What kind of lunatic straps jet engines to his back and leaps out of an airplane? The kind of lunatic who may well deliver the personal flying machine of our dreams, that’s what kind. Eric Hagerman reports on a revolutionary Channel crossing
May 14, 2008: Yves Rossy soars skyward at 134 mph wearing a homemade jet-fueled wingsuit. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

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.”

Something for Everyone

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.”

Dying for More

Rossy lives north of Geneva in Nyon, within view of Lake Geneva, in a scruffy two-story stucco with Majorelle-blue shutters, no curtains and, on the day I visit, dandelions sprouting from the lawn. Inside, a stuffed eagle with spread wings perched on a speaker surveys the barren living room. His parachute, the same one that drew cheers when it opened above Dover a few days ago, lies strewn across the parquet floor. Among the sparse furniture, a painted pine bookshelf contains volumes on flying, mountaineering, philosophy and marriage counseling. Exit, a book of Brokken’s skydiving photos, is inscribed Merci, Yves, pour tous ces moments forts: Thanks for all those inspiring moments. The decor suggests that this is the home of a man otherwise occupied — and, as I would discover, it seems he has always been.

Rossy earned his pilot’s license before his driver’s license, and by the time he joined the Swiss Army flight school for his obligatory military training, he had 34 hours under his belt. He wasn’t the top pilot, but he proved his all-around excellence with the highest score in a test that included flying, shooting and physical drills and received a placard that he keeps with his first airline ticket. It reads Pret au Vol: Ready to Fly.

He’s been airborne ever since. Rossy has flown Northrop F-5 Tiger IIs and Hawker Hunters and logged more than 1,000 hours in the Dassault Mirage III. He’s flown commercial jets for 20 years and completed at least 1,400 skydiving jumps. In 1992 he took up skysurfing — freestyle snowboarding in the air — placing second in his division at the inaugural skysurfing world championships the following year. That’s when he met one of the sport’s icons, the Frenchman Patrick de Gayardon, who was experimenting with a winged skydiving suit introduced in the 1930s. De Gayardon’s design featured a double layer of nylon webbing between the arms and legs that stretched open like bat wings and filled with air like modern parachutes, allowing him to soar longer and farther than his predecessors. Rossy was inspired by the innovation but had his own ideas about how to stall freefall, and he designed a five-foot-wide board to surf on, something de Gayardon and others said was dangerous. In 1998 de Gayardon died while testing his wingsuit in Hawaii. Not two weeks later, Rossy dared to fly a prototype of his board for the first time.

The rig worked fine until he pulled the ripcord. Underpressure sucked his drag chute beneath the board about 5,000 feet up, preventing it from deploying the main chute. He reached back to unfurl it by hand, but the lines got tangled and his efforts to sort them out proved hopeless. Whirling like a tetherball in a sickening centrifuge, he ditched the board and cut away his main chute. Then he was freefalling again. He popped his reserve chute at 1,900 feet, about 12 seconds before impact. Maybe de Gayardon was right: Surfing a huge plank was too dangerous. But somehow the close call only galvanized him to find another approach. To Rossy it wasn’t an omen; it was a challenge. “I don’t know where it comes from, but I cannot stop,” he says.

He considered picking up where de Gayardon left off with wingsuit technology, but he thought he could do better. If he wanted to fly, he’d need real wings. Not the flimsy bat flaps that stretched from de Gayardon’s torso to his arms, but a solid structure that spanned out like the wings of an airplane. His first prototype, which he crafted from plywood and Styrofoam, extended his freefall by half a minute — enough to start him on a furious decade of designing, building, testing, breaking, and over again.

The truly crazy part? Through all the testing, he’s never been injured. Like any good pilot, Rossy is meticulous about safety. His first order of business was to build a cutaway harness that would make it easy to eject the wing, which he made out of seatbelts. Now his harness is a custom-molded, stiff plastic back brace that wraps around his ribs. Rossy designed it so that he can pull a cord to release the wing, which in turn automatically shuts down the jets and deploys a parachute. At least 20 times he’s gone into an uncontrollable spin and had to jettison the wing, hoping that its chute delivers his dream machine safely to the ground. He says he always has a plan B, and his best safety provision is altitude: He wears a helmet with an audible altimeter and knows that he has to open his chute by 2,600 feet.

Although Rossy has been spared physically, his quest has wrought other damage. He’s nearly lost his airline job, and did lose his marriage. “I was always thinking about my wing, aggressive when it didn’t work the way I wanted it to work, and she suffered for that,” Rossy says of his ex-wife. “To have all the ideas, from the concepts to the drawings to the flying, it’s the most gratifying thing I’ve done. It’s what I really profoundly want, and I had to ask this question during my divorce.”

Breaking Away from the Flock

How can an ordinary person understand such obsession? Is it really just a feeling? I’m not about to strap on Rossy’s wing to find out, but I want to taste the sensation that apparently is driving him. What, exactly, is he trying to share with the rest of us? I figured jumping out of a plane was a good place to start. So one day last September, I visited the aerodrome Yverdon, not far from Lake Neuchâtel. The runway is lined with poplars, and the members of the Para Club Valais were tending to their chutes, sprawling on colorful tarps nested on the lawn like birds in an Escher drawing.

Rossy pulled off some of his first jumps with the wing here. “We’ve followed his adventure from the beginning,” says Christian Landry, a soft-spoken tandem instructor, squinting into the afternoon sun. “With that type of guy, things become possible. I don’t know exactly in the future if he can bring something important for everybody with the technology, but only with people who live more than 100 percent can society go forward. In French we say, metro, boulot, dodo: subway, work, sleep. If all people are like this, we are like sheep and nothing comes better. And we need some people like Yves.”

Landry wears a Tintin T-shirt over a soft belly and has something of an aerodynamic face, with a pointy nose, shaved head and swept-back chin. He has the placid smile of someone who has made more than 5,000 jumps, and I’m disappointed to learn that he won’t be the one taking me up today. I realize it’s almost 5 p.m., and I start to wonder if it’s even going to happen — or if I want it to.

Then I’m shown a short video in French, climb into a jumpsuit, and make one last call home. I’m catching the last flight of the day on the last day of the season. A tall instructor snugs me into a harness and hands me off to another instructor who has just floated down. “My English is not very good, but it’s OK,” Dan assures me. He clips me to his chest, we waddle to the plane, and before I know it I’m squeezed onto his lap in the same kind of box-hulled Pilatus Porter that Rossy leaps from, huddled beside seven other skydivers, all young and experienced. As the plane spirals up, instead of slapping high-fives, they hunch forward conspiratorially and touch two fingers with one another. And then one of them jumps up, spins around, and flings open the door.

Cold wind and the roar of the propeller rush in, and the conspirators file out in ones and twos and threes, whooping as they take to the open air. Dan scooches us to the edge, where I gain a very realistic view of the patchwork of farmland below, dangling my legs out below the step. I’m uncomfortable. I feel like I’m slouching off the edge of a couch, except there’s nothing below me for a mile or so. Then, suddenly, we’re out. My breath is nowhere, and Dan cups his hand around my chin to wrench my head back into the proper position — arched spine, bent knees, arms out in front. It’s exactly the opposite of the fetal position, my instinctive posture. But then I breathe and look, and see the retreating sun glittering on the lake, the geometry of the cornfields and the velvety folds of the Jura Mountains. I have no sensation that Dan is behind me, and if I didn’t know better, I might think I was flying.

Dan pops our chute, we float down toward the poplars, and he brings us in for a whisper-soft landing on a cool patch of grass. An adrenaline-addled jumper named Stéphane Marmier, one of Rossy’s regular crew whom I’d met in Dover, bounds over with a big smile on his face, apparently mirroring my own. “Now do you understand?”

Yes. As soon as I land, I want to do it again.

Nowhere to Go But Up

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.”

A New Kind of Jetpack

Pilot Yves Rossy has one dream, and that’s to fly like a bird, or at least like a Boeing 737. The key to making it happen is this 121-pound jet-powered wing that he and his friends built from scratch. It holds 3.5 gallons of gas — enough to rocket Rossy through the air for 22 miles after he jumps from a plane at 6,600 feet. Should one of the wing’s four engines fail and send him into a tailspin (a fate that has befallen Rossy dozens of times), a cutaway harness ensures him a fast getaway when he ejects the wing. A future version of the flying machine, now under construction, will probably feature a more aerodynamic delta shape, along with more-powerful engines, to facilitate Superman-style takeoffs from the ground. Birds? Who needs birds?