"Jet Man" to Set Flight Record Over English Channel

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
September 24, 2008
Tomorrow Swiss pilot Yves Rossy, aka the Jet Man, is slated to attempt to rocket into the history books by becoming the first person to fly across the English Channel using a single, jet-propelled wing attached to his back.

On live television, Rossy will jump from a plane about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) above Calais, France, unfold his wing, fire up the jets, and attempt to cross the 20 miles (32 kilometers) over water to Dover, England (see map).

The machine should propel him at about 118 miles (190 kilometers) an hour, making it a 12- to 15-minute trip.

Failure is not an option, as the Channel is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, and Rossy's jet pack is not designed for landing on water.

"He will be wearing a fireproof flight suit [and] 120 pounds [54 kilograms] of wings, fuel, engines, and parachutes, so staying afloat for any length of time could be difficult," said Tom Benson, an aeronautical engineer at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

(Watch video of Rossy's debut flight over the Alps in May 2008.)

Rossy's support team is confident that he can carry out his Channel-hopping feat—but that likely won't stop them from biting their fingernails when he sets off.

"The first five seconds will probably define whether he is going to make it or not," said Markus Zipperer, an engineer with the German company JetCat, which helped build the machine.

"The biggest challenge for him is to get into a stable flying configuration once he has left the plane."

Fly Like a Bird

Like many other aviation enthusiasts before him, Rossy wanted to find a way for people to get as close as possible to flying like birds.

He started working on the project about 15 years ago, building prototypes in his garage. He first created an inflatable wing that enabled him to glide, but Rossy was really after powered flight.

With the help of JetCat and Swiss firm ACT Composites, Rossy built a prototype and began improving upon his jet-wing design.

A few weeks ago he carried out his longest flight yet, covering 22 miles (35 kilometers) in 12 minutes, but tomorrow's scheduled event will be the first time he will try to cross a major body of water.

The 49-year-old Swiss pilot will be following the route taken by Louis Blériot 99 years ago, when he became the first person to fly an airplane across the English Channel.

Although Blériot's route is the shortest, Rossy could be hampered by winds blowing from England toward France.

"With a trailing wind, he can fly farther across the surface than with no wind using the same amount of fuel," said NASA's Benson, who is not involved in the attempt.

"With a headwind, he will fly a shorter distance across the surface before exhausting his fuel. With a crosswind, he could be pushed off course, again making the crossing distance longer."

Already the weather has forced Rossy to delay his flight by a day, and the team has an additional three-day window of opportunity if unfavorable conditions persist.

"The best conditions are likely to be a calm, cold day when the air density is high. This will assist the wing and the jets to produce more thrust," said Glenn Martin, a jet pack inventor from Christchurch, New Zealand.

When the attempt happens, it will air live on the National Geographic Channel Web site. (The National Geographic Channel is part owned by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

Composite Craft

In the version of the craft Rossy will use for the Channel crossing, the wing has four jet engines linked by digital processing equipment.

"If one engine fails, the digital signal ensures that its opposite pair is shut down in half a millisecond," said JetCat's Zipperer.

"Otherwise his wing would go into a flat spin."

At 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) across, his turbines are much smaller than conventional jet engines, although they use the same type of fuel.

"We use very fast motors and have developed special parts to ensure that the jet fuel is vaporized and burned completely," Zipperer said.

The craft is constructed from three main materials: carbon fiber to provide a lightweight but strong wing, glass fiber to mold it into an aerodynamic shape, and Kevlar to protect Rossy should an engine explode.

"The turbines run at a very high revolution per minute. If there was a fracture, there is a danger that metal parts would leave the engine and hit Rossy," Zipperer said.

"The Kevlar encases the engines and acts like a bulletproof vest."

In flight, Rossy uses his shoulders, head, and arms to steer the wing.

To land he has to deploy a series of parachutes while at a height of at least 1,800 feet (550 meters).

The first parachute is a small one that reduces his speed. The next is a large one that stops him going forward and enables him and his wing to float safely to the ground. This dual parachute system prevents a sudden halt.

"On one of the previous prototypes Rossy used only one parachute," noted Alain Ray of ACT Composites. "Afterward he said, Never again."

In addition to good winds, Rossy needs ground visibility from 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) for the flight to be cleared.

He and his team are keeping a careful eye on the weather, and the flight will only go ahead if the winds and visibility requirements are suitable.

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