- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

They were a Cold War fashion statement, perhaps meant to take over the free world one step at a time: the dreaded gas boots.

In the late 1980s, a small group of Soviet Union aviation scientists designed futuristic wearables which gave a whole new meaning to the term "foot soldier."

They were, in essence, a pair of piston-driven, gasoline-powered contraptions that acted like high-tech pogo sticks, enabling wearers to take effortless, 13-foot strides at 25 mph.

Gas boot-shod platoons could advance across the countryside faster than an Olympic sprinter, and in nightmarish formation.

In theory.

The gas boots, though, never made it into the arsenal. When the Cold War ended in 1991, plans were sent off to top-secret archives, where they lay dormant for almost a decade. Until last week.

The gas boots are back, and this time with imaginative commercial vengeance.

Using newly declassified, original Red Army plans, a group of engineers from Aviation Technical University resurrected the striding boots and gave them a high-profile debut on a public square in Ufa, some 750 miles southeast of Moscow.

These boots are made for walking and playing as well.

"A person can move with significant jumps and strides," said Roman Kunikov, the hunky young technician who demonstrated the boots, which are more like braces.

They reach to the knee, weigh 2 pounds each and include a miniature fuel tank, carburetor and exhaust pipes. With a single jolt from a piston and a pop of exhaust, the boots shoot their wearers skyward and forward.

Mr. Kunikov gamely journeyed across the town square for photographers, reporters, TV cameras and an appreciative crowd.

But this was only the prototype, he assured everyone. Refinements would continue.

"Postmen who have to deliver to places where there are no roads could use them. We have also had some interest from the local police force," said engineer Rustem Enikeyev, who also worked on the project.

But peacekeepers and letter carriers aren't the real target audience for the boots, which will sell for about $400. The engineers hope to pique the interest of those who crave "extreme toys" that both thrill and amuse.

Sometimes called "bad boy toys," these devices generally involve speed, noise, risk and intriguing little engines.

The genre includes motorized skateboards that zip along at 30 mph, sophisticated city scooters and "pocket racers" miniature motorbikes that go 50 mph and are meant "for those who refuse to grow up," according to Washington state distributor Blue Moon.

Of course, anyone who knows Wile E. Coyote knows extreme toys have been around for a while.

The Warner Bros. cartoon regular has spent the past four decades pursuing the Roadrunner aboard a pair of "Acme Rocket Boots," mostly uncontrollable skates that have inspired an entire subculture of parodies, Web sites and fan clubs among those who are fixated by powered footwear.

Meanwhile, the new Russian gas boots already have some American competition. California-based Motoskate has been making motorized in-line skates for a year. At a weighty 12 pounds each, "Power Blades" cruise along at 20 mph, are worn like skates and are controlled by a hand-held throttle.

"We've got them on back order," noted a salesman at Motoboard International, one of several distributors that sell the skates for about $625 a pair.

There's "Wetfoot" for the water enthusiast, billed as "the first ever motorized water skates" from Jet Foot Corp. They look like short skis except for the engines, propellers and $3,000 price tag.

The manufacturer sees them as an alternative to jet skis.

But in the final picture, there's always Vernon Quy, a Nebraska octogenarian who has beaten everyone. Twenty years ago, Mr. Quy built a pair of gas-powered roller skates using an old chain saw engine and a pair of 40-year-old, lace-up leather skates.

Mr. Quy showed off his invention on NBC's "Tonight Show" and wowed neighborhood children with his quick and fancy footwork. He has since retired the skates, though he still takes a weekly spin on some regular roller skates.

Mr. Quy refuses to try any newfangled in-line skates. They just don't make 'em like he used to do. Says he: "They just don't go like these skates do."

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