The flying Swissman

Ernoult-Breitling SA 4

With his self-invented jet engine powered wings, Jetman has crossed the English Channel, flown over the Grand Canyon, soared through the skies of Rio de Janeiro and circled around Mount Fuji.

On a perfect afternoon in August 2018, somewhere in the skies above Spain, Jetman was reaching the end of a perfectly controlled jet flight. At an altitude of 1,500m, he pushed the throttle down to slow the four jet engines under his carbon-fibre wings and left them idling to slowly cool down. He opened his parachute which deployed normally. Then, as usual, he slipped the small throttle control lever into the sleeve of his suit. However, when he lifted his arms to grasp the parachute handles, the elastic band of his sleeve got caught up in the control lever. All four jet engines restarted at full power. Jetman got projected upwards into his parachute and the hangers got entangled around the wings, making it impossible to eject his harness. Caught up in the canvas, he thought there was nothing more he could do.

The extraordinary story of Yves Rossy aka Jetman started like that of millions of children. Fascinated by everything that flies, he was passionate about airplanes and especially about military jets. In 1972, his father who had dreamt about becoming a pilot, but had to choose a safer career, took him to an air display by the Patrouille Suisse. As the Hawker Hunter MK 58 soared through the skies above the boy before disappearing behind the mountains only seconds later, the thirteen-year-old Yves Rossy became overwhelmed by emotion. “It was so beautiful and powerful! I discovered a three-dimensional world and that we could go high up.” There and then he decided “I will be a jet pilot”.

His passion gave him wings. He learnt to become a mechanic after graduating from technical high school. When he enrolled in the military, he managed to get selected into the top 1% candidates to enter the Swiss Air Force pilot school. A certified pilot at 21, he became a military pilot and started by taking control of Pilatus P-2 and PC-7 propeller-driven aircraft.

Yves Rossy

He then started flying jets: first the de Havilland Vampire and Venom. Then he learnt to fly the Hawker Hunter, the ones he got ecstatic about at thirteen and which he has carried on flying all his life. Finally, he discovered the Northrop F-5 Tiger and the Dassault Mirage III, his favourite jet, with which he has accomplished over 1000 flight hours. These were decisive experiences: “These aircraft are very demanding for the pilot. Without sophisticated electronics nor flight control assistance, you learn to become responsible for your life.”

Since Switzerland has a militia army, Yves Rossy started a parallel career as a commercial airline pilot. “I used to fly Boeing 747. I would fly to Bombay, then 2 or 3 days in Hong Kong, then back to Zurich. I flew across the world, had afternoon tea in one country and supper in another.” However, he ended up getting bored with this luxury routine. “I needed to create something. As a mechanic, I have always loved to see a piece of rusty metal turn into something functional, such as an aircraft component.” In his free time, he enjoyed hang-gliding. He later discovered free fall: a new revelation. When a child plays “airplane” he opens his arms like wings and runs leaning from side to side. He doesn’t control any aircraft, he IS the aircraft. This is how Yves Rossy wanted to fly. “I had tried all the existing solutions to fly, but I was frustrated, because there were controls to be operated and it was the machine that would carry me. What I really wanted was to manoeuvre my body, like a child, like a bird. Like in a dream.

Free fall enables him to sail by using air resistance on his hands and to move forward with his own body, like he wanted. “Pure flight at last! I got closer to my dreams. However, even if you get the impression of flying, you are actually falling and it’s very short.” Jetman was about to be born. He tried skysurfing at first, but “standing on a wing, which is totally unnatural” didn’t give him the ultimate flying sensation he was looking for.

He realised that he had to invent the solution for himself and develop a harness that would enable him to fix himself under the wing. “I’ve tried various wings since the early nineties and they worked out better and better. I jumped from an airplane and flew with my body, like a bird!” In 1999 he designed an inflatable wing which made it possible to spend more time in the air. “But in order to move further, I needed to be propelled by something.

Soon enough, Yves Rossy discovered scale model jet engines. He first fitted two of them onto his new lightweight and resistant carbon fibre wing and managed to fly horizontally. 

He then started using four much more powerful target drone engines and his performance grew immensely! A tank full of kerosene enabled him to fly for ten minutes and to soar as high up as 5,000 metres at a speed of 350km per hour. His wings are ejectable and fitted with its own parachute to enable it to land safely.

In 2008, he became famous after crossing the English Channel, a classic feat of aviation pioneers. In the following years, his equipment kept evolving. For the airdrop, the plane was replaced by a helicopter. His invention is simple: four jet engines under a pair of carbon fibre wings, but original and safe, since no accident has happened in over twenty years.However, in this mid-August afternoon, in the skies above Spain, things didn’t happen as planned. In a fraction of a second, Jetman understood that he could do nothing but wait for the fall to end. This was when a parachute cord got drawn in by one of the engines and blocked it, which resulted in the automatic stop of the opposite engine. This made Yves Rossy, suspended from the parachute, start whirling down. Two of the engines still being active, he was spun at high speed. At this point, his hand got hold of the ejection handle. By reflex, he pulled it and the harness and wing passed miraculously between the hangers. Even the wing parachute opened normally. Out of pure luck, this wasn’t going to be Jetman’s last flight. The whole episode took less than 7 seconds.

Today, Yves Rossy has thought over all his procedures and developed his activities. He has been training other “Jetmen” and has been trying to transmit the essence of what has made him hold on: “The eagerness to use time, which is the luxury of modern man and technology, another luxury, to do great things. To make dreams come true”. He also passes on what he learnt from his recent experience: “For the first time since I have been flying, I survived only by chance. As it happens, I was going through difficult times and this small obscure spot in my mind almost killed me. Never forget that man was not made to fly. This is a wonderful success story, but also an act of folly. Whenever we have a doubt or a problem in life, we must not go out until we are back to normal.” His new challenge is not to go up higher, nor faster. He has been working on ground-launched flight with his apprentices and he is developing new equipment, fully packed with LEMO connectors, to improve safety and radio communication between flying men. Now it should become possible to take off and land alone, without the help of a helicopter and without a parachute to land. Only then will Jetman fully make his dream come true