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Flying Over Channel by jetpack!

(September 20, 2008)
(Courtesy of Kathryn Liptrott)
On a normal day Yves Rossy can be found flying Airbus 320s between Zurich and Heathrow for Swiss International Air Lines. However, when the 49-year-old pilot takes to the skies later this week, he will have nothing but an 8ft-long carbon fibre wing to carry him, powered by four small jet turbines of the sort more usually found on model aircraft.

His self-designed, jet-propelled wing has already earned him the nickname Rocket Man, and now Rossy plans to become the first person to cross the English Channel as a human jet. Launching himself through the air at speeds of up to 185mph, he will follow the same route taken by Louis Blériot, the French aviation pioneer who became the first person to fly an aeroplane across the Channel, 99 years ago.

Weather permitting, on Wednesday lunchtime Rossy will board a light aircraft that will climb to about 10,000ft above Calais. He will fire up the four jet turbines under the wing, which is strapped to his back, then jump out, hurtling down to earth at about 185mph before levelling out at about 5,000ft and flying at about 115mph for the 22 miles to Dover. If he succeeds he is guaranteed a place in the record books. If he fails he could find himself dodging container ships in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world - or worse.

I will be watching from the ground, as part of the production team making it possible for Rossy’s record attempt to be broadcast live in 165 countries and streamed simultaneously to the web. This will also be another first, involving numerous long-lens cameras on both sides of the Channel, another strapped to the nose of a helicopter, to track Rossy in flight, and another secured to his wing, which will beam back the action as it unfolds to TVs and computer screens around the world.

When my production company told me about a man who had strapped a rocket to his back and could “fly like a bird”, my first reaction was that it was a joke and my second was that we had to film him. A few weeks later I was standing on the side of a mountain near Rossy’s home in Switzerland, and that’s where I watched him for the first time.

You hear the roar of the jets first, then you see him. He looks like a real-life Buzz Lightyear, the flying space-man character from the film Toy Story, who would zoom skywards with a cry of “To infinity and beyond”. Rossy’s contraption is so unusual he was classified as an unidentified flying object by the Swiss authorities, until he managed to persuade them to give him a special licence.

The son of a railway worker and a farmer’s daughter, Rossy’s passion for flying began when he was 13 years old and his parents took him to an air show. When one of the planes swooped down low, the pilot looked right at Rossy. “I looked at this pilot,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘What kind of emotion does this man feel?’.”

To find out, he joined the Swiss air force when he was 17 and flew Mirage fighter jets. He also studied engineering, and later made the switch to flying commercial airlines. He is an accomplished parachutist and it was while parachuting that the idea for the jet wing first emerged. What drives him is the desire to get as close as possible to flying like a bird.

The concept of strapping a rocket to your back is nothing new - James Bond used one way back in 1965 in the film Thunderball – but so-called “jet packs” only allow you to stay off the ground for a few seconds, argues Rossy, and are extremely unstable. “It’s not flying,” he says.

Rossy first began pursuing his goal about 15 years ago, building prototype after prototype in his garage and spending as much as £25,000 a year of his own money to fund his experiment (he has since won sponsorship from Hublot, the Swiss watchmaker). He started with an inflatable wing but was only able to glide - not much different from dangling from a hang-glider.

Then, with help from JetCat, a German company that makes engines for model planes, he was able to get hold of the jet turbines to power it, and the Swiss firm ACT Composites agreed to manufacture the wing.

If all goes according to plan, Rossy’s Channel crossing will take place in three days’ time, although he has another four days after that before he has to return to work, and the production team will be ready to leap into action as soon as he gives the go-ahead.

He will take off from Calais at around 1pm and fly in as straight a line as possible to Dover, before releasing his parachute at about 2,500ft in order to land. In future he hopes to be able to achieve sufficient vertical thrust to set off from the ground, but at the moment that would require more fuel than he can feasibly carry so he can only fly horizontally.

All the people in the plane with Rossy, including the cameraman, must be qualified parachutists so they can jump if the aircraft catches fire. Rossy wears a fireproof suit and three parachutes - a braking chute, a main chute and a reserve chute – plus another one just for the wing, to ensure it falls gently back to earth if he has to jettison it.

Once out of the plane he pulls a cord to expand the wing to its full length (it’s too long to extend inside) then has to steer it using his shoulders, head and arms - a physically exhausting task as the wing weighs 121lb when full of fuel. His helmet contains a sonic altimeter, which beeps at certain heights. The loudest beep is at 1,800ft - if he hasn’t opened his parachute by that point he’s in danger.

A few weeks ago Rossy completed his longest flight, covering a distance of about 22 miles and taking about 12 minutes - enough to get him across the Channel, given the right conditions. For the record attempt to be successful he will need a cloud ceiling of no lower than 10,000ft and preferably no rain.

Most important, though, is the wind. Rossy is determined to follow the route taken by Blériot from Calais to Dover, even though it’s harder to cross from the French to the British side, as the wind is usually against you. There is also the possibility that if the head-wind is too strong he will have to abandon the crossing or risk running out of fuel halfway through.

The production team has had its own complex - though less life-threatening - obstacles to overcome. You could compare it to filming natural history: it requires as many cameras as possible, long l e n s e s a n d s t e a d y hands. Rossy used to have two tanks on his wing for producing smoke, just to make it easier for people - including cameramen - to see him, but those have now been replaced by jet turbines to increase his flying range.

The logistics of getting all the cameras in the right place at the right time is hard enough, but then there are the inevitable bureaucratic hoops to jump through too: we required, for example, special permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to fly in formation and at one point a member of the team was told the CAA needed to know if he had a life raft onboard - presumably for health and safety reasons, but that may have been someone’s idea of a joke.

After so much careful preparation, it is always the seemingly minor, unexpected things t h a t c a u s e l a s t -minute complications. I am still waiting for risk assessments to be completed on the landing site in Dover a n d n e e d t o speak to the British authorities to see if there are any forms they want Rossy to fill in when he enters the country - it’s not as if he can give them his BA flight number. None of this is going to distract him, however.

I asked him once if he was frightened by his adventure. His response? “No. Never. If I’m scared I don’t fly.

“There is a certain tension that helps me to concentrate. I have a check-list of what has gone wrong in the past and I make sure that all those issues have been resolved.”

Rossy is a daredevil, but he’s a calculated one. He doesn’t have a death wish. He wants to fly and he wants to keep pushing it to the next level. “[When I’m flying] it is a combination of concentration and pure happiness,” he says. “I am in another state of mind; it is a little unreal. It is hyper-euphoria and it gives me a huge feeling of freedom.”

When he lands during practice, and he’s done well, the look of joy on his face is incredible. It becomes infectious. That said, though, I definitely wouldn’t do it.

Kathryn Liptrott is a television producer who has spent four months filming Rossy’s preparations for his record attempt You can follow Rossy’s record attempt live at or on the National Geographic channel. To get a taste of the action, watch a video of Rossy in training at

TOP SPEED 185mph
WEIGHT OF WING 121lb with full fuel tanks
FUEL Kerosene
ENGINE Four jet turbines

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