Inventor Richard Browning has ‘reimagined human flight’ with a pioneering jet suit that pushes the limits of what’s possible when mind, body and machine work in harmony. Rachel Ramsay went to Goodwood to give it a try
31 August 2023
It’s a sunny Friday morning, and I’m standing nervously on a large metal platform at Goodwood Aerodrome in West Sussex. In each hand I’m holding a device loaded with two small but weighty jet engines, and on my back is a large astronaut-like pack containing three further engines and a fuel tank. This apparatus is capable of generating 1,500 horsepower. Yikes.
As the seven engines currently attached to my person spool up and I wonder what I’m letting myself in for, I’m enveloped in a noisy bubble of heat and fumes. The blast of power feels awesome. I’m James Bond!
There’s just one thing: I’m now fighting powerful thrust that I’m struggling to bend to my will. Turns out this jet packing malarkey isn’t quite as easy as it looks…
I’d first encountered Gravity Industries (for that is to whom I’m currently entrusting my life) via its founder, Richard Browning – who often seems to be colloquially referred to as ‘The Real-Life Iron Man’ or simply ‘The Jet Pack Guy’– a few weeks previously, when I’d been awestruck by his jet suit demonstration at a private event in the Cotswolds. He’d drawn quite the crowd of stunned onlookers, and no wonder: it’s unlikely anyone present had seen anything like it before. I certainly hadn’t.
I watched, with astonishment, the complete freedom with which he manoeuvred himself around the field, moving effortlessly sideways and backwards, hovering, even perching atop a fence post, perfectly balanced on one foot. In an instant I had realised I’d been wrong all along: helicopters are not the most manoeuvrable form of flying.
I listened avidly to every word Richard had to say to the assembled crowd when he returned to the surly bonds of Earth, and learned that he’s not only the founder of Gravity Industries, but also the inventor of the jet suit he had just so ably demonstrated – much of which is 3D printed. Designing and building the suit was something of a trial and error process, as he describes in his 2017 TED talk, since when it’s come on in leaps and bounds (no pun intended).
Formerly a Royal Marines Reservist and, perhaps more improbably, city trader, Richard seemed very much at ease in his camo gear and totally at one with his invention, about which he spoke with infectious enthusiasm when I chatted to him afterwards. “Come and have a go!” he entreated, adding: “If you’re a helicopter pilot you’ll quickly pick it up.”
I did not take much persuading.
And so it was that I found myself at Goodwood, a place one normally associates with Spitfires and classic cars, preparing to have a go at what is without a doubt the zaniest and most futuristic of the many forms of flying I’ve tried my hand at over the years.
Having flown in and been conveyed to the Gravity site in one of the Goodwood Estate’s fancy BMWs, I’m met by the sight of Richard himself, jet suited and booted, standing in the tunnel under the very active race circuit with a film crew right behind him.
He’s being filmed for a documentary – just another normal day at Gravity – and shortly afterwards gives us all a reminder of the awesome power of his invention by emerging from the tunnel and landing gracefully on the training rig outside his sleek new clubhouse. The noise is deafening, and I’m not surprised there’s a table full of ear defenders that we quickly learn to make use of.
Before discovering what jet suit training actually involves, I had had visions of what the experience would be like, most of them revolving around plummeting, parachute-less, out of the sky. Indeed, parachutes aren’t worn, and instead jet suit pilots hug the terrain – which, at average speeds of 30 to 50mph, would take a novice some getting used to.
Thankfully, Gravity have thought of that, and have devised a rigorous training programme designed to make the process as safe as possible while opening up the world of jet suiting to anyone who’d like to give it a go (over 500 people and counting – including Tom Cruise, naturally, and astronaut Tim Peake).
Stage one is the training rig I’m standing in front of now, which has an overhead gantry to which one is tethered by bungee cord. It would take a few days of training to graduate from this to stage two – a zip wire that allows you to practise flying from one platform to another while still tethered. Finally, stage three is off the tether, but over water to lessen the damage if you get it wrong – the suit floats, and keeps you face up.
I’ll just be in the very early forays of stage one today. My mum needn’t have worried!
After an initial briefing from Gravity’s excellent Head of Flight Training, Paul Jones, we’re introduced to the kit. It’s different from a ‘regular’ jet pack (if such a thing can be said to exist) in that it splits the thrust into three, with two engines on each arm as well as three on your back, making it technically a jet suit rather than a jet pack. This creates a stable ‘tripod’ of thrust and gives you incredible manoeuvrability, as you simply move your arms to vector the thrust according to the direction you want to go in.
I put the back unit on like a backpack and, with Paul’s help, secure several straps around my body and legs. Looking down, I notice there’s a small display on the main shoulder strap that provides engine information. I then try the arm engine units for size, reaching down to grab the handles inside.
In my right hand there’s a throttle button, which accelerates all seven engines simultaneously and is held fully down at all times during flight, not feathered. Paul directs me to the ‘kill switch’, which will immediately shut down all engines if needed.
In my left hand is the power control, a simple two-button up and down controlled with my first two fingers. I won’t have to worry about this today, Paul explains, as the instructors have a remote control and will be taking care of the power settings while I concentrate on getting to grips with how the thrust feels.
The suit is sitting on a table outside, allowing me to be strapped into it while the table bears its considerable weight. At 30kg, it’s three-fifths of my own body weight, so it’s little wonder that it nearly pulls me over backwards when I first stand up.
To begin with, I’m shown how to evacuate the suit in case of an emergency – and with the thrusters that close to my legs, that definitely seems worth practising. I’ve also been given protective gaiters to strap onto my legs, over the ankle-supporting boots and jeans I’d been asked to wear in the pre-flight information. The experienced pilots don’t wear these, but when you’re not used to vectoring the thrust, it’s a sensible precaution.
I’m feeling a tad nervous as I walk up the steps onto the training rig for the first time. My instructor for this session is Issa Kalfon, who’s also a GBR gymnast, with whom I’m able to talk with the aid of a headset. I’m clipped onto the bungee cord dangling above me and I’m ready to go.
To start the engines, it’s a quick tap of the throttle and power buttons simultaneously. Once they’re started, Issa then directs me to engage the throttle, and it’s an exciting moment as the engines spool up. We’re in business!
The force of the thrust takes me by surprise, unbalancing me a little at first. This isn’t full power by any means – we’ll work that up gradually while I get used to it. I need to adopt a slightly hunched over posture and Issa reminds me to keep my arms straight as I try leaning into the thrust. Even at this power setting, it’s a strange sensation.
I then practise walking forwards and backwards and from side to side, getting the hang of where my arms need to be to direct the thrust for each direction, raising one arm slightly and moving the other back to turn one way and then the other. While I’m doing this, there’s a large fan on the edge of the rig blowing cool air my way – definitely appreciated on a scorching day surrounded by hot jet thrust!
It’s awesome yet tiring, with the noise, the weight, the fumes, the heat, but it’s inherently not an activity you can do for long, so rests are built in. That’s because I’m carrying 10 litres of fuel, and the jet suit has a fuel burn of 4.5 litres a minute (!). It’s possible to carry up to 20 litres, but in training there’s half that, as it’s already very heavy. After three minutes or so of flight time, there’s no choice but to stop and refuel.
After lunch in the aerodrome’s fantastic cafe, it’s back to the training rig, and Paul’s my instructor for this session. I start by refreshing what I learned this morning, and Paul talks me through vectoring: arms down for take-off, arms out for landing. I’ve still not left the ground.
Paul ups the power a little and directs me to try small vertical jumps to start getting used to the feeling of being light on my feet. Frustratingly, I somehow keep ending up spinning around – I must be making tiny movements with my arms that upset the stability of the thrust. Each time, I arrest the rotation by releasing the throttle and the engines power down.
My arms are getting tired with the effort of holding up four engines with straight arms in front of me, and I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll ever successfully get my feet off the ground with anything more than the bungee. But all of a sudden, something clicks.
Paul’s told me to look straight ahead (just like when you’re taking off and landing in a helicopter), and that seems to do the trick. It’s incredibly surreal as I feel myself rise up off the ground and, for a few moments, instinctively keep the thrust in balance – it’s a bit like my first successful helicopter hover. A huge grin spreads across my face. I’m flying!
And then I start overthinking it. Feeling myself rotating to the left again, I release the throttle, lightly touching down with the assistance of the bungee cord.
To be sure it wasn’t a fluke, I have one last go, and again achieve a stable hover – a little higher off the ground this time as my confidence grows. I manage another few moments before I start turning again, coming back down with little grace but filled with an enormous sense of satisfaction and excitement.
After this tantalising taster, I can see why Issa’s response to my question about what it’s like to fly a jet suit had been: “I can’t even describe – just total freedom.” I only wish I had a few more days of training ahead of me so I could experience more of what this unique invention has to offer.
There’s one final surprise as I unstrap the suit for the last time. Richard presents me with a bronze token to mark my first hover in a jet suit. There are silver and gold ones for achieving more advanced milestones, but not many people are lucky enough to have those. Paul shows me how it can be used like a spinning top, and I assure them that I’ll treasure it forever.
Seeing someone flying around in a jet suit is about as futuristic and ‘sci fi’ as it gets, and the experience even of hovering one is, well, the coolest thing ever. But will they constitute a plausible mode of personal transport in the years to come?
They aren’t, of course, a new idea. In the 1960s, they were touted as the next big thing in personal transportation, and it was even suggested that housewives would eventually use them for going shopping. A ‘Jump Jet’ can be seen being demonstrated at Brands Hatch racing circuit in this 1966 Pathé film reel, and you might also remember Sean Connery using one to make a hasty exit the previous year in Thunderball (1965), only the second James Bond film ever made.
According to one of the Thunderball production designers, the pack we see in the film was built by Bell-Textron and could fly for just 20 seconds before running out of fuel. Seemingly undeterred, a 1969 BBC report mentioned Bell’s somewhat optimistic intention to make “a two-man version as well, with a seat for the passenger, who could be a general directing a battle, or you and I going to work.”
Back then, jet packs never really ‘took off’, as it were. At 3.5 to 5 minutes’ flight time, Richard’s creation fares somewhat better than its 1960s ancestors, although it’s still some way off being able to convey someone to and from work or the shops. Weight is an issue, too, and though they’ve been able to train a 150kg customer thanks to the rig, the suit really needs its pilot to weigh 85kg or less for proper use. It would also set you back around £380,000 if you wanted to own and learn to fly one properly – and it would have to stay with Gravity for safekeeping.
It does, however, hold the record for the fastest flight in a body-controlled jet suit – an incredible 85mph – and it can fly in all weathers, day and night. It’s only when the wind starts gusting at 35mph or more that handling it gets tricky. The engines (which require overhaul every 20 hours) essentially act as one moving part, achieving excellent stability once up to speed.
While an engine failure would result in instability, the pilot is in complete control of ground speed and stays near the ground anyway, so it wouldn’t be the disaster you might think. That said, it still looks dramatic, as poor Issa was to find a few weeks later when he suffered an engine failure at the opening of the Austrian F1 Grand Prix (luckily he was fine!).
Richard has demonstrated his extraordinary jet suit in 41 different countries to date, drawing much interest from the military and from search and rescue organisations. Just one example is the Great North Air Ambulance, who reportedly trained up their operational director on the jet suit, hoping eventually to use it to enable paramedics to reach casualties quickly in the challenging terrain of the Lake District.
And Richard’s plans don’t end there. He’s currently developing the Gravity Race Series, a Red Bull Air Race-type event that will bring the jet suit and its possibilities in front of a much wider audience. He’s also opening another training location near Los Angeles, California, enabling more people to experience the thrill of jet suit flying. With packages starting at £2,200 + VAT, it’s not cheap – but can one really put a price on the kudos of doing something this cool?
On which note, a quote from Richard on the Gravity website reads: “To feel your feet lift off the ground, that ultimate freedom of true flight. This will be a day you remember for the rest of your life.”
He was right.
Book a jet suit experience flight via the Gravity Flight Club