Eric Hagerman reports on a revolutionary Channel crossing
The warm autumn sun has burned a hole in the morning haze and opened up the sky above the South Foreland Lighthouse, a historic beacon along the White Cliffs of Dover, England. It marks the narrowest point of the English Channel. You can't quite make out where the sea meets the coast of France, a tantalizing 22 miles distant, but a little surface gauze won't interfere with what's coming across the Channel today. In anticipation, I'm penned into a viewing platform at the base of the monument with some 100 other journalists, scanning the spotless blue for "Jet Man," a Swiss pilot and amateur aeronautical engineer named Yves Rossy who intends to show the world what it means to come as humanly close as possible to flying like a bird.
A few minutes ago, we're told, Rossy jumped out of a plane 6,600 feet above Cap Gris Nez, on the French side, unfolded the composite wing on his back to its full 8-foot-2-inch span, and hit the thrusters. Assisted by four model-size jet engines and a slight tailwind, he should be screaming toward us at 134 mph, about a mile above the Channel. "It's quite exciting to have half the world's media here," says a local television reporter. She exaggerates, though it's true that this spectacle is being broadcast live to 164 countries by the National Geographic Channel.
Rossy's plan is to parachute onto a tongue of manicured turf at the cliff's edge just in front us, thus demonstrating the reliability and future potential of his winged flying contraption. But after two days of aborted missions, and little to do in the grim port town of Dover except contemplate the worst, pessimism is starting to set in. Rossy's homemade wing is reportedly unstable, his fuel supply is largely untested at this distance, and if a flat spin or an empty tank forces him to ditch the wing, he'll plunk down in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, possibly tangling in his chute, possibly drowning.
"He's completely nuts, isn't he?" exclaims one reporter. "I mean, he hasn't practiced much, has he?" A photographer chips in: "As someone was saying earlier, most people who break records and keep at it, die."
The first sign of Rossy comes when several escort planes and helicopters reach the cliffs, but they're much larger craft than he is. I hear the whine of his turbines before he becomes visible.
"Oh, it's such a speck!" someone shouts.
"Do you see him?"
Then a burst of bright green and blue blossoms in the sky, and people cheer at the sight of Rossy's chute.
"This modern-day Buzz Lightyear has done it!" a baggy-suited TV reporter bleats at his camera.
Rossy's trajectory is clearly overshooting the staging area, and one by one, reporters and onlookers scramble over fences and around barricades, at first trotting and then running through the freshly tilled field toward where he's closing in on his shadow. The Jet Man, under the weight of his wing, spraddles out on all fours in a poof of dust and straw. A line of panting security guards hold off the gathering crowd as Rossy's crew help him out of the wing, but when they lock arms around him to escort him to the lighthouse, the photographers pounce, climbing over one another like spawning salmon.
"Yves! Yves! Just here, please!" pleads one photographer.
"Go back. Go back, please. Go back," says the tallest of the guards, bulling the scrum forward. "Keep walking, please, that's it. Thank you."
"Bravo for the Jet Man!" an onlooker cheers. "Well done, well done!"
Once his handlers contain the media mob, Rossy saunters out from the lighthouse and, very casually, says, "Hello, everybody." Then he spends two hours working his way down a barricade, speaking in English, French and German. Up close, he hardly looks the part of the death-defying super-dude, just descended from the skies like some comic-book hero. He's bald with gray sidewalls befitting his 49 years, and downright scrawny. His fireproof Nomex flight suit drapes from his shoulders like a Gumby costume on a wooden hanger. Reading glasses hang around his neck, and he listens with his hands folded in front of him, studying each reporter intently with his narrow-set, clear blue eyes.
He smiles and repeats himself, because we keep asking the same questions, and his reasoned responses don't sound like the words of a wingnut. "I am just a normal man," he says, speaking in French-accented English, "who has realized his dream to fly a little bit like a bird."single page
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