Published on September 26, 2012
His gear looks a bit like a table-sized wing with four small jets slung underneath. A small fuel tank provides enough to run the jets for maybe 15 minutes. The pilot dons a flight suit and helmet, puts on a parachute and then straps on his jet wing. Once ready, he climbs aboard a small, single engine high wing airplane of the the type favored by skydivers (though a helicopter will do just fine as well). After take off, once at a reasonable altitude, he performs a final check, the fuel valves are turned on. He leans out of the jump door into the wind stream. He jumps clear, aiming downward and builds up speed as he starts the four jet engines. Pulling out of the dive, he quickly attains about 125 mph, at which point it takes only the smallest movements of his arms and legs to steer the jet wing — from there, he can accelerate and fly at will. With practice he has learned to climb, dive turn and soar wherever he wishes.
This is Yves Rossy, known as the Jetman, and on this date in history in 2008, he commemorates the 99th anniversary of Louis Blériot’s flight across the English Channel, with his own daring attempt to fly the same route from Calais to Dover. “If I calculate everything right,” he said before the flight, “I will land in Dover. But if I get it wrong, I take a bath.” It was a classic understatement.
The Jetman’s Background
Yves Rossy is no daredevil, but rather a highly skilled, professional engineer-pilot who does his utmost to minimize risk. As he says, flying is not a roll of the dice, but rather a well-engineered, carefully planned operation. To do it any other way would be to court disaster. Nonetheless, this type of flying, a man with a jet wing on his back is dangerous.
But then again, Yves Rossy is used to danger — he is a former Mirage jet fighter pilot with the Swiss Air Force, an experience that taught him that you can fly the edge, but you need to do it safety. That way you get to try it again tomorrow rather than crash and burn if something goes wrong. These days, he is an Airbus captain flying commercial runs. On his best days while flying passengers, he goes to bed at night knowing that he didn’t make the news. That’s what being an Airbus pilot is really about — as for Jetman, that’s another story.
The Glorious Flight
After several days of bad weather, Yves Rossy finally had the right conditions to try his crossing. There was no reason to press his luck — he could have waited another month if that is what it took or cancelled it altogether and tried it again the following year if everything didn’t work out right. Yet on September 26, 2008, the weather was ideal. Aboard the plane, he waited as the pilot climbed to altitude.
Once high enough that he could cut loose from the wing if it caught fire when starting the jets and still parachute to safety, he launched himself — or more accurately, tipped himself forward and down away from the plane. Diving vertically, he started the engines and commenced a long and smooth slow pull-out to cross the beaches of Calais below before heading straight out to sea. Ahead were 22 miles of open water. It was a big bathtub indeed. He simply took the heading and flew straight, counting on the engines. What had taken Louis Blériot 37 minutes, took only 9 minutes and 7 seconds of flight time for Yves Rossy’s jet pack and during the crossing, he reached 186 mph in speed.
Arrival and Landing
His crossing of the English Channel went perfectly. Arriving over Dover, England, he made a wide turn around the lighthouse at South Foreland. It was a final salute to Blériot who had used the lighthouse as a navigational landmark. Then he pulled his parachute ripcord and descended to a safe landing, the wing strapped to his back.
Afterward, Rossy summed up his feelings about the danger of his jetman flying — “I’m not worried about risk, I manage risk.” An engineer-pilot couldn’t have summed it up better, even if those of us who love history would have loved him to have instead just quipped — “Piece of cake.”
It was, like Blériot’s, a glorious flight.
One More Bit of Aviation History
Yves Rossy would not be satisfied with crossing the English Channel. In the four years since, he has flown over the Alps, soared through the Grand Canyon in America, looped the sights of Rio and on September 10, 2012, even flew in formation with a Supermarine Spitfire Mk IXB. The nimble Spitfire, despite its small size, easily dwarfed Rossy’s jetman wing. The videos are amazing:
From the Archives
Flying the Alps — Peruvian pilot Juan Bielovucic Cavalié was the first man to successfully make a crossing over the Alps, Europe’s tallest mountains, linking Switzerland with Italy. The flight was less for the glory of it, however, than in honor of his close friend and fellow pilot, another Peruvian named Jorge Chávez Dartnell, who had died 28 months before while attempting the same flight.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
What is the weight of Rossi’s equipment?