Catching up with the Jetman

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"We are the fuselage with the wings we've built, which puts us just between humans and birds, and that's good." —Yves Rossy(Credit: Jetman.com)

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Since 2004, Gizmag has been tracking the progress of Yves Rossy, the founder of Jetman Dubai and creator of a pair of rocket wings that lets him fly through the air like Iron Man. Most recently, in November of last year, Rossy executed one of his most awe-inspiring flights yet — rocketing alongside an Airbus A380. We finally got the "Jetman" to stay Earthbound long enough to find out more about his journey to create the wings, the importance of having a Plan B, and just how it is he manages to steer.

Gizmag: What's the Jetwing made out of?

Yves Rossy: Many different things; the engines are aluminum and Inconel, which is a very high-temperature steel. The wing itself is carbon fiber and fiberglass. The protection around the engine is bulletproof Kevlar and the pylons are made from aluminum.

Gizmag: What fuels the Jetwing and how long can you fly?

Rossy: We have used different mixtures but currently we use kerosene with turbine oil, such as what would be used for a strong engine. Now we can fly for about 10 minutes.

Gizmag: How do you handle breathing out there?

Rossy: It's no problem because we have integral helmets. Imagine a motor bike competitor on the circuit. They go about the same speed as us — between 100 and 200 miles per hour — and they breath normally.

Gizmag: How do you steer?

Rossy: That's the main thing. Perhaps as an explanation, think of everything that flies up till now like an aircraft; you give an input command on something like a stick for an aircraft or trapeze for a hang glider or handles for paraglider. When you pull the handle, it breaks the parachute (or wing) on one side and as you sit under it, you follow the order that you gave to the machine, parachute or paraglider. Here the machine is on your low back and we don't pilot it or steer it — we are the fuselage, we are the steering. That means it's completely intuitive. You can compare it to a ski jumper.

When you turn your body a little, it follows your moves. It's really different because it's the machine that follows us, it's not that we are following the machine. Birds are not piloting their wings, they are the wings. We are the fuselage with the wings we've built, which puts us just between humans and birds, and that's good.

Gizmag: How long did it take to develop the Jetwing? Did you do it yourself or work with other companies?

Rossy: I've been with the project more than 20 years. At the beginning I was pretty much alone in my garage. After one or two years I had friends active in different activities like composite materials, aerodynamics and skydiving giving me a lot of help. I did work with a Swiss company that did very good aerodynamics study. I would say that's the only company that really completely studied my project. The other company that helped a lot and is still helping is JetCat, my sponsor for the engines.

Gizmag: Can you tell me more about the very first flight with the Jetwing? How did you know it would work? Was it scary?

Rossy: There were so many first flights because it was a step-by-step development. First I developed a harness so that I'd be safe in case of bad situation, like if I had to drop whatever I had on my back as a wing.

I remember at the beginning I was going from very high, gliding at 13,000 feet (about 4,000 meters), so that I could start up the two engines at 9,000 feet (2,743 meters). Several times only one engine started up and normally there are two. With one engine you cannot fly — it's asymmetric and you do rolls. Then on the third flight of the day in 2004 I went out at 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) and when I began the startup sequence, suddenly I had two green lights, which meant that the two engines I had on my back were running on idle.

I increased power and it was kind of magic because suddenly you feel the push, the wing on your back gives you the lift and I was staying in the air, I was not descending anymore. That's like birds — they are not only descending when they fly. I wanted to fly like a bird, and that's a big difference between gliding or sustained flight. I remember it as if was yesterday because it was the first time a guy could stay like that in the air.

I also remember the experience very well very because the airplane that dropped me off at 15,000 feet came beside and flew in formation with me. So you leave an airplane behind and one or two minutes later you are flying in formation with it!

And how did I know that it would work? Step by step. You have good signs that it works for a few seconds and then it fails again, so I knew I had to change something that was wrong. Suddenly this step works, then you go to the next step. At each step you have this little flame; this little success that shows you what's possible. I focussed on that success, thinking "OK, 90 percent of the steps have failed but 10 percent of the time it did function."

Gizmag: Were there ever any moments where you were in trouble in the air and thought you might not make it or had something unexpected happen?

Rossy: Yes I had many moments of surprise. Even though I tried to prepare as much as possible on ground, it's a rule in aviation to expect the unexpected. You prepare yourself to have a plan B just in case something doesn't go as planned. My plan B had to come into play about 20 times, which means about 20 times I had things that were really not working so I had to release the wing because it was completely unstable.

These moments for sure have you thinking: "If plan B doesn't work I won't be alive anymore." I had to take some breaks during the development of the wing because it sometimes got to be too much. But thanks to the passion for the project, you have that fantastic ability to forget bad things and to keep the good ones and let them push you forward.

Gizmag: Are there any safety measures built in to the Jetpacks? If they stop working do you have a parachute or anything else?

Rossy: Yes there are many safety measures and the main one is the ability to jettison the wing. After we do that, we have two parachutes on our back plus a safety device that would open the reserve parachute in case of unconsciousness. If I'm in a spin, for example, and I have to release the wing and it hits my head, I'm unconscious. Even in that case, five seconds before impact with the ground — that means at about 250 meters (about 820 feet) — my parachute would open. That means perhaps I break a leg but I'm still alive.

I didn't break anything during these 20 years because plan B always worked!

Gizmag: What kind of permit do you need to be able to fly and what's the classification of the craft?

Rossy: When building the wings, I didn't look into regulations because first I wanted to create. What kind of permit do you need to be able to fly? It's different in every country, from simple to very complicated.

It's simple in Germany where they consider us as a skydiver with an IFR (instrument flight rules) of a three-mile radius. It's very complicated in USA where we are still considered an experimental aircraft, so for a license you need to be multi-engine rated, with commercial IFR.

Classification of the craft is hard because it's brand-new. You cannot put it in an existing box.

Gizmag: A lot of people on social media ask where they can buy the Jetwing. Do you have any plans to ever sell them? What would they cost?

Rossy: My wish would be to share the wings with everybody but currently it's too complicated and too dangerous to give this equipment to everybody. Even experienced skydivers say "no" when you ask them if they want to try the wing, because there are other forces involved. It's really not so safe for everybody; you need be able to react, not lock up, and manage risk regularly. As a former fighter pilot I did learn that.

The price is around 130,000 Euros [about US$148,260] and you can go jetcatusa.com and look the price of the P200 or P400 engines. Not only are the engines expensive, but you have to add in the harness, the fuel, the electronics, and the man hours to make the wing; it's basically a nice car that you have on your back.

To keep up to date with Yves and JetMan Dubai, you can check out their Facebook page, Twitter feed or Instagram account. The flight with the A380 can be seen in the video below.

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