‘We’re going to the stars’ says jetpack pilot

Iron man: Browning spent six years in the Royal Marines reserves before pursuing flying.

Are jetpacks the future of commuting? As a maverick inventor’s homemade jet suit is tested by mountain rescue teams, some wonder if the world is entering a new era of personal flight.

On a gloomy November day at the British seaside, the crowd on the beach was staring at the sky in amazement.

Above them, a figure was hovering precariously over the waves. Clad in a jet black helmet and scarlet webbed trousers, he soared through the cold air like a flying squirrel.

There was only one difference: as he flew above the choppy water, bursts of orange sparks flared from his feet.

The man in the suit was an unlikely superhero: Richard Browning is 41 and a father of two. He comes from Salisbury – a sleepy city in southern England.

But last year, the ultramarathon runner set a world speed record by flying in a jet suit alongside Brighton Pier at more than 85mph.

His journey began four years ago, when he bought two jet engines on the internet and strapped one to each of his arms. For most people, it would have been a moment of madness, but for Browning, it felt like he was fulfilling his destiny.

The son of an aeronautical engineer and the grandson of a wartime pilot, as a child he made gliders with his father and launched them from a nearby hilltop. Flying runs in his family, jet fuel through his veins.

His first attempt at flight was not an immediate success: he fell over, a lot. But over the next months, flying became an obsession. Everyday, he would wake up at 1am and work for several hours on the jet suit in a spare bedroom before setting off to work as an oil trader in London.

Then, in November 2016, in a farmyard near his home, Browning finally achieved lift-off. “It is the most joyous, free, kind-of-dreamlike state”, he told reporters.

The rest is history. He named the jetpack Daedalus and in 2017 founded a company to pioneer a “new era in human flight”.

Today, Gravity Industries is worth millions of dollars. They hold displays across the globe, are setting up a Formula 1 style race, and for just £6,000 will teach wealthy customers to take off themselves, on the condition that they remain firmly tethered to the ground at all times.

Browning believes that the state of turmoil throughout the world – from Brexit to Donald Trump to coronavirus – may be accelerating demand. Jetpacks are about “the metaphor of breaking free, being weightless and unbound, going for the skies and for the stars”, he says.

Yet while the driving force behind his jetpack is simply entertainment, Browning also believes that the technology could one day revolutionise the way we live our lives.

Indeed, Gravity Industries is already in talks with the US and UK armies who want to use jetpacks to carry equipment into battle.

And jet suit paramedics could soon be zooming over the Lake District, after a trial in September showed that flying doctors were able to scale Helvellyn, England’s third highest mountain, in just eight minutes.

Other inventors, meanwhile, are setting their sights firmly on personal travel. Last year, Frenchman Franky Zapata crossed the English Channel on a hoverboard in only 22 minutes - smashing the record of any ferry.

So, are jetpacks the future of commuting?

Flying high

Yes, say some. When the car was invented, critics thought it was noisy and dangerous - and vastly inferior to the horse. Swap the jet fuel for batteries, add airbags and a height limit, and Browning believes that one day personal flight could be the equivalent of a bicycle ride. And his French counterpart Zapata is putting a simplified version of the jetpack – with handlebars – on sale in 2021.

No, say others. It will be many years before jetpacks cross over to real life from the realm of science fiction. Browning’s suits may be on sale in Selfridges for the small sum of £340,000, but for the vast majority of people, jetpacks are simply out of reach. The focus for now should be on how jet technology could help organisations like the ambulance service, not on commuting.

You Decide

  1. Is humanity too reliant on cars?
  2. How would jetpacks change the way we live?

Activities

  1. Draw a picture of Richard Browning flying his jetpack over the sea in Brighton.
  2. Imagine that you are the first person to commute to school using a jetpack. Write a diary entry describing the experience.

Some People Say...

“Man must rise above the Earth - to the top of the atmosphere and beyond - for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”

Socrates (circa 470 BCE - 399 BCE), ancient Greek philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that modern technologies, such as smartphones, are making people more impatient. A 2019 survey found that British people become restless after waiting just 25 seconds for a traffic light to change and 16 seconds for a web page to load. Throughout the 20th century, companies pushed for ever faster travel options for impatient customers – when supersonic plane Concorde was in operation, it was possible to cross the Atlantic in less than three hours.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether being able to get to places faster than ever before is actually a good thing. In recent years, slow travel has become a growing trend. It is part of the Slow Movement, which aims to reverse “time poverty” by encouraging people to slow down and make more connections with people, places and things. The movement began in Italy with the slow food movement, which emphasised traditional food making in response to the emergence of fast food chains in the 1980s.

Word Watch

Flying squirrel
These creatures are not capable of flight in the same way as birds or bats, but are able to glide from one tree to another with the aid of a patagium, a furry, parachute-like membrane that stretches from wrist to ankle.
World speed record
Browning set the Guinness World Record for the fastest speeds achieved in a jet suit. He more than doubled his own record of 32mph.
Daedalus
In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a craftsman who invented the labyrinth and he was also the father of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.
Gravity Industries
The company has attracted investors from Silicon Valley and is sponsored by UPS, the American delivery company.
Formula 1
A series of car races at speeds of up to 200mph which take place all over the world. The first jetpack race, which will take place over water, was scheduled to take place in Bermuda in March, but was postponed by the pandemic.
Franky Zapata
The French inventor crossed the Channel on his second attempt. He is also working on a prototype of a jet powered flying car.
Selfridges
A chain of high-end British department stores. The London branch is the second largest shop in the UK and opened in 1909.

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