To infinity... or just Dover?: Jetman crosses the English Channel

Daredevil Swiss pilot completes historic Channel crossing with home-made jetpack strapped to his back.

Andy McSmith
Saturday 27 September 2008 00:00 BST

After several days of waiting, "the bees in his body" – as he put it - finally told Yves Rossy that the weather was OK. And so, dressed like Buzz Lightyear in spacesuit and helmet, with a pair of light wings on his back, he boarded a plane, ascended to 8,200ft, set fire to the kerosene in four tanks attached to his wings, and launched himself to infinity and beyond.

Fifteen minutes later, he tumbled safely into a field above the white cliffs of Dover, making history as the first person to complete jet-propelled flight across the Channel without a plane.

With nothing to keep him airborne except those home-made fixed wings, Rossy was risking falling out of the sky like Icarus, and landing in the cold water amid the sea traffic in the world's busiest sea lane. In fact, when his parachute opened, it appeared that he was destined for a dip in the sea, but having reached a speed of around 125 mph, he had enough momentum to see him safely over the cliff top.

It felt "great, really great", he said, when he had disentangled himself from his parachute. "I only have one thing to say: thank you, to all the people who did it with me."

It is 99 years since Louis Blériot became the first person to fly across the Channel, claiming the £1,000 prize put up by the owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe, and five years since the Austrian, Felix Baumgartner, glided across with nothing but a carbon-fibre wing on his back. Baumgartner went southwards, from Dover to Calais, but Rossy, already in the record books as the first person to build and successfully fly with a jet-engine powered wing, followed Blériot's route from France to England.

Success came after two days of disappointment. Originally the flight had been scheduled for Wednesday, but was postponed because the weather forecast was bad. On Thursday, a horde of journalists, cameramen, security men, and staff from the National Geographic Channel, which sponsored Rossy's flight, crowded around a lighthouse on Dover cliffs. On the French side of the Channel, Rossy donned his Buzz Lightyear outfit, folded his wings, approached the waiting aircraft and announced to a camera crew: "I am ready – a little bit under tension – but I am ready."

In the Dover lighthouse, meanwhile, Rossy's trusted colleague Stéphane Marmier saw an ominous dark cloud in the distance. It was not that the great aviator was frightened of a spot of rain, but once he was airborne, the only instruments he has to steer by are his eyes. If there was cloud, he would not be able to see the white cliffs. If he could not see the cliffs, he would not be able to land safely.

The warning call from Stéphane made him hesitate. He contacted another adviser, a professional weather forecaster, who thought the cloud would probably clear. But as Rossy explained: "I listened to the little bees in my body, and they said no." He flew the Channel in a helicopter to explain the position to the disappointed crowd on the Dover cliff. "C'est un risk management," he explained. Luckily, the weather was perfect yesterday and the buzz from those same little bees was evidently all positive.

Rossy, who incidentally does not like being called Buzz Lightyear but would rather be called FusionMan, or Jetman, is 49. Born in Neuchatel, Swizerland, he is a trained engineer and pilot, and is due back at work on Monday, piloting a flight to Egypt for Swiss International. When he was younger, he was a fighter pilot.

The prototype for the wings on his back yesterday was first developed in the Ukraine, but Rossy has spent years perfecting it, bringing its weight down to about 120lb when the fuel tanks are full. The kerosene has to be lit while he is on board the aircraft, which is more dangerous than the flight itself. While he is airborne, his body is only centimetres from the flames. His suit and helmet have to be flameproof.

In flight, his only control is a lever that operates the tanks. His body is his steering mechanism. The wings are so light that turning his head can cause a change of direction. If he put his head back sharply, he would loop the loop.

Had anything gone wrong yesterday, he would have had to ditch the wings and let them drop into the Channel with their own parachute, while he used another parachute and tried to land himself as near as he could to the wing. Although he had a lifejacket, he would have to hope that the rescue boat came quickly, because the Buzz Lightyear outfit was not designed for swimming in the sea. And how did it feel to be flying through the air at 125mph with only a light pair of wings on your back? Rossy was asked.

"It's great," he said. "You are not really here, because it's not normal." He is now thinking about flying over the Grand Canyon. His ultimate ambition it to form a team to do aerobatics, like the Red Arrows, on fixed wings.

Cross-channel flight: Facts and figures

*The wingspan of the device is 2.5 metres, including a 1.8m central section and two foldable wing flaps. It is made of Kevlar.

*Four Jet-Cat P200 engines are used on the jetpack. Each has a thrust of 22kg. They can be switched off in 25 seconds. The fuel used was a mixture of kerosene – aircraft fuel – and turbine oil to keep the system lubricated.

*Its average speed is 200km/h. The wing can climb 300 metres a minute. During descent, it can reach 300km/h.

*Yves Rossy and his sponsors have spent over £100,000 on the wing.

*His harness is fitted with a safety cut-away system. If he had had to abandon the flight, a rescue parachute for the wing would have deployed. He wore a fireproof suit, similar to those worn by F1 drivers, to protect against blazing jet exhausts.

*The device itself weighs 30kg. Fully loaded with fuel, it weighs 55kg.

*Mr Rossy was taken nearly 2,500m above the ground in a plane before firing his engines and jumping out.

*He covered the 35km flight in 13 minutes, setting off from Calais at 1.06pm yesterday afternoon and reaching the South Foreland Lighthouse, Dover, at 1.19pm.

*His route followed that flown by Louis Blériot, the first man to fly across the English Channel in 1909.

*The wing had been tested intensively. But only one test flight lasted more than eight minutes.

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