Who needs Ryanair when you've got your own wings? This week, the dream of personal flight for all came a little closer to reality.
With a refreshing disregard for environmental apocalypse, the US aviation manufacturer Cirrus unveiled a seven-seater private jet that could fit quite happily into most garages in Chelsea. Meanwhile, somewhere above the Swiss Alps, 48-year-old Yves Rossy stepped out of a plane with only his three-metre carbon wings and four miniature jet turbines for company, and soared into history at 186mph.
It's been a long time coming. Even in a world without Superman, the first dream many of us would have when we go to sleep at night is one of flying. Cold War sci-fi serials promised that jet-packs were the future, and indeed one was invented, in 1961, by Wendell Bell of Bell Aerosystems Company, who gave it the uninspiring name, "Small Rocket Lift Device". By the time James Bond got his hands on one in 1965's Thunderball, it was commonly known as the jet-pack and had become a relatively popular money-burner for the rich and bored. The short flight time and the sky-high cost of fuel did for it as a mass-market vehicle.
The personal jet may, on the other hand, have a shot. You can fit the whole family in the back, making it a touch more eco-friendly than the jet-pack. The creatives at Cirrus used up all their imagination on the design and called it simply "the Jet". It needs a run of just 850 metres (about eight football fields) to get in the air, cruises at 350mph and can carry 2,000kg for more than 1,000 nautical miles without refuelling. Even if the thing sputters to a halt at 25,000ft (its optimum altitude), it is small and light enough to have its own emergency parachute tucked away in the carbon-fibre nosecone to soften the landing.
The Jet's interior, with its leather finish in shades of beige, looks like the inside of a Lamborghini, only with fewer fiddly bits. It requires only one person to fly it, and all the important in-flight dials and flashing lights are fed to the computerised monitor on the dashboard.
Cirrus says 150 people have already slapped down the necessary £50,000 deposit and are expecting delivery in around 2011. The price tag is a £500,000 – that's about five Lamborghinis, but less than the eight figures that some private jets would set you back. And besides, the company thinks it can bring the price down when production starts in earnest. Well, the same thing happened with iPods, didn't it?
Yves Rossy's contraption, on the other hand, is more of a hobbyist's toy. The Jetwing, weighing in at about 50kg, cost its inventor about £150,000 (making it somewhat less economical, per person, than Cirrus's seven-man Jet). Rossy has, at least, been enthusiastic about naming the device, calling it – or rather, calling himself – Fusion Man.
He's been in training for his maiden flight for almost five years, and he made the most of the big moment, rolling and twisting 8,000ft above the Swiss town of Bex for more than five minutes before coming in to land with the help of a parachute when his fuel ran out.
Rossy has long been obsessed with the notion of flying like a bird. A former fighter-pilot, he's made 1,200 parachute jumps. Aerial stunts that would turn grown men's legs to jelly are all in a day's work. In 2003, he was conducting unpowered test flights with his Jetwing (minus jets), gliding for up to eight miles and dropping just 1,000ft.
With his quartet of jet turbines, however, Rossy can climb as easily as a bird. He steers by shifting his body one way or the other. He plans to be able to take off and land using just the Jetwing, and his next self-generated challenge is to fly across the Channel.
There's something pure and childlike about the desire to fly. Unless you're one of those pervy invisibility types, it remains by far the most enviable superpower. But, while flying is a tantalising prospect, the threat of the skies becoming as jammed as a motorway junction is not. Perhaps we could all be weekend pilots, taking a quick turn above the town on a Sunday. At the very least, we could take the kids on holiday without the hassle of Heathrow. Of course, the environmental lobby might have something to say about it – but who ever listens to them?