Heights of male fantasy

Whether it's a jet-pack or hover boots, the appeal of strapping on a flying machine goes far beyond cutting down on commuting time, says John Walsh
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The Independent Online

Did you feel a tiny twinge of frustration at the news about the Jetpod? The papers have been running stories about a flying taxi designed by the Avcen company - a super-car that can take off and land on a strip of ground not much bigger than your garden, fly at 350mph and whizz you from central London to Heathrow in 15 minutes. They'll be everywhere in five years or so. Marvellous, marvellous, we agreed; how terribly futuristic, what a great step forward.

Did you feel a tiny twinge of frustration at the news about the Jetpod? The papers have been running stories about a flying taxi designed by the Avcen company - a super-car that can take off and land on a strip of ground not much bigger than your garden, fly at 350mph and whizz you from central London to Heathrow in 15 minutes. They'll be everywhere in five years or so. Marvellous, marvellous, we agreed; how terribly futuristic, what a great step forward.

But I was surely not alone in feeling short-changed - as if someone came up with a triumphant cure for an illness I didn't have. Because the Jetpod has a major failing; it isn't a jet-pack.

Ah, the jet-pack - every Sixties schoolboy's third-favourite fantasy, after being Mick Jagger singing "Honky Tonk Woman" and taking Brigitte Bardot for a drink. It was the zenith of male escapism in the days when space technology made everything seem possible. It was just a matter of time before we'd all have a rucksack-shaped object you strap on and - as an army of bullies, swots and beaks came racing across the playground - you press the ignition button, just over your third rib, and a jet of flame would scorch the tarmac in a splash of orange and red and lift you 200 feet in the air, off to a place of safety where a pouty French actress waited with a pint of shandy and a chicken sandwich.

It combined so many things, the jet-pack fantasy: you were a lone flyer, a cool sky-diver and a giant firework. After countless dull hours sitting in cars or gazing out the windows of aircraft, you were travelling on the outside, as it were; surfing the elements. You couldn't fly, like Superman, but it was infinitely cooler that you were an ordinary guy whizzing through the air. You wanted to look like the smiling Sean Connery on the poster art for Thunderball (the perfect visual reference for jet-pack dreamers), unflappable as his twin-rocket pack blasted him out of trouble and his confounded enemies stared up at the sky.

The jet-pack has been around for decades, thanks to Buck Rogers, the great space hero invented in 1928 in Amazing Stories by Philip Francis Nowlan. Buck was a very modern hero, saviour of the universe in the 25th century, yet was earthbound without his trusty jet-pack. The potency of its appeal over time can be gauged from the fact that Tom Cruise in Minority Report (2002), where he plays a futuristic cop arresting people for crimes they have yet to commit, takes to the air in a jet-pack, blasting away with his sonic cannon. Over the past 70 years, they have turned up all over the place: from comics shows on TV to movies. Remember the creepy foreign agent Dr Zachary Smith in Lost in Space? Jet-pack enthusiast. They also feature in the techno-armoury of The A-Team.

And if they haven't been seen on British TV for a while, they have a presence in the imagination of Paul Merton, the comedian, who often pulls them into the conversation on Have I Got News For You. Merton attended the same (Catholic) school as I did, so it's possible that jet-powered flight sticks in our heads as a quasi-religious image - a rapid version of the Virgin Mary's Ascension, perhaps - but I doubt it.

Escape with style is the central metaphor of the device. But just as important is the image of the solitary rider of the elements, who can arrive at any moment and depart when he feels like it. The passionate solitary is a romantic trope that dates back to the turn of the 19th century - think of the tiny human figure striking attitudes in a Caspar David Friedrich landscape - and the chap who coolly negotiates his way through air, water and fire earns our subliminal admiration.

One thinks of Toby Stephens as the villain in the Bond film Die Another Day. His first entrance is to fall out the sky over London, executing a perfect landing outside Buckingham Palace, sloughing off his parachute and striding forward to meet the media. And I admire the chutzpah of Chris Blackwell, the businessman and music mogul, who last year arranged to meet some journalists on a Jamaican beach. They arrived by bus, and assumed he'd come same mundane way. Instead, he arrived on jet-ski, whizzing it around the bay, parking it on the beach and removing his wetsuit to reveal his business clothes underneath.

How close are we to jet-pack reality? Amazing to relate, they've been around since the 1950s, mostly developed by military contractors, using a hydrogen peroxide-based rocket engine. There were even demonstration flights - flights that conclusively demonstrated two big snags. One, the devices could carry only enough fuel for a 30-second trip (up and down), which hardly offered much to escaping secret agents. Nothing could be more embarrassing than making a stylish, rocket-fuelled getaway, only to find oneself plummeting back to earth. Two, the noise was terrible. As the military wanted to fly troops surreptitiously behind enemy lines, the cacophonous roar of the jet-pack made it a non-starter.

Commercial scientific companies persevered, though. In 1961, Bell Aerosystems of the US invented the "rocket-belt", with financial support from the military, and flew it just once for an audience that included President Kennedy. Tragically, the army weren't impressed and dropped it.

More recently, Trek Aerospace has experimented with a compromise device called a "backpack aircraft" and christened the SoloTrek. It looks like a personalised helicopter with two large rotating-duct propellers hanging above the rider to pull him into the sky rather than blasting him up there. It's claimed that the SoloTrek can fly for 130 miles at 80mph - but as the company's funding from the Pentagon has dried up, you won't be seeing them in the skies over Piccadilly for a while.

The company say they're convinced backpack aircraft will be common "by the year 2012". And if you're talking of flying cars, well, the future is much rosier. Flying taxis, flying saloons and hatchbacks and flying hot-rods will be everywhere. Nasa has diverted some of its research to flying-car exploration. And, as one of their analysts boldly declared: "You could say our goal is to make the second car in every driveway a personal air vehicle."

Which is to miss the point spectacularly. The apex of male fantasy is not to have another metal box with four wheels, inside which to corral his spouse and children for an hour's airborne squabbling and map-reading. Good God, no. The apex of male fantasy is to leave all that behind, to blast oneself away from the mundanity of the world, and to zoom into the atmosphere unencumbered by anything but a smirk and a tuxedo.

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