The five jet engines strapped to my body wind up to a fearsome roar that forces its way past my earplugs. When the motors are making maximum noise, I straighten my back slightly, point my arms gradually down towards the floor and rise off the ground, riding five columns of pure thrust.
It’s a strange feeling, to be at the centre of a storm of thunderous levitation. But this strap-on flying suit is part of a wave of change in the world of personal flying machines that makes right now possibly the most exciting time in aviation since two bicycle-engineer brothers started playing with fabric-covered wood frames near Kitty Hawk. “More power,” I shout to the suit’s inventor Richard Browning, who is standing in front of me. I’m careful not to point, as there are jet engines strapped to my arms. He shakes his head. “Everyone says that,” he mouths back.
The five engines – two on each arm, one on my back – are capable of putting out 144kg of thrust. They could propel me through the air at around 40mph to a maximum height of 12,000ft (any higher and I’d need an oxygen cylinder), where I could buzz around like a bee for eight minutes before returning gently to earth – at least that’s if I were as practised as Browning, whom I later watch darting effortlessly about in the air like Tinker Bell, but much, much louder.
For Jet Suit neophytes, Browning’s Gravity Industries has devised a training rig with a safety tether. It doesn’t stop me rising, but it would stop me crashing to the ground again or shooting off to the side like a rogue firecracker. Once my feet are in the air there is nothing to stop me rotating – so I have to remember to point my arms in the opposite direction to that in which I want to go, which is counterintuitive. After all, Superman’s outstretched arm pointed towards where he was flying. I’m a long way from the superhero figure I imagined I might be in my dreams, but I can see that, given time, such near-superhuman powers could be attainable.
The Jet Suit makes use of pretty simple Newtonian action-reaction physics. But, as anyone with half an interest in risky flight can tell you, it’s far from straightforward to pack onto a human body the thrust required to lift him or her into the air.
It all started in the 1950s, when US aerospace company Bell came up with a hydrogen peroxide-powered Rocket Belt. But flight time was measured in mere seconds, so, although such machines reappeared in a 1960s James Bond film and at a few high-profile sports events, the aerospace industry tried to forget about them. Backyard inventors refused to do so, however. One of the most promising in recent years was New Zealand’s now-stalled Martin Jetpack, which, despite the name, involved not jets but ducted fans. But it grew so bulky it became more like a one-person flying machine you were strapped into.
That’s not the case with the Jet Suit, which former oil trader Browning started to develop, by trial and error, only last year. The Iron Man-type arrangement has two small jet motors that slip over each forearm, as well as a larger one strapped to one’s back. “I wanted to make the human body fly as naturally as possible,” he says.
The main rival for the Jet Suit comes from JetPack Aviation of the US, under development for more than 12 years by entrepreneur David Mayman and Rocket Belt pioneer Nelson Tyler. Their flying machine also uses small jet engines, six on the latest model, but they have adopted a more micro-aircraft approach. The jets are fixed in a (substantial) backpack and the pilot uses aircraft-like controls to direct some of the thrust. But the rest is controlled – like Browning’s Jet Suit – by moving your body. Its range is 10 miles (around 10 minutes in the air), it can reach a speed of over 150mph and, as with the Jet Suit, for safety reasons it shouldn’t currently be used above 12,000ft.
I’ve also tried out the JetPack – making me the only person to have sampled both the UK and US systems. The two-engine JB10 is used in the one-day familiarisation course Mayman has just started offering in California for $4,950. That can be extended into full jetpack training, approved by US aviation regulators, which Mayman reckons would take seven to 10 days for those who already have a plane or helicopter flying licence and costs in the region of $50,000.
Up in the California hills, in a clearing between lemon groves, Mayman has set up a training camp that features a safety line, slung between a tower and a tall gum tree, to keep the neophyte JetPack pilot safe. It allows much greater movement than Browning’s system, though, and flight further off the ground. In my right hand is a twist-grip throttle, which works in the opposite way to a motorcycle. In my left is another grip that turns to control yaw – it directs the thrust from the two jets so that I rotate clockwise or anticlockwise around my vertical axis. The backpack with the jets is hung from a pivot on the part that is strapped to me – so to go forwards or backwards or to one side I use my body weight. It’s more physical and less technical than I expected.
I progress well and it all becomes easier when I realise that flying the JetPack needs tiny, controlled movements of my body position, and precisely measured movements of the controls – plus the patience to see what effect a control input has had before making another one. It’s a zen-like contrast to the cacophonous fire and fury coming out of the jet engines hanging like rotund wings behind my shoulders.
The latest Jetpack, the JB11, can be ordered now – it will cost in the region of $340,000 and could be in your hands in early 2019. Browning’s Jet Suits are also on sale, including training, right now for £340,000 – he has already sold a couple – and Gravity is offering experience days learning to fly them near London and Los Angeles and possibly Dubai for about £30,000 to £40,000. He is also planning a race series. It will spur development and be an incredible spectacle – conducted at low level on courses laid out over water.
If the Jet Suit and JetPack are a bit too raw and exposed, a flying car is now becoming a serious proposition. Probably the most elegant is the Netherlands-built PAL-V. This is a two-seat, three-wheel road vehicle that unfolds, Transformer-fashion, and turns into a gyroplane when you want to fly, meeting all the rules for road and air vehicles in Europe and wherever else it is sold.
Gyroplanes, while far less common than fixed-wing aeroplanes and helicopters, have something of a safety advantage over both. In contrast to aeroplanes, they can’t stall or spin. Plus, their overhead rotor is not powered, like that of a helicopter, but acts as a wing when it is rotated by the gyro’s motion through the air – the gyro is moved by a smaller engine-driven propeller at the front or rear. If the engine fails in a gyroplane, it just descends under its rotating wing – unlike in some small helicopters, where an engine failure means the pilot must react within seconds to put the rotor into auto-rotate mode.
Gyros can’t rise vertically from the ground, but they can take off and land over very small distances – figures of just 180m and 30m respectively are quoted by the Dutch company (owners can use a local airfield or, with the permission of the landowner, all that is needed is a field). The PAL-V Liberty has side-by-side seating and two engines – one for use on the road and the second to give additional power when flying. In the air, 110mph is achievable, but 85mph uses less fuel and gives a range of around 300 miles, with sensible fuel reserves that allow another 90 miles to be driven after landing.
The order book is open and PAL-V says it will start deliveries to customers in the first half of 2020. A deposit of €25,000 will secure a place on the list for one of the 90 personalisable Liberty Pioneer editions (€598,800), which come with flying lessons and power heating. The base price of the Liberty Sport edition, which also comes with flying lessons but has less equipment as standard, is €358,800. A gyroplane licence is needed, but the company is partnered with a UK flight school that has already started training would-be PAL-V pilots.
Meanwhile, US flying-car company Terrafugia, a subsidiary of Geely of China, is aiming to deliver the first of its rather more ungainly-looking folding-wing planes next year. The two-seat Transition (expected to sell for $400,000 to $500,000) will initially be sold only in the US, but fits into the light sports aircraft class that means less onerous licensing for pilots. Slovakia-based AeroMobil’s 4.0 also has wings that fold away. It uses a 300hp internal combustion engine to drive a propeller for flight and the same engine functions as a generator for a hybrid electric system when on the road. You can order one of the first 500 examples, priced in excess of €1.2m, for delivery from 2020.
All three flying-car makers, and Gravity’s Browning, are also on their way to developing hybrid or fully electric successors and there is little doubt in the industry that electric is the future on land and in the skies. There is now an array of companies working on electric aircraft that range from the plausible to sheer flights of fancy.
Slovenian company Pipistrel dipped its toes with a two-seat glider with a retractable electric motor for self-launching, first flown in 2007. But now it has moved on to fully fledged aeroplanes, having launched its entirely electric two-seater, the Alpha Electro (€141,600), at the end of last year. Batteries give it an endurance of about an hour, so it has been adopted by the pilot-training market – lessons for beginners are rarely longer. But it is also available to individuals who want to be in the vanguard of an electric revolution that will ultimately yield fully electric replacements for private jets and even airliners.
One of the few other electric aeroplanes in production is the RX1E-A, which was certified in China in late October and will cost in excess of $150,000, though it’s not yet clear if it will be available outside the country. Made by Liaoning Ruixiang of Shenyang, it is a two-seater, like the Alpha, and has a maximum flight time of two hours.
Siemens leads the field in electric motors of all sizes for aviation and has partnerships with aircraft makers and aero-engine companies, including Airbus and Rolls-Royce. Dr Frank Anton, head of the eAircraft division, tells me that hybrid engines are the brightest hope for larger aircraft, but the group also makes those used on a private jet-sized purely electric design from Israeli firm Eviation. The Alice nine-seater (price not yet set) will have a range of 650 miles at 240 knots on a single charge, with certification expected by 2021.
Electric planes, flying cars, jetpacks – we’re standing on the threshold of a new way of using the air. That won’t lead to everyone commuting to work in the sky, or every family having a Jetsons-type aerial runabout. At least not in the immediate future. Safety issues, regulators and pricing will keep a cap on numbers. But it does mean early adopters will have the benefits of exclusivity for a long time to come.