Photos by Andre Bernet
This past May, Yves Rossy, a.k.a Jetman, became the first human to fly over the Grand Canyon in a jetpack. And shortly thereafter, GUTIFRE! became the first online arts and culture magazine with a childhood obsession with jetpacks to interview him. We caught up with Jetman at his home-base, the airstrip at Bex, Switzerland, and there, beneath the cool shadows of alpine ridges and amidst the pleasant droning of prop planes, learned exactly just what it takes to build a jetpack, strap it to your back, and blast through the heavens like a seraphic torpedo. Evidently, a great deal of courage, years of experience, and the unerring perseverance to follow one’s dreams. That, and of course, a really cool jetpack.
GUTFIRE!: So Jetman, when was the moment that you first realized you wanted to fly?
JETMAN: When I was a kid – as a kid I was interested, I was ten years old when my father offered to my brother and me a flight in a little airplane. But most kids are interested in flying, and I did like it. Then at an airshow they did a demo, and especially at the end, when they set off an explosion, really low, high speed, loud sounds, and a few seconds later he disappeared, and I thought the guy in that machine, that must be a good feeling. That was really a good feeling.
GUTFIRE!: And you became a fighter pilot or commercial?
JETMAN: Both. At the age of seventeen I entered the military and I applied to be a pilot. You can choose to be a fighter pilot or an airline pilot, and I chose fighter pilot. It’s quite hard, like in the U.S., not anybody can fly an F-18 – from 100 candidates, they usually take 1, so it’s quite selective. I did six years flying Mirage Mach 2 Fighter, and following that I worked for an airline.
GUTFIRE!: At what point did you decide to become Jetman?
JETMAN: I was active in air sports like paragliding, hangliding, and I discovered skydiving freefall, and that is the nearest thing to the dream of truly flying. It doesn’t feel like falling, it feels like flying. There is nothing between you and the air. But unfortunately, you only get 45 seconds. So the idea came to me, since I was a professional pilot, that it would be good to keep these feelings of purity, but really flying, like in a plane. So I developed a wing and a harness that I could drop if needed. So it went from freefall to freeflight.
GUTFIRE!: Can you walk us through a flight?
JETMAN: I currently need to start from the air – that’s why I’m still alive. I’ve had to drop my wing probably a total of 20 times. So it’s too dangerous at present to start from the ground. For many people, altitude is dangerous, but for me, it’s safety. The ground is dangerous. I can try things that are a little bit crazy in the air, and drop the wing and pull the parachute if something goes wrong. So I have to start from the air, a helicopter or airplane, generally around 2,000 meters, and then I start the engines on the sled of the helicopter or footstep of the airplane, with about half of my wing structure out of the airplane or helicopter, and after 25 to 30 seconds I have my four engines idle and stabilized. Normally after 30 seconds at 40,000 rpm, with full thrust go into 125,000 rpm, then with four green lights, it means go. At first I am freefalling like a skydiver, sometimes I go in reverse or roll, but as soon as I have speed, I take control of the situation. Without speed, there is nothing. But with speed, I can control. I go into a dive, increase my speed, as soon as I feel I have enough speed, I arch a little, and then I go full throttle. The control of the vectors and trajectory is just with the body. If I want to climb I arch, if I want to turn I twist my shoulders. Once you are in the air, it’s simple. The only control is the thrust, the rest is with my body.
GUTFIRE!: So you mentioned the time you had to bail and drop the harness. Are there any incidents that were especially hair-raising?
JETMAN: Well, once with a former prototype – it did fly nice but at a slower speed. In Spain, I was testing different things, and I did something wrong, and I went into a spin. I was fighting for control, like in an airplane going into a spin. I continued to fight, but I have an audible altimeter telling me I was at my minimum altitude and I needed to drop the wing. The alarm was going off. But I was sure I would take control again. So I kept struggling for control. I didn’t want to drop the wing because it was a new prototype and I didn’t want to lose it. So I pulled the parachute while I was in the spin, with the engines still smoking, full throttle. I was too confident, it was a dangerous situation, and it was just luck that my parachute deployed correctly and that I was under my canopy. And I was at a low altitude, with full engine, still smoking. But I misjudged the wind and I landed at a crazy speed. I finished on my hands and knees, smoking, full of adrenaline. I landed in a park, it was so quiet, the ducks were on the pond, and a horse was with her colt, and there I was like an extra-terrestrial in my smoking machine, just came out of nowhere. And I realized what a risk I had taken, and I had very strong feelings – that contrast between the flight and the spin and the peaceful place I landed, it made me appreciate life and that maybe I shouldn’t take such risks.
GUTFIRE!: Other than the technical details, what goes through your mind when you’re flying?
JETMAN: Oh, that’s why I do it. The real thing is this feeling, it’s unreal. It’s like I’m in a dream. And I did realize my dream. I was sure it was possible, and I proved that.
GUTFIRE!: What is the next step?
JETMAN: The next step is to try to do a formation with a jet airplane. That’s one project. Also, high altitude is something I’d like to try.
GUTFIRE!: Do you think you’ll ever try taking off from the ground?
JETMAN: It is possible, I have the technology, but at the moment it’s too dangerous. I have a parachute with a pyrotechnic release, and with that parachute, I can deploy it at a low altitude, like an ejection seat. So I still have to do some tests over the water, and I’m also looking into a ramp. First I will start from a cliff, to see how I would exit from the cliff off the ramp. So the idea is to be catapulted from the cliff, get distance so you’re safe. Then, maybe try from the roof of a sports car, get the speed going, maybe a hundred miles an hour, then take off from there.
GUTFIRE!: Could you take off with rollerskates?
JETMAN: Well, it’s not the right position. And also, if you hit a little stone . . . if you want to try that . . .
GUTFIRE!: Were there heroes you had as a child, in aviation or otherwise?
JETMAN: I’ve always admired people who go farther in their dreams and their passions. Like going to the moon, for example. To train and go farther and to realize the dream.
GUTFIRE!: Do you think jetpacks will ever become available to everyone?
JETMAN: I think individual air transportation will come. The problem is energy. With our body we could fly without a wing, but we need the energy. I use kerosene because it has a huge concentration of energy, and it’s easy to use compared to hydrogen or oxygen, it’s safer. In the future, I think this will happen, but we need to find more efficient ways to use the energy, better fuels.
GUTFIRE!: Is it boring to walk?
JETMAN: No, because when you’re flying, you’re always missing something. In the air, we have three dimensional freedom, total freedom. But, we are totally prisoners of time. We have limited time up there. But when I am walking, I have time, to stop and look around. Flying is fun, but you don’t have time to see the details. It’s a trade-off of freedoms.
GUTFIRE!: Say for example, jetpacks become common technology. What would you do next?
JETMAN: Something will come. I have such a fantasy world in my head. I have the brain of a ten-year-old, in a fifty-year-old’s body. There are no limits. So, we’ll see. It will be fun.