Rocket Man

Photographer Misha Petrov travels to the junkyards of Tolyatti and shares the story of a local inventor.

In 2014, Misha Petrov caught his first glimpse of engineer-inventor Alexei Uldutov and his rocket at a car show. The rocket catastrophically malfunctioned, and, after seeing the inventor’s anguish, Petrov became convinced that the "rocket man" would stand back up on his feet and win next year’s contest. He was right. 

“Ah... I would ride this thing like a wild mustang! The ground beneath me would rattle from the roaring turbines and the flames would blast two meters behind me! Bewildered eyes will stare at me, and trembling children will latch onto their mothers. Hehe….,” the grinning self-made inventor from Tolyatti mumbles as he rubs his hands together. Alexei is generally an amiable fellow, but when it comes to this “thing” of his, he becomes as steadfast as a steel beam. 

And one can understand him: right in the the very heart of our “legendary” homegrown automobile industry, Alexei came up with the idea of installing a jet engine onto two wheels. Initially, onto one wheel! “First we needed to create a particular foundation for our research. So we created this unimoto,” explains the inventor. The unimoto, in it’s classical iteration, is a quirky single-wheel motorcycle, often equipped with skis. However, the handmade gas turbine that’s replaced the traditional internal combustion engine, transforms Alexei’s invention into a sort of rocket – the reactive force transforms into the driving factor. “The power, the roar of the turbine, the red-hot afterburner, the trailing fiery jet – this is an inexpressible sensation! It feels like your heart is just about to rip out of your chest!”

The parts for the “rocket” can be scavenged in scrap-metal junk-yards scattered throughout the industrial zone that Alexei inhabits. Despite the abundance of such junkyards, finding the specific components is often painstaking, since only aircraft parts meet the specific standards required for the “rocket.” But any dump with aircraft parts is guarded like a final strategic stronghold. After acquiring everything he needs, Alexei spends hours altering the scavenged pieces in his garage, or as he proudly refers to it, his “laboratory.” The laboratory is his second home, where the inventor can often be found recasting his metalworking tools into wind instruments. 

“It’s a creative process, and every creative process goes through a trial and error. Take here the launch of the turbines: it’s a very important moment! Before, the turbine would only launch with burned propane. There were a few unsuccessful launches – the propane would spill and catch fire, while a gas canister stood nearby; it was really quite risky. Later the launch system modernized, and the procedure became safer. Now we control the launch with a computer that tracks all the parameters of the engine,” when the rocket is mentioned, the inventor – remaining an individual of minimalistic simplicity – suddenly switches to “we.”

The invention doesn’t have a name or a serial number, just as there are no legitimate calculations for the engine or charts for its design. Genius is born out of constant meditation in a candlelit laboratory with grim music playing in the background, like the soundtrack to “The Ring.” The most astonishing factor is that this really works: Alexei is currently the only person in the whole Eastern Hemisphere who managed to harness this means of transportation, and demonstrate his success to a crowd of spectators at a bike show.