Eric Hagerman reports on a revolutionary Channel crossing
The Channel crossing may have seemed like the culmination of a dream, but the truth is, Rossy's vision is only beginning to unfold. He's been working on his wing for a decade, spending enough of his own money, he says, "to buy a very nice sports car every year," until the Swiss watch company Hublot signed on to sponsor him in February 2007. (Rossy refashioned himself as "Fusionman" in a nod to the company's marketing campaign.) That financial support launched him out of the garage and into a wind tunnel and allowed him to start paying real money to the loyal friends who had been helping him.
Now with momentum finally on his side, Rossy envisions a time -- maybe two years from now -- when he can not only launch straight up from the ground but also tame the wing enough that others can fly it too. Never mind the personal jetpack; Rossy aims to bring the personal jet wing to the masses, or at least to those with a fair amount of parachuting experience. Knowing full well that nobody else could handle his finicky prototype as it is, he and his team are developing a simpler model that should be less treacherous to maneuver -- "something for everybody," he says. Rossy speaks perfectly seriously about staging a human aerobatics air show for throngs of spectators.But few know their way around the clouds quite like Rossy. He flew fighter jets in the Swiss army and is now an Airbus captain for Swiss International Air Lines, and he has rich experience in skydiving, parapenting, hang gliding and skysurfing. Controlling the wing requires his entire suite of skills, and it's difficult to know whether his ambition to "share the dream" with the rest of us is rooted in optimism or delusion.
Rossy is less a pilot than a birdman when he's flying the wing, which is devoid of any steering apparatus: no toggles or stick to control the flight path. His body is the fuselage and the rudder. Arms at his side with one hand on the gas, he steers by turning his head or arching his back or dipping a foot ever so subtly. But what really sets Rossy apart from other winged stuntrepreneurs, such as the Austrian Felix Baumgartner, who glided across the Channel in 2003 with a rigid wing (no motors), is his ability to climb and gain altitude. Baumgartner had to begin from 30,000 feet up to preserve enough altitude to reach the other side. The goal of such daredevils has always been to slow the inevitable freefall as much as possible, cheating gravity enough to provide that sensation of flying. But there's a limit to how much a wing can improve glide ratio -- the distance you travel horizontally versus how much you drop -- unless you have four turbines churning out a combined 194 pounds of thrust mounted alongside you, like Rossy does. It's one thing to glide under a wing, slowly losing altitude; it's another, Rossy quickly discovered, to turn your face to the sun and power toward it.
His wing is a fiberglass shell wrapped around a carbon-fiber skeleton and stuffed with an electronic control unit, wires and two fiberglass tanks each holding 3.5 gallons of jet fuel. That's just enough to make the Channel crossing, at nine minutes and 32 seconds, his longest flight. (To get the extra volume, at first he tried to use the wing structure itself as a tank, but the fuel vapors ate through the foam in the shell's sandwich construction.) Fully fueled, the wing weighs 121 pounds. The turbines are modified versions of units used in model airplanes and military drones, specially designed by the German company JetCat to ignite at high altitude and sheathed in Kevlar to protect Rossy from shrapnel should one of them explode.
Besides the engines, every bit of the wing is custom-made, the mechanical parts by Rossy and the structure by his longtime friend and collaborator Alain Ray, who owns ACT Composites in Geneva, Switzerland. The trickiest design challenge was getting the wings to fold back. Rossy wanted something with enough wingspan to improve his glide, but it needed to fit through the door of a Pilatus Porter, a common jump plane preferred by skydivers. The result was a three-section wing with a composite middle that strapped on like a backpack, and inflatable wingtips. Eventually he and Ray built a fully composite, foldable model to support the jets.
"At the beginning, I was happy without engines," Rossy says. But then he flew level with two engines. After that, he added two more and rocketed upward at nearly 45 degrees. "You always want more -- that's human," he tells me, his voice cracking. "I would like to reach the full technical potential."
That will entail a lighter, more powerful wing that gives him the ability to swoop off the ground Superman-style and climb vertically. To hear Rossy, building it sounds entirely doable, a simple matter of going step by step. But he may have a hard time recruiting fellow birdmen who are both qualified and willing to make the leap. Bruno Brokken, for one, a skydiver of 28 years and a professional photographer who has worked with Rossy since the beginning, says no thanks. "Not with the jets burning just a few inches from your legs," Brokken says, laughing. "I've seen too many test flights where he was spinning on his back and I wasn't sure he could get out of it. I would rather take pictures."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.