U.S. NEWS

The Spectacular Finale of Mad Mike

Could Mad Mike Hughes be more representative of our current warped political, social and economic times?
Michael "Mad Mike" Hughes in his home in Apple Valley, California, on April 20, 2019.
Michael "Mad Mike" Hughes in his home in Apple Valley, California, on April 20, 2019.

Michael “Mad Mike” Hughes was an enigma on a mission — to inspire and to upend.

The 64-year-old daredevil limo driver taught himself rocket science, crowdfunded the money to build his own steam-powered rocket out of spare parts and launched himself into the sky three times. He was also a flat-earther who didn’t believe in science. Or gravity, for that matter.

Those may sound contradictory, but maybe they’re not.

He also ran for governor of California in 2018, held a Guinness World Record for longest limo ramp jump in 2002, hosted a flat earth conference in Las Vegas in May 2019, had a documentary made about him called “Rocketman,” had an upcoming Science Channel TV show called “Homemade Astronauts” and harbored fringe beliefs about the government.

On Feb. 22, Hughes launched himself for the third and final time in his homemade rocket, just off Highway 247 in Barstow, California. 

Upon takeoff, the rocket hit a steel ladder that he insisted — against his team’s wishes — be attached to the launch ramp to make it easier for him to get into the cockpit. A parachute deployed prematurely and got caught in the thrust of the rocket, causing it to wobble. For a split second, it looked like the rocket could shoot off in any direction — including toward the 50 or so spectators who had gathered to watch the launch. Instead, the rocket shot straight up, made a large arc away from the spectators and nosedived directly into the desert floor about half a mile from the launchpad. 

A parachute gets caught in the thrust of Mad Mike's rocket during his final launch in Barstow, California, on February 22, 20
A parachute gets caught in the thrust of Mad Mike's rocket during his final launch in Barstow, California, on February 22, 2020.

I was there to cover the launch for a profile I’ve been writing about Hughes over the past year. I’d interviewed him at his home in Apple Valley, California, and I’d seen him speak at the Adventurers Club of Los Angeles. Before the launch, I spoke briefly to Hughes, who was clearly nervous. Then I filmed the launch on my phone, a spectacle so surreal it was almost cartoonish. Hughes himself had dubbed himself the “human Wile E. Coyote.”

When it became clear that Hughes wasn’t going to make it, many of the spectators screamed and wailed. Then there were 15 minutes of eerie, solemn silence. I posted the video to Twitter, which got 5 million views in three days and garnered media coverage around the world.

Waldo Stakes, Hughes’s landlord and collaborator, and the rest of his team rushed to the crash site.  

“We’re going to have to bury Mike,” Stakes told those of us who remained when they returned. “That’s how daredevils die.”

Hughes is survived by a brother and two estranged sons.

Hughes’s death earned him countless headlines, mostly for his eccentric beliefs and spectacular final moments. In many ways, he was a man of our American times, representative of the decline of trust in expertise, science, the government and other institutions. He was a vexatious litigant, bent on taking down what he saw as an illegitimate government and court system. He stuck to his convictions — no matter how unpopular — in the face of all demonstrable proof to the contrary. What’s more American than that?

But while many Americans have embraced these beliefs, Hughes was unique in his quest for sky-high glory. 

Seeing The Planet For Himself

Hughes’s ultimate goal was launching himself 62.8 miles to the edge of space, known as the Kármán Line, in a “rockoon” — part rocket, part balloon. He wanted to “see what shape this planet is” for himself, he told me. Hughes and Stakes were trying to raise $2.8 million to build that spacecraft at their property in Apple Valley, which they called El Ranchito Rakete.

Hughes said they weren’t out to prove the Earth is flat with these steam-powered rocket launches but rather to inspire a new generation. “At one time in this country, we thought anything was possible, but we don’t believe we can do anything anymore,” he told me.

Hughes’s PR representative of 17 years, Darren Shuster, said the flat-earth angle was just a publicity stunt meant to garner more sponsors and attention.

“He was NOT a flat-earther,” Shuster said. “He was a real stuntman and he was a genius PR man, as well, to the very end.”

Stakes disagreed with that assessment in a Facebook post a couple of days after Hughes’s death.

“Mike was a real flat earther,” he wrote. “He had dozens of books on the subject.”

Mad Mike at work on his rocket at his home in Apple Valley, California, on April 20, 2019.
Mad Mike at work on his rocket at his home in Apple Valley, California, on April 20, 2019.

It’s hard to know for sure what Hughes truly believed and what he merely thought would bring attention to his projects. He had claimed he believed we live on a flat, stationary, disc-shaped Earth at the center of the universe, surrounded by a giant wall of ice called Antarctica and shielded by an arched firmament above us like a snow globe.

Many in the flat-earth community, which has grown in the age of YouTube and includes hundreds of thousands of adherents, were not happy about Hughes’s rockoon plan. If he went up to the Kármán Line and (inevitably) proved that the world is a sphere, that could end the gravy train for flat-earthers who make money from merchandise, books, conferences and the like.

Hughes hadn’t been invited to the Flat Earth International Conference at the Crowne Plaza in Denver in November 2018. But he showed up anyway. “No one’s done more for flat earth than I have, and you’re not inviting me to a flat earth conference?” he complained.

It was at that conference that YouTuber Logan Paul announced he was “coming out of the flat earth closet” as part of a documentary he was filming. Turns out, it was really a mockumentary, which did not sit well with Hughes, whom Paul had interviewed briefly in the film. Hughes filed a lawsuit against Paul in a San Bernardino, California, court, charging fraud and demanding a $500,000 fine and three years in state prison. At the time of his death, Hughes had yet to successfully serve Paul. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for March 27.

Hughes also believed in a plethora of other conspiracy theories, including that a person’s name written in all capital letters is actually an entity that someone else can purchase by filing paperwork with the California secretary of state. He believed he had “purchased” the entities of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and many others, including judges and traffic cops who’d issued him speeding tickets. He’d also filed dozens of lawsuits against the actual people in a futile attempt to extract large sums of money from them for using his “property.”

“I’m getting ready to turn. Everything. Upside. Down,” he told me in April 2019. “Upside down.”

Trading Peril For Glory

Hughes’s first successful rocket launch, on Jan. 30, 2014, took place in Winkelman, Arizona. He said he didn’t even believe in the flat-earth conspiracy at that point. It was “just to do something, because it was supposed to lead to a TV show with ABC.” He claimed that following the launch, ABC decided not to use the footage.

He reached a height of 1,374 feet and hit the ground at 50 miles an hour. It took him three days to recover from internal and head injuries he declined to elaborate on. He had to use a walker for two weeks.

It may seem like Hughes feared nothing, but he’d be the first to tell you that was not true.

"Mad" Mike Hughes is carried on a stretcher after his home-made rocket launched and returned to the ground near Amboy, Calif.
"Mad" Mike Hughes is carried on a stretcher after his home-made rocket launched and returned to the ground near Amboy, Calif., on Saturday, March 24, 2018. The self-taught rocket scientist who believes the Earth is flat propelled himself about 1,875 feet into the air before a hard-landing in the Mojave Desert that left him injured.

“Launch day is an intense day,” he told me. “I’m not fearless. Things do scare me. But you gotta man up and get in it.”

Six months later, they tried to launch again. The rocket launched prematurely without Hughes in it and cut off the legs of one of his team members.

“It almost killed three people,” he told me. “One guy was operated on 11 times. It almost blew my face off.”

Hughes built a new rocket and tried again in California’s Mojave Desert in November 2017, but the Bureau of Land Management wouldn’t let him launch on federal land.

He tried again on March 24, 2018, blasting off on private property in Amboy, California. That launch propelled the rocket — this time with Hughes strapped in it as planned — 1,875 feet into the air. He deployed one parachute, which was slightly delayed, and then another. He crash-landed again, this time breaking his back.

Hughes told The Associated Press after the launch that “this thing wants to kill you 10 different ways. It’s scary as hell. But none of us are getting out of this world alive.”

Hughes described the feeling of launching at that speed as your mind being unable to keep up with what’s happening to your body. That you think you’re still leaving the ramp when really you’re already in the clouds.

“As soon as you touch that button,” he said, “you’re already 200-300 feet up in the air …. It’s bizarre.”

But taking that risk is what separates daredevils from most people, he said. For him, trading peril for glory was worth it. 

On The Edge

Hughes was born in Oklahoma City in 1956. His dad worked in a body shop and raced cars on the weekends. As a kid, he watched George Rice Chitwood perform death-defying automobile stunts in the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show at the racetrack, an exhibition that toured the country for 40 years.

“Mike’s dad neglected him,” Stakes said in the 2019 documentary made about Hughes, “Rocketman.” “He never got any attention as a kid.”

“I wish my dad could have lived long enough to see what I’ve accomplished,” Hughes said in a candid moment in the film. “I think he’d be very proud. I wish I could have stayed closer with my sons. Maybe this is the best time of my life, this year, right now.”

Hughes started working on a NASCAR pit crew in 1986 and became a limo driver in 1996. He was inspired to start jumping limousines after coming home after a night of driving at 6 a.m. and passing out on the couch with his tuxedo still on. “Teletubbies” was playing on the TV, and as he slept, he dreamt that he was jumping a limo into the belly of one of the characters. He woke up wondering how he could become “King of the Daredevils,” as he then branded himself.

Mad Mike Hughes went out time and again to attempt the seemingly impossible, risking his life all the while. He lived on the edge and died trying to do something extraordinary, which is admirable, even if his 8chan beliefs are not.

“It’s been a weird journey,” Hughes told me before he died. “And I’m just a guy trying to make things happen, you know?”

CONVERSATIONS