‘My flight in £340,000 Iron Man-style jet suit which can fit in two suitcases’
We have lift off… and it is an extraordinary feeling of exhilaration as the jet-powered engines raise you from the floor.
The Mirror took to the air in the £340,000 Jet Suit that could soon be used in action by paramedics.
Great North Air Ambulance Service crews are looking to use the devices to help rescue people from the highest peaks of the Lake District.
I got a test flight at Jet Suit inventor Richard Browning’s training and experience centre at a place world famous for a different kind of horsepower – Goodwood, in West Sussex.
This first-time flier climbed into the Iron Man-style suit, which weighs 4st.
Strapped on the back is a jet engine powered by Jet A1 or diesel fuel.
Richard, who set a world speed record in the suit of 85mph, calmly explains how the micro turbines strapped to your arms keep you afloat.
Combined with the backpack, they deliver 1,050 brake horsepower. Ear defenders are needed, such is the roar of the engines as they fire up on the Gravity Industries test platform on the Goodwood estate near Chichester.
Those cylinder-like arm “engines” are controlled by a trigger ignition which fires up the power and looks after take-off.
The secret, Richard tells me, is to keep the arms straight as you point the arm thrusters down, with the chest forward.
Within seconds, after the whoosh of turbines capable of 120,000 revolutions per minute, you find your feet lifting up, with your body floating in the air.
Beginners like me are tethered to the metal frame above the platform to prevent floating off into midair.
But you still get the feeling of complete weightlessness as you defy gravity. You can understand how this would take you to a stricken climber in the Lakes in a fraction of the time needed now.
Richard, 41, became fascinated with flight as a boy while playing with gliders under the watchful eye of his dad.
“Our team has delivered to 108 events in 31 countries with this suit over the past three years,” says the former Royal Marine reserve whose inspirational talks on the technology put him in the exalted company of Al Gore, Richard Branson and Elon Musk.
He adds: “I have not met a single human being on the planet who has not had a profound reaction to the sight of a person hovering in front of them like that.
“Most people have that desire, that fascination to fly.
“It is there for all of us, what it is like to break free.
“That’s the thing most people are excited by even as you hover above the ground. At 85mph, it is different and you are just completely focused on the job, like a racing driver on the track.”
I didn’t race so much as spin in the air as the downward thrust of the engines powered my feet off the ground.
If you get your balance right, arms outstretched, you feel yourself lift off and fly. Richard ensures there is just enough power in the engines for lift-off, usually about 4ft for a beginner.
One of the funniest pieces of advice is to make sure your socks are pulled up – as the heat of the engines can remove the hair on your legs. “They could blow my socks off,” I thought nervously.
The Gravity team is so experienced they can fly around the test area and come in to land like a one-person helicopter on a landing pad. Alex Wilson, the Gravity Industries head of electronics, helped me into the suit and gave me some tips on flying.
Those who “don’t overthink” the Jet Suit are top of the class… and it can be quicker than learning to ski.
“I was in a group of eight test pilots right at the start and none of us wanted to be the one who failed. I did 10, two-minute sessions before I got off the tether,” explains Alex, 24.
“It does not sound like much but it is like learning to play an instrument. It is about letting your mind absorb it in the times between the lessons.”
The Jet Suit is a much more sophisticated version of the Rocket Belt worn by Sean Connery in 1965 Bond film Thunderball. “In James Bond, they were crazy rocket packs where you cling on and hope for the best,” Richard says. “What we do is super-safe and simple.
“Ours is so small we take it to events all around the world, and it packs into two normal suitcases. The Bond one is in the evolutionary tree for this technology. We have come a long way.”
His 85mph record is the fastest speed in a body-controlled jet engine powered suit. His company is flying too, with huge investment from the US and interest in the suits from around the world.
The emphasis on safety means the billionaires who buy them do not get to take them away.
They are used in an area controlled by the company’s team of experts.
GNAAS paramedics are receiving specialist training to ensure safety.
“It is really exciting to see our suits being used in this trial,” says Richard.
“Our whole ethos is about not being afraid to fail so long as it is safe failure – it is no good flying 350ft up in the air.”
He is keeping up a family tradition; his grandad Sir Basil Blackwell ran Westland helicopters; his late dad Michael was an aeronautical engineer and inventor. “Who knows where these suits will take us?” Richard says.
“We adapted our activities for Covid, with inspiration and entertainment at their core. But, fundamentally, this is about the joy of flight. There is something quite magical about it.”
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