Friday, August 1, 2008

What traffic? Go to work on a Jetpack

By David Usborne in New York

Harrison Martin, son of the inventor Glenn Martin, demonstrates the Jetpack at an airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin


Harrison Martin, son of the inventor Glenn Martin, demonstrates the Jetpack at an airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Put away the Gulf Stream and park your Lamborghini, the ultimate in transportation accessories is on the market and will be yours for just £50,000, if you are prepared to wait one year for delivery. This is the machine that will really impress your friends – assuming you don't mow them down upon arrival.

Meet the Martin Jetpack, a contraption unveiled at a US air show yesterday. It is a real-life version of the toy we all fantasised about as children (and some of us as adults) and which Sean Connery as James Bond got to wear in the early minutes of Thunderball. Simply attach, the manufacturers claim, and up you go. No more traffic jams as you slice through the air at speeds of up to 186mph.

Developed in secret over the past 10 years by Glenn Martin, an inventor based in New Zealand, the jetpack made its public debut at AirVenture, an annual experimental aerospace show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The pilot yesterday was Glenn's son, Harrison, and he showed it off without mishap. The company, that also launched an accompanying website, calls it the "world's first practical jetpack".

Mr Martin may have succeeded where many others have failed. In the US, the now defunct Bell Aerosystems attempted to bring the dream of jetpack travel to reality in the 60s and 70s, notably with the so-called rocket belt. It never came close to being pursued commercially, however. In the 50s, the US military tested something called the Hiller Flying Platform. It didn't work too well either.

But Mr Martin is apparently serious about getting your business. Pay no attention to the not-so-sleek looks of his invention. Take to the skies in his jetpack and onlookers might assume Superman is passing overhead with a drum kit hanging from his shoulders. Nor will there be any music system options. Commuting with the jetpack will be noisier than a visit to a two-stroke lawnmower derby.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, there are no actual jets involved here. The thrust of a jet tends to be a little trickier to tame than the power generated by the two piston-engine fans that you will find in a Martin Jetpack. But let's not quibble, it looks like the real thing. Technically, it is an ultralight aircraft that, according to the website, is already in compliance with regulations of the Federal Aviation Authority in the United States. As such, moreover, buyers will not need a special licence to fly one. If that sounds alarming, rest assured that Mr Martin's company will insist that every purchaser take a training course before turning the ignition key.

"To attempt to fly any aircraft without professional instruction is extremely foolhardy," the site says under a headline, "How do I learn to fly?" And while it may be an "ultralight" be aware that what you will be tying to your back weighs a good 250lb and generates 600lb in thrust.

A company official in New Zealand said yesterday that the books were open for orders at once at a price tag of $100,000 (roughly £50,000). "We are not going to guarantee an actual delivery date," Jan Harvey said, "but we are saying 2009, roughly 12 months from order."

In truth, Mr Martin does not seem seriously to be suggesting his jetpack will one day replace the automobile as the transport mode of choice. He is hoping instead that it will become more of a sports toy for the very adventurous. "I've made the jetski for the sky," he said in Oshkosh.

So far, Mr Martin has kept test-flights at super-low altitude, usually between 3ft and 6ft off the ground. (A demonstration video shows a pilot gunning the pack while two helpers cling onto its sides to prevent man and machine zipping up into space.) In theory, however, the pack can fly unimpeded for 30 minutes and go as high as 8,000ft. Instead of airbags, the jetpack comes with a parachute deployed by a small explosive in the event of disaster aloft.

Worried that if you buy a pack you may fail the training? Never fear, Mr Martin has thought of that. "If for some reason they're not co-ordinated enough, we'll send them their money back and give it to the next person in the queue," he said.

High flyers: the pioneering rocket men

For many, the jetpack will forever be associated with the master of gadgets, James Bond. Bond used it to flee from his enemies in the 1965 film, Thunderball. His pack had been developed for the US Army. Millions of people watched in amazement during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as Kinnie Gibson took his "Rocketman" jet pack to the sky, landing safely in the stadium. A firm called Skywalker Jets devised a prototype rocket pack that could keep a pilot in the air for five minutes. Hopes of mass production were foiled by an estimated £100,000 price tag. Another recent design came from the German firm Jet-Cat. Its take on the device, which contains foldable wings, made a six-minute flight to the Swiss town of Bex.

Original here

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