BEX, Switzerland – A Swiss pilot strapped on a jet-powered wing and leaped from a plane Wednesday for the first public demonstration of the homemade device, turning figure eights and soaring high above the Alps.
Yves Rossy’s performance in front of the world press capped five years of training and many more years of dreaming.
“This flight was absolutely excellent,” the former fighter pilot and extreme sports enthusiast said after touching down on an airfield near the eastern shore of Lake Geneva.
Rossy, 48, had stepped out of the Swiss-built Pilatus Porter aircraft at 7,500 feet and unfolded the rigid eight-foot wings strapped to his back before jumping.
Passing from free fall to a gentle glide, Rossy then triggered four jet turbines and accelerated to 186 miles per hour, about 65 miles per hour faster than the typical falling skydiver. A plane that flew at some distance beside him measured his speed.
The crowd on the mountaintop below gasped and cheered.
Rossy’s mother, who was among the spectators, told journalists she felt no fear.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Paule Rossy said of her son, who now flies commercial planes for Swiss airlines.
Steering with his body, Rossy dived, turned and soared again, performing what appeared to be effortless loops from one side of the Rhone valley to the other. At times he rose 2,600 feet before descending again.
After one last wave to the crowd the rocket man tipped his wings, flipped onto his back and leveled out again, executing a perfect 360-degree roll.
“That was to impress the girls,” he later admitted.
Rossy said after Wednesday’s five-minute flight, he is ready now for a bigger challenge: crossing the English Channel this year.
The stunt, which will be shown on live television, will test his flying machine to the limit. Rossy said he plans to practice the 22-mile trip by flying between two hot-air balloons.
“I still haven’t used the full potential,” he said.
Rossy told The Associated Press that one day he also hopes to fly through the Grand Canyon.
To do this, he will have to fit his wings with bigger, more powerful jets to allow for greater maneuverability. The German-built model aircraft engines he currently uses already provide 200 pounds of thrust, enough to allow Rossy and his 120-pound flying suit to climb through the air.
“Physically, it’s absolutely no stress,” Rossy said. “It’s like being on a motorbike.”
But on this ride, even the slightest movement can cause problems. Rossy said he has to focus hard on relaxing in the air, because “if you put tension on your body, you start to swing around.”
Should things go wrong — and Rossy says they have more times than not — there’s always a yellow handle to jettison the wings and unfold the parachute.
“I’ve had many ‘whoops’ moments,” he said. “My safety is altitude.”
Rossy wears a heat-resistant suit similar to that worn by firefighters and racing drivers, to protect him from the heat of the turbines. The cooling effect of the wind and high altitude also prevent him from getting too hot.
Rossy says his form of human flight will remain the reserve of very few for now. The price and effort involved are simply too enormous, he says.
So far Rossy and his sponsors, including the Swiss watch company Hublot, have poured more than $285,000 and countless hours of labor into building the device. He would not estimate how much his device would cost should it ever be brought to market.
But, he believes similar jet-powered wings will one day be more widely available to experienced parachutists ready for the ultimate flying experience.
That is, if they don’t mind missing out on the breathtaking panorama above the Swiss Alps.
“I am so concentrated, I don’t really enjoy the view,” Rossy said.