It was back to the drawing board. This time I would add 8 D motors. I was in Nashville later that week in one of the hobby shops and learned I could get the larger G motors (every time you drop a letter, the size of the rocket motor doubles). I began to change the design of the mounting brackets to hold the G motors and started off with just two of them…then three. Once I reached four, I told my wife that I wouldn’t add any more.
What type of rockets do you use and how do they fire?
The rockets I use are AEROTECH G-64’s White Lighting. I use the reloadable motors because of the quantity I’m firing and it’s a little cheaper in the long run. I would guess I’ve fired somewhere around five or six hundred over the years. They are fired by pulling in ignition buttons that fire four at a time. When you pull the ignition in, it completes an electrical circuit that heats up an igniter with a gun powder charge at the end. Then it lights a solid fuel cartridge which burns and gives you the propulsion. It finally lights the 4-second delay element that would normally light the powder charge to deploy a chute, which in this case is removed. They burn for about two seconds and have about eighteen pounds of thrust each.
When you’re trying something new, not everything goes as planned. Did you have any mistakes or mishaps?
The one failed attempt that I remember the most was when I was having my picture taken for Tennessee’s largest newspaper. I was to come rolling off this hill and fire all eight rockets at a pre-selected place on the hill. As I got ready and started hitting the ignitions, I quickly felt heat around my head and shoulders that had never happened before. When I came to a stop, the entire back half of the rocket luge was melted — aluminum, wiring, motor cases, firing clips, everything! I had three motor cases at $50 each destroyed. One of them had actually flown out of the luge and went flying through the woods. There was so much smoke that my wife, who always follows me, couldn’t see what had happened. She only saw the motor going through the woods. When she asked the photographer if I went off the road, he thought she asked if the rocket went off and told her yes. She thought I was dead. Luckily, I wasn’t!
Does your wife support you even after that incident?
My family supports me in doing this and always has from the beginning. My wife was the one who helped me build this luge. I always ask her opinion about everything. All the pieces were cut from cardboard templates and then cut from aluminum and put together. Even when it just had four rockets on it, and I told her I was going to stop there, somehow she just knew and would tell me yeah right! But, she’s always there to follow me down every hill, on every ride, never asking me to quit, and never wanting to leave until I am ready.
How did you come to be on the Guinness Show?
I approached Guinness by sending them a letter of interest. It just happened that a production company in California was preparing to do a show for them and everything fell together. That is until we started filming, and then it fell apart.
I was to arrive and have a choice of at least five different locations to choose from. Unfortunately that all changed without any notice and I was left with two options — either do it on the hill they had picked out for me, or go home! It was filmed in Bakersfield, CA on a road called Granite Junction, which used to be an old stagecoach stop. As soon as I saw the hill, I knew there was no way to reach the speeds that this rocket luge was capable of going. I had requested a long, straight, steep hill that would allow me to coast between 70 and 80 m.p.h. The hill they gave me would only let me go around 50 because of so many tight curves. I only had eight rockets at the time, but managed to reach a disappointing 70 m.p.h. Although it was faster than any street luge could go on this particular hill, it was far from the 100 m.p.h. ride I was hoping for. To film the event I was told to fire two rockets before entering the last curve and fire the remaining six once I reached the final straight away. By the time I got to the final firing point, I had already lost most of my speed from sliding through all the turns.
You mentioned that you built your first luge, how many have you built? How does the rocket luge differ from the standard street luge?
I build my own luges and they are considered the Z Rail frame style. The rocket luge is a little shorter than my street luge to allow me to sit up higher so that the rockets aren’t exactly level with my head when firing and to give me better visibility. Also, the steering is a lot tighter to eliminate any chance of high-speed wobbles when the rockets are kicking in. Once you fire these rockets, it takes them 1/10 of a second to be at full power, and there’s no turning them off until they burn out.
I currently have four luges. One rocket luge, one street luge, and one small street luge I built for my daughter to take to the events we attend; car shows, schools, etc. I have a snow luge that I haven’t ridden yet because the past three years the snow has missed us each time. I am currently looking for an ice luge to add to my collection. My rocket luge currently has 24 rockets on it. It takes me somewhere around 24-36 hours to prepare everything to launch it and then clean it all up. All for about a six-second increase in speed that is irreplaceable. You have to love it to go through all this. I also replace all the wheels and bearings after every high-speed run just to be safe.
Will you continue to try beating your current record?
Yes, definitely! 70 m.p.h. is the current record for the rocket luge and that was with eight rockets. The new model is now updated with 24 rockets! I can surpass that speed with ease on the small-time hills where I live. With the proper road and hill conditions, I’m sure I could reach speeds up to 100 m.p.h., possibly better.
So what are your future plans for the rocket luge?
My goal is to one day have it used in a commercial or an action movie. Why? Because the visual effects are awesome and I know from my own personal experiences the public loves to watch it blast down the road. That’s why Guinness still uses it on their opening credits of every show.
It has to be costly…what will you do until that happens?
From the beginning, I have funded this project out of my own pocket. I feel it could be a big hit with the public in many ways if I could get involved with the right people. Make it, or not, I’ll never quit! If it all ended today for me, I’d have to say that I’ve had more fun than I ever could have imagined.