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Ready To Fly: Jetman Dubai

22 November 2015

You might have seen a video recently. A crazy video of two men flying over Dubai alongside an Emirates A380. After picking your jaw up from the floor, you probably asked yourself a number of questions, the main one being: how is that possible? Here’s where you find out

Former fighter pilot and Guinness World Record-holder Yves Rossy is better known by a different name – and it’s one that could very well inspire the birth of a brand new Marvel comic-book superhero: Jetman.

Yet while Marvel characters like Iron Man are pure make-believe, Jetman really does walk – or rather, fly – among us. Strapped to a two-metre jet-powered carbon fibre wing weighing just 55 kilogrammes, and with only four tiny engines providing a few minutes of thrust, Swiss-born Rossy has been hurtling across our skies for some time now. With the bare minimum of equipment, and using only his body (rather than a rudder) to perform his trademark turns, loops and rolls, Jetman’s flights are about as close to the experience of a bird in the sky as is possible to get.

From zooming across the Grand Canyon, to whizzing around Dubai’s 828-metre Burj Khalifa, you may have already witnessed his awe-inspiring stunts on YouTube (often recorded in glorious 4K resolution, to jaw-dropping effect). But it’s his latest stunt that has the world captivated. Together with protégé Vince Reffet, who’s also a professional parachutist and base jumper, Rossy recently flew low over Dubai, in formation with an Emirates Airbus A380.

Carefully choreographed, the world’s largest passenger aircraft flew at 1,220 metres, before being joined by Rossy and Reffet, who were deployed from a nearby helicopter. The duo flew in formation on both sides of the aircraft, before meeting on one side to fly together, moving as close as just 20 metres from the plane, before flying away.

Reflecting on the experience, Rossy still can’t quite believe it happened. “It was absolutely surreal, flying alongside the biggest aircraft there is. We felt like we were mosquitos beside a gigantic eagle.”

Putting the world’s smallest jet-propelled aircraft right next to the world’s biggest was the exact goal of the stunt. Performed over the Palm Jumeirah, against the backdrop of Dubai’s skyline and the Burj Khalifa, the flight was the perfect showcase of how far aviation has come.

The stunt may have looked effortless on film, but it took weeks of painstaking planning, preparation and collaboration to ensure it succeeded. And there were some major potential issues to consider – not least of which was the safety of those on board each aircraft, and everyone on the ground. “The flight path took us only over the sea,” says Rossy, “so that in the unlikely event of anything going wrong, we would not endanger anyone below.”

The exact formation pattern was also carefully mapped, to avoid areas of wake turbulence and jet efflux from the plane. “The A380 is a 350 tonne bird. We weigh just 160kg,” says Rossy. “Obviously, the potentially huge amount of turbulence created by the plane was a big concern, and something we needed to address. So we consulted specialists in aerodynamics, and studied the A380’s condensation trails, to figure out which areas of the aircraft to avoid.”

Once up there, he was surprised by how stable he felt, flying faster than normal, and occasionally just metres away from the world’s largest passenger airliner. “The jetwing can go up to 330kmp/h, and the minimum speed of the A380 is 220kmp/h… so we flew at 135 knots, or 250km/hour – a speed achievable for all of us. Yet even flying faster than our usual speed of 210kmp/h, and next to such a gigantic aircraft, it was really very calm up there.”

‘Jetman Junior’ Vince Reffet was equally amazed. “The entire flight was amazingly smooth. There was no turbulence whatsoever. It was just beautiful, suddenly seeing this massive beast in front of us, and flying up alongside to meet it. Seeing it up close and personal like this, we now have even more respect for this incredible machine.”

Working alongside Reffet only made the stunt even more thrilling for Rossy. “Flying in formation with Vince, it’s impressive because you almost have a view of yourself, as you see your partner flying on the other side. It’s kind of like a mirror, and it adds an extra dimension to the experience.”

For Rossy, flying with this kind of jetwing had been a long-held dream. The former Swiss Air Force pilot had previously flown everything from sailplanes to fighter jets – but he’d always dreamed of finding a way to fly that put him more in touch with the elements, and with his surroundings. And so, back in 1993, he conjured up the idea to fly with a wing strapped to his back, beginning first with an inflatable wing and learning to glide, before eventually creating his first rigid carbon fibre Kevlar wing, incorporating two small engines.

His designs have evolved many times over the years, and he’s had as many failures as successes, crashing numerous times and destroying many of his creations in the process. Luckily, a parachute is an essential part of his design, and so if he gets into trouble, he’s able to jettison his apparatus (which also has its own parachute) and land safely.

Today, Rossy flies using a carbon fibre model that’s capable of both aerobatic manoeuvres, and also flying in formation – which happened first with the Breitling jet demonstration team, then a Douglas DC-3 – a British Spitfire – a Boeing B-17, and now, the biggest of them all, the A380.

Intrinsic in his design is the ability to manoeuvre using only subtle movements of the body, born of a desire to experience flying in its purest form. There’s no rudder, no wingflaps and definitely no seatbelt, and he uses his senses rather than complex instrumentation to navigate things like airspeed and pressure. In fact, the only instruments on board are an altimeter and a timer.

Exiting the helicopter, he usually does a backflip off the skid, launching himself into a freefall before flicking on the engines and plummeting nearly straight down for a while, to achieve the correct airspeed. Then he merely raises his head and arches his back to shift the airflow and level himself out. And from there, the real fun begins – whether it’s flying alongside a super-jumbo like the A380, or performing the kind of aerial acrobatics that would cause even a Red Arrow’s vapour trail to turn green with envy.

When his timer approaches the 10-minute mark, Rossy knows it’s time to open his parachute and begin his descent – though with the extra weight of kit on his back, it’s rarely a standing landing, and he instead comes down on feet, knees and hands. But it’s an experience that’s more than worth the risks.

“You know, we all sometimes dream that we’re flying, with just our bodies, nothing else surrounding us… and that’s what it’s like for us,” says Rossy. “Vince and I use our bodies to move around. It’s the same principle as with scuba diving, or skiing, where you change the balance of your body to make a turn. The wings and engines are just something to give us the possibility of staying longer in the air, but it’s not like flying a traditional plane. We’re not like pilots… we’re more like birds.”

This sense of freedom is something Rossy and his team are even now working to enhance. “We’re currently looking at technology that would allow us to start and end on the ground – much like with modern aircraft. Iron Man has a kind of fusion battery pack on his chest pack that allows him to take off from standing – and that’s what I want. Our biggest limitation is energy – and while kerosene works fine for short flights, it’s not going to work in this case.”

“My goal is to be completely autonomous and independent,” Rossy continues. “Ideally we would develop a battery that holds stock for days, rather than hours or minutes. But we’ll progress carefully, step by step, because life is so beautiful that we don’t want to lose it.”

It’s moments like his recent flight that bring home to Rossy how fortunate he is. “You have to pinch yourself to believe you are not dreaming. It’s magic, really. And creating magic is exactly why we do these kinds of stunts. We try to explore new possibilities, and to share them with other people – and I’m so grateful to everyone involved in the A380 flight for helping us make it happen.”

So what does it really feel like, to fly like a bird?

“For me, there’s nothing I can say to fully explain what it’s like to be up there. It feels good, that’s all I can tell you,” jokes Rossy, with characteristic understatement. “I’ve spent thousands of hours in airplanes – but this is the nearest thing to flying I’ve found – and it’s the purest experience of it I can imagine. I feel so lucky to be able to explore at the very limit of what is possible.”

Words: Matt Mostyn / Images: Bahr Al-Alum Karim

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