Eric Hagerman reports on a revolutionary Channel crossing
Yet there is a huge gulf between skydiving and jumping out of a plane with a glued-together chunk of pretty-sure-it's-going-to-work on your back, just as there's a difference between gliding and flying. "It's still a prototype, and it's not 100 percent reliable, eh?" Rossy says. "There is tension every time." And no moment is tenser than when Rossy is leaping from the plane. Once his crew has fired up the four turbines, he pokes one end of the wing out and staggers his feet on the step. He rocks several times like a downhill skier in the gatehouse and then falls away to the side, holding one hand up to counteract the pull on the protruding wing. He has to get himself arranged head-down before triggering the gas shocks to snap open the ends of the wing, and as he's searching for speed he gradually twists the motorcycle-grip throttle at his side. Then he arches his back a little and, if all goes well, he's climbing.
The timing is based on his perception of how strong the wind feels against his suit. If he guns it and the fuel doesn't reach the turbines at precisely the same millisecond, the control system would misinterpret it as an engine failure. In that case, parallel turbines would shut down to prevent a spin, a crucial failsafe JetCat added.
The biggest problem with his current wing is that it's slightly warped, such that when it stalls, it tacks violently into a rightward spin. It happens very fast, without warning, and the videos from his helmet camera are nauseating to watch. Stefan von Bergen, the engineer at Ruag Aerospace who ran the wind-tunnel tests, marveled that Rossy could control the wing at all, given that "it has no natural tendency to maintain a certain altitude." He says, "You can compare this to riding a wild horse." So now Rossy and his crew are building a newer, better version. Rossy wants something narrow enough to fit out the door of a Pilatus Porter, about six feet wide, so he can dispense with the weight and complication of the mechanism to unfold the wing. He's already gliding with a rough-hewn prototype to see how the shape handles, while Ruag models and simulates the aerodynamics.
The final version will probably carry a delta shape and compensate for the reduced lift of the smaller wings with more-powerful engines. JetCat is working on a pair of massive turbines with 154 pounds of thrust apiece (rather than four with 48 pounds), which means that if Rossy can bring the wing in at 308 pounds including his body weight, getting the wing down to a 1:1 power-to-weight ratio, at least on paper he'll be able to fly straight up, Superman-style.
Before he does that, he must develop a rocket-powered chute that can deploy safely at 600 rather than 2,600 feet. "Instead of three minutes without plan B, I will have about 15 seconds," he explains. "So I will be not worse than a one-engine plane at takeoff. And then the risk is OK to try."
His immediate goal is to perform aerobatics with the new wing in another public demonstration, perhaps as early as next year at the Grand Canyon, where spectators could watch from the rim as he flies at their level. It's difficult to see Rossy fly live otherwise, and the witnessing is important to him; he doesn't want fans so much as he wants believers.
Not only can humans fly, they can soar.
But I wonder how high he'll go. How close can he get to his ever-evolving dream without killing himself? Plenty of pioneers before him died trying to fly in one way or another, and surely the difference between them and him isn't merely strength of conviction. For all Rossy's assurances about backup plans, methodical testing and safety imperatives, sometimes the dream comes frighteningly close to snuffing out reality. He tells me about another of his close calls, this one in the lead-up to the Channel feat during a test flight in Empuriabrava, Spain. Again in a spin, he put his hands up next to his ears, a position that he'd discovered often solved the problem. Except this time it didn't. He was fast approaching his minimum altitude but didn't want to jettison the wing and risk damaging it, so he popped his chute with the turbines still running. Smoke and fumes billowed up under the canopy before he could kill the jets, disorienting him. He landed in a controlled crash with a 25mph tailwind. When he looked up, he saw that he was in a nature preserve: silent except for some rustling of leaves, a mare looking on and a few ducks gliding on a lake. "I'm coming down with my carbon-fiber, high-tech, four-engine thing, and I land on my knees in a perfect nature picture," Rossy says, laughing and shaking his head at the irony. "Who is wrong here? On the one hand, I realize I'm doing something totally unnatural. I know if I were a bird, I would have feathers. On the other hand, I'm human. And it's not only doing the wing, but it's a way for me to elevate personally, in the whole sense of the word. To create something, to discover something new."single page