Rocket Man

Ky Michaelson has gone 180 mph on a snowmobile, hurled men off tall buildings, and blown tons of metal into the stratosphere. Are you ready for the biggest stunt of all?

Outside of school, he was full of experiments. At age eight he cobbled together a set of wings for his Schwinn bike using a pair of ironing boards. "I was bound and determined that I was gonna fly," he recalls. "I kept thinking that if I just went a little faster I'd be able to fly, so I kept going down steeper and steeper hills." That effort failed, but Michaelson was undaunted.

"I had to show that I wasn't a dummy," he explains. "I always felt I had something to prove. So when the other kids were buying bubble gum with their spare money, I was buying tools. By the time I was 12, I knew how to weld." He made smoke bombs out of photo negatives--an experiment he now regrets, as he figures he destroyed some treasures from the family archives. He manufactured a crude diving bell using an old water heater, some garden hose, and a tire pump. He set off pipe bombs.

"It was no big deal," he says with a guffaw. "Everybody was doing it back then. We did it to make noise. Of course, nowadays there's all these weirdos, and so if you do something like that, you'd be in deep crap."

As Michaelson reached his teenage years, the model-rocket craze--inspired by equal parts WWII missile technology and the nascent space program--hit south Minneapolis. Ready-to-assemble kits were especially popular, he says, but he eschewed the manufactured products for his own designs. His first effort was crude, constructed from threaded pipe and match heads. He likens the thrill of that inaugural launch to a kid hitting his first home run--a taste of success that whetted his appetite for more.

Over time he became increasingly sophisticated, experimenting with various propellants and designs. With the help and encouragement of neighborhood chums, Michaelson soon was regularly firing off rockets in nearby fields. "What we were doing was a lot more advanced than the kids in October Sky," he says, in reference to the recent true-story movie about a quartet of West Virginia high schoolers turned rocketeers. (Coincidentally, Michaelson built 13 of the rockets used in the film; one of them, dubbed The Miss Riley, sits in a corner of his shop.)

After dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Michaelson worked part time in a bakery. He also plunged into the period's booming hot-rod and motorcycle culture, racing a customized twin-engine bike known as "the Widowmaker" and developing a reputation as a top dragster driver and mechanic. He was a founding member of the Gopher State Timing Association, a hot-rod club that remains active today.

Bill Bissonett, an announcer at the association's annual car show who raced some of Michaelson's vehicles back in the Sixties, says the south Minneapolis kid impressed fellow gearheads with his unschooled genius--a talent that prompts one friend to refer to him as "a mechanical savant."

"He can see a project from start to finish in his mind," Bissonett notes. "He doesn't even use blueprints. He's got one of the most creative minds I've known."

It wasn't long before Michaelson melded his two passions: "You can make just about anything go faster by putting a rocket on it," he says matter-of-factly. He claims to have established some 72 state, national, and international speed records over the years, mostly by fusing rockets to just about anything on wheels. In '71 he went 180 mph on a hydrogen-peroxide-propelled snowmobile in Yellowstone National Park. Later he built a rocket backpack, which his teenage son strapped on along with a pair of roller skates, topping out at more than 50 mph. For a while Michaelson traveled the nation's dragways, he says, with the singular goal of setting a record in every state.

But as any speed freak knows, the highs don't come without a price. "There'd be many times we'd go out and set a record," Michaelson reminisces, "and then I'd come home and go into a kind of depression. I had all this excitement, and then it's like the click of a switch and it ain't there no more. But then I'd just work up another deal, and I'd be off and running again."

 

In the mid-Seventies Michaelson took his technical savvy to the burgeoning Hollywood stunt industry. Though he did some stunt work himself, primarily as a driver, he spent most of his time as the engineer for legendary high-fall artist Dar Robinson--serving, as he puts it, as Robinson's "imagineer."

The two became best friends as well as partners; together they worked on feature films--including the Burt Reynolds pics Sharkey's Machine and Stick--and television programs, especially the prime-time stunt specials that were popular at the time. The team's work was a staple of the show That's Incredible!

"We owned that show," Michaelson says. "Did 17 stunts. We had the market on the action, the big high falls, the car gags, the stuff that made movies exciting but nobody believed could be done."

The duo's most famous feat was Robinson's 1980 leap from the CN Tower in Toronto, the tallest free-standing structure in the world. Michaelson still likes to watch the video, which was filmed for an ABC special called Super Stunts.

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