Yesterday was Ascension Day, the occasion on which the world’s Christians note the ascent of a back-from-the-dead Jesus Christ into Heaven. I thought it might be a good opportunity to look into the state of the modern jetpack, and where you might be able to get one.
Though the Gospel according to Mark makes little mention of a mechanically aided lift (other than a vague reference to “a mighty whooshing sound and the blessed fragrance of diesel”), it only stands to reason that He may have needed some powered assistance. It wasn’t until the Nazis strapped the Fieseler Fi 103 flying bomb to the back of an unfortunate “himmelsturmer” during World War II that modern technology made use of escaping gases that allowed a single user to fly.
Ever the practical race, the Germans weren’t really looking for a short-cut to the afterlife. They simply wanted a way their engineering units could cross minefields or barbed wire obstacles that didn’t involve training for the long jump. After the war, the technology fell into the hands of the U.S., where test pilots offered a gracious “thanks but no thanks” to the prospect of developing the concept further.
Although we’ve since seen jetpack demonstrations at spectacles like the Olympics and the 2005 confirmation hearings of chief justice John Roberts, most sources say the only current practical use of the machine is for astronauts doing extravehicular activity in space. A Mexican company reportedly offers a tested rocket belt package, though most who’ve seen the equipment call it more of a “backpack helicopter” (wonder how you say DUCK! in Spanish).
Jetpack deniers and their can’t-do attitude fortunately haven’t been heard in far-away New Zealand. There, a small firm called Martin Jetpack is currently taking orders for what it calls the world’s first practical personal aircraft. I’m visiting martinjetpack.com to learn more about this breakthrough for this week’s Website Review.
The home page for this domain is as sleek and futuristic as the six-foot-by-five-foot 535-pound device it offers. In other words, it’s a bit clunky. Clicking on the “See It Fly” video doesn’t do a lot to counter that first impression, as the short film of a guy wearing what looks like the rooftop HVAC unit at your office confirms. He’s flying just above the ground around a warehouse until the whole website freezes up about 45 seconds in. I only hope the same thing didn’t happen to the jetpack, or the pilot might have skinned his knee in a 3-foot plummet to earth.
The pulldowns across the top of the page focus more on the company itself than its product. We learn that this particular jetpack design was first developed in 1981 by company founder Glenn Martin, a pharmaceutical salesman who wanted to get even higher than his painkiller samples could take him. He and his family turned what was a garage-based obsession into their life’s work.
“I was Glenn’s first test pilot,” says wife Vanessa. “I used to run out to the garage, get strapped into the jetpack, test it, then rush back into the house to feed our seven-week-old son.”
That son is now 16-year-old Harrison, who also works with the family business. He tells how he was “never able to tell my friends what my father did,” supposedly because it was a secret project though more likely he was just embarrassed.
“My friends work in McDonald’s during the school holidays,” Harrison says. “I have a slightly more interesting job as a jetpack test pilot.”
What he probably neglects to note, however, is that instead of making $5.35 an hour, he’s paid in Band-Aids.
You can tell the Martin firm has evolved from those early days into a real company, because it now boasts a chief executive officer and a chairman of the board and everything. It appears most of the top leadership comes from a venture capital firm that has invested heavily in Martin. These bankers can focus on guiding the company through its start-up phase and ultimately bankrupting themselves and all their investors, freeing managing director Glenn to devote his energy and creative force into crashing actual hardware.
The company page also shows a number of consultants and advisors and designers who help with boring esoterica like avionics. Most of these men are bald, except for engineer Stuart Holdaway, whose missing photo hints that he may have been killed.
It’s the section of the home page titled “How Do I Buy One?” that draws most of my interest. Martin is “currently accepting enquiries (New Zealandish for inquiries) from commercial customers” and these can be placed through the website. “It is expected that early orders for sales to private individuals will commence late 2010 … We will contact you when pre-orders are being taken.” In other words, don’t hold your breath, unless you plan on flying one of these things over water.
A small “News and Press” page carries links to articles about test flights and demonstrations that have sort-of wowed the public. One reporter noted after his demo that it felt like “I was carrying a small sports car on my back,” perhaps not exactly the kind of press the firm might’ve hoped for but probably a realistic assessment.
It’s through a list of pulldowns on the left side of the home page that we get most of our information about the machinery itself. There’s a defensive diatribe titled “What Is a Jetpack?” that aims to address those who contend that a jetpack should weigh less than a quarter-ton and contain actual jets. A carefully parsed analysis of the words “what,” “is,” “a” and “jetpack” claims that there’s a disconnect between science, engineering and common usage, and that if you have a “very narrow view of what is a true jetpack,” then basically that’s your problem.
“In the end we found that 95% of people call it a jetpack when they see it, so why fight that?” they conclude.
In “How Do I Learn to Fly?” we see that a required training program will be included with the cost of the machine. You don’t have to have an FAA-recognized pilot’s license, just a really big helmet and some assistants wearing industrial-strength hearing protection. The safety overview notes that all flying entails a degree of risk and that aviation users from airline passengers to parachute jumpers must decide on the degree of danger they find acceptable for themselves. In the end, Martin claims the jetpack is safer than light helicopters because it has a “minimal avoidance curve” which, if you have to have an avoidance curve, is the kind to have.
Speaking of technical mumbo-jumbo, we see on a specifications page that the first model the company will sell has features like an engine, a fuel tank, a carbon fiber composite structure and, worrisomely, an energy-absorbing undercarriage. It has a range of just over 31 miles at a maximum speed of 63 m.p.h. You have to weigh less than 240 pounds to actually get off the ground, though the morbidly obese still might consider purchasing one to help them off the couch.
Finally, there’s a Frequently Asked Questions section. Doubts about stability of the aircraft seem to dominate, hinting again at its lack of authentic jetpackiness. There’s the kind of small but observable wobble you might expect from what are basically two really, really, really powerful fans, though with practice pilots can correct this. Asked “is it safe?” the responder notes the presence on the machine of a parachute, not exactly adequate for what would basically be like falling off a ladder. “How easy is it to fly?” Well, you have to know that “yaw” is more than a Southern greeting. “How do I buy one?” You’ll need to make a 10% deposit. “How much will they cost?” Probably about the same as a high-end car.
“Are we all going to be flying to work on these?” seems like the most obvious question. Martin officials say modestly “some people will use these for work” and I’m imagining how well they might perform for the landscapers at my office park who current use leafblowers and instead could be hovering above the ground. Martin admits that most people will still prefer “the comfort of a car” and that current air traffic control systems don’t lend themselves well to commuting. A “highways in the sky” GPS-based system of 3D roads is at least ten years away, more if scientists can’t figure out how to create potholes in them.
It’s really not that bad of a website; it’s just that the product it sells seems highly questionable. Since the people of New Zealand are often nicknamed “kiwis” after the chicken-sized flightless bird native to the islands, you’d think a company based there would take the hint, both about flightlessness and about the chicken part. But I guess the entrepreneurial spirit and long-held dreams about human flight make up for the difference.
Admittedly, it’s a major inconvenience to fly halfway around the world to train for and pick up your jetpack in early 2011, and I wouldn’t want to begin contemplating getting it through airport security and onto a plane for your return trip home. However, if you can find a string of atolls across the south Pacific that are less than 31 miles apart, and you don’t mind having the great whites and other large sharks of the region nipping at your heels as you fly just above the waves, perhaps you could just fly the Martin jetpack back to your home.