I flip the ignition switch and 113kg of engines, turbines and gasoline roar hello. In terms of horsepower, I was carrying a small sports car on my back. I'd like to say that I grin confidently and give the cameras a wink, like some young Chuck Yeager or Evel Knievel, but the smile leaves my face.
Instead, I gun the throttle. It is time to fly.
I was at the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Wisconsin Air show, which is basically Woodstock with planes. For one week, the local airport, a normally nondescript and noncommercial entity, fills with 8.3km of every aircraft imaginable. And everyone camps out. Just picture a priceless antique WWI fighter restored to perfect luster. Now put a two-person Coleman tent beside it. If you duplicate that scene a few thousand times, that's the Oshkosh air show.
Oh, and there's always some hotshot dive-bombing in the sky. Today, as I prepped to test out the Martin Jetpack, I could be that hotshot (or maybe just that yuppie who always wanted to be the hotshot, dying with a Blue Cross card in one hand and a Darwin award in the other).
In photographs, the Martin Jetpack made my stomach drop. Even compared to other jetpacks, it is huge, with garbage-can-sized, turbines.
At the launch strip, it was unceremoniously unloaded from a Ryder truck—not exactly the invention's most glorious photo op, but the delivery was a nod to its humble surroundings. Standing in front of the device among the crowds, it didn't scare me so much. This jetpack didn't look like the garage-born contraption I'd thought it to be (and to some extent it actually is) but a glossy, hi-tech device that was crudely slapped with a "sold" sticker teasing its US$100,000 price tag.
Martin's "jetpack" is technically misnamed. The two high-speed fans on the pack's rear have no internal combustion and fire nothing but room temperature air at the ground. Meanwhile, it was the 200HP engine that looked like it wanted to crack free of its pretty housing, barely visible from under the surface, a bucking mustang pulling a buggy.
Waiting for my chance to ride, I'd picked up some of the individual pack components on display in the Martin booth. It quickly became apparent that nearly the entirety of the pack's 113kg weight was saved for its motor. Huge chunks of the paneling were unnervingly light—almost weightless, really. A mixture of carbon fibre and Kevlar, one hollow piece felt like the water tank from a military-grade Super Soaker. I wondered if it would support my weight should I stand on it. I never tried, but I bet it could have at least put up a good fight.
After giving the Martin Jetpack a visual inspection and a solid grope, I was feeling pretty confident about my flight, despite Martin's admission to a few testing "incidents" during the pack's 20+ years of development.
We prepped for launch in the ultralight area of the festival, far from the crowds in case anything bad should happen. Unlike the ultra-chic grounds showcasing personal jets and the less-ostentatious (but probably equally rich) vintage plane camp, we were among relative blue collars flying little more than motorised kites, lighting their charcoal barbecues on rusty porta-grills after landing.
On any other day, the grass runway could have doubled as a pick-up football field.
After dressing in an undersized flight suit that I was warned to keep black, not red or yellow, I made my slow-mo trek to the pack. The sun was setting as a soft breeze rippled the grass like waves on the ocean. It really wouldn't be the worst place to die by fuel explosion or propeller decapitation, but I would have liked more witnesses and maybe a cooler jumpsuit.
Then it was time to mount up. The pack's design is a bit odd in that it appears to have a seat, but there's nothing really holding your butt in. Instead, a body harness straps you to the machine á la parachute so tightly that you simultaneously half-sit and half-stand. The only thing supporting the majority of the pilot's weight is the jetpack itself, which has well-balanced built-in support legs. "It's uncomfortable now, but you won't notice in the air," an engineer assured me, referring to a set of straps quickly invading my crotch. He could tell I didn't believe him, but to his credit, he ended up being right.
Your arms rest on half-cylinders like you'd see in arm crutches, evoking fleeting images of me as a paraplegic. Especially as I was getting a feel for the throttle/pitch and tilt dual joysticks, my forearms felt twisted in a different direction than my hands. To crank the throttle 100%, it required an uncomfortable wrist rotation.
From within the cockpit, I noticed the jetpack's display for the first time. Resting around waist-high, I immediately realised that it was too low to ever use while flying. They hinted that a helmet-based HUD was in the works, but then they handed me some basic headgear. Putting it on made me think of the possibilities of crashing, and yet, I still had no clue how to fly this thing with strange uncomfortable controls that looked nothing like my Xbox controller and controller gauges that were out of my field of vision. They barely prepped me with any directions on how to fly her, and yet, I was about to.
The helmet censored my peripheral vision and as it steamed up, the smudgy plastic visor blurred what little vision I had left, like someone had conveniently smeared a jar of Vasoline over the most critical sense for flight.
I flipped on the engine. I could not smell the exhaust or feel its vibration.
But I could hear it, groaning like a dirt bike that had just hit puberty. One thumbs up. Two thumbs up. Glenn Martin placed his hand over mine on the throttle and gave me a nod. I was suddenly very, very comforted that I was being babied so much, that the jetpack's inventor would intercede if I laid down too much testosterone.
My survival instinct kicked in a bit harder: What if I shot 100 feet in the sky? What if the pack flipped me headfirst into the ground? What if the pack flipped me headfirst into the ground and then pounded my head repeatedly into the dirt? What if it just exploded?
With all these completely rational fears filling my head, I twisted the stick. Maybe it's because while my senses are muffled, and my body is strapped to this contraption, the throttle is the one thing I still have control over.
The engine responds by flattening every blade of grass in a 10-foot radius and humming intently.
For a second, I wonder if I am giving it enough gas. And then I can't feel the ground.
I am flying.
I rise about a yard and instinctively kick back the throttle. The system responds just as I expect—somehow I cut the gas just the right amount to hover perfectly.
And then I "stand still" in the air, dumbfounded, not sure what to do and not necessarily wanting to do anything else. There are a lot of people taking pictures, but instead of feeling glamorous I reach my confused feet for the ground like an overgrown baby.
The sensation is not as I'd expected. I don't feel pulled up, but it isn't weightlessness either. I simply rise.
That detachment is frightening. I was told by one engineer that he flew by feel, but right now I can't feel a damn thing. Pitch, roll, yew—or was it yaw—who knew?
I have an impulse to cut the throttle and bring her down, but remember that a small squadron of experienced engineers were there just to prevent me from breaking myself (or their only working prototype). I am safe, I am safe, I am safe, I tell myself repeatedly. My left hand jams the gas and without the feel of any obvious guiding propulsion, I move forward.
Dust and grass flies everywhere. Nearby gawkers have their clothing pushed tightly to their skin and they shield their faces. For about 6 metres, I glide over a perfectly smooth invisible track. I am the eye of the hurricane, the calm and the storm! And before I know it, I am rapidly heading for a line of cameras bordering the flight area. Chopping the throttle ended the flight. The landing was softer than I'd have thought, with none of the pack's weight burdening my spine or legs, although that could have been a lot different had I cut the gas from the rated 400 feet of altitude.
And as cliché as it may be, the flight felt like a lifetime. Total actual time free from the tyranny of gravity: about 15 seconds.
Giddy, I can only nod "yes" to onlookers as the engine went silent, the only motion I feel coming from adrenaline jitters.
I want to do it again.
With a basic understanding of the machine, I imagine all the things I can do better the second time around, like turning, going higher, and making a more confident landing for the crowd. It really is a nice machine.
But as someone somewhere once said, the first one's free; the second will cost you. And there were no more rides to be had with the US$100k jetpack until I bought one.
Coming down from the high over the next several hours, I replayed the event a hundred of times in my head. Because as pitiful as I looked fumbling just a few feet over the ground, the act was flying and it was as remarkable as all geeks imagine it.
At one point I guess that Martin hadn't exaggerated the pack's ability to cruise at a 300-400 foot altitude. The pack's engine had a lot of power left in it. And even though I didn't make a note during the test, I bet that I didn't even top 3000 RPM during my launch. My test flight was the equivalent of driving a Ferrari on a school day when children are present.
The other sadder, inevitable point that I realised is that despite what you may have heard about the "world's first practical jetpack," it's not for the masses, even if it cost much less.
It's practical in that it's the first jetpack that can be flown for over a minute (half an hour, actually) and it runs on unleaded fuel. But the controls require true expertise and intense focus—this isn't the Segway of the sky. I'd bet that you'd need at least the mandatory 15 hours of flight school to feel comfortable flying alone. And to go higher into the air, you'd probably want plenty of 10-foot field-testing first.
But that's not to say the jetpack is not great. To borrow a line from Ferris Bueller: "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." And many ultralight enthusiasts probably will.
Though maybe even more importantly, it's a triumph of the inventor in days when software programs design our next wave of processors. In an era when the future brings ethereal promises of microscopic transistors and invisible wireless data, the Martin Jetpack is a glorious homage to the mechanical and a reminder that engineers still have a lot of tinkering left to do—much of it with actual engines.