TechFinitive x FlashForward is our new, exclusive newsletter. Every fortnight, we pick a technology featured in a classic movie and fast forward to where it’s at today. Subscribe to it on Substack so that you’re notified every time a new edition goes out. This edition was originally published on the 30th of August.
Flashback: In 1938 LA, stunt pilot Cliff Secord discovers a wearable rocket-powered backpack. With the help of a sleek art deco helmet which allows him to steer, he takes flight in a two-fisted battle against gangsters and Nazi spies.
Flashforward to today: The lack of rockets in everyday life has come to symbolise viewers’ disappointment that our present hasn’t lived up to sci-fi’s cool gadgetry. But if you’re wondering where’s your jetpack, the good news is: they’re here! Not only do they exist, but you can fly one.
They’re not quite as fiery as the flame-powered rocket pack worn by the Rocketeer, but real-life jet engine devices can send an individual soaring into the air from a standing start. Contenders in this airspace include Gravity International and Jetpack Aviation, whose personal flying machines use a similar design: you wear a jet engine on your back to get you in the air, with smaller rockets on your hands to direct yourself (which unfortunately means that, unlike the Rocketeer, wearers don’t have their hands free to punch Nazis).
Jetpack Aviation’s JB11 kicks our 530lbs of thrust, soars up to 15,000ft and can hit 120mph. Gravity’s Jet Suit boasts 1,050 horsepower and can hit 85mph.
Excitingly, both companies’ websites have a Shop section — but when you click on it you can’t buy an actual rocket, just hoodies and phone cases. Neither Jetpack nor Jet Suit are currently for sale to the general public.
You can have a go on Jet Suit, however. If you zoom in on historic motorsport destination Goodwood, in the south of England, you can take to the skies wearing a Jet Suit.
It’s a bit like one of those race track days you might buy for a loved one. Goodwood’s Gravity Jet Suit flight experience starts at £2,200 ($3,500) for a day of three tethered flights, or £6,600 for a longer flying session. Not cheap, but you do get a lunch as well!
Outside of Goodwood airspace, however, there are a lot of obstacles to be cleared before we’re all rocketeering to work. Jetpacks would have to be integrated into current air traffic control systems to avoid collisions with other aircraft or fellow rocketeers. They’d need to be regulated and insured. There are logistical considerations for installing landing pads and refuelling facilities. And you wouldn’t want to live nearby as they’re incredibly loud.
And for all that, fuel limitations mean you can only fly for around ten minutes anyway.
More importantly, safety is crucial. It takes a lot of training and skill to master a jet engine strapped to your body, and the device itself has to be equipped with fail-safes and redundancy systems.
When things go wrong, a parachute needs time to deploy and only works above a couple of hundred feet in the air, so you’d need to stay very close to the ground or go up much higher. That’s why jet pack demonstrations often take place over water. Sadly, in 2020, despite being equipped with a parachute, a pilot fell from a device called a Jet Wing and was killed.
On top of all that, there’s the environmental impact. A jet engine sucks up a huge amount of energy and spits out significant emissions just to move one person around.
Who should make one?
In the movie, the jet pack was designed by a fictionalised version of real-life aviation engineer Howard Hughes, backed by a US government preparing for war. In real life, the military is also funding jet packs and other new vehicles for deploying soldiers quickly to inhospitable terrain. But as with the motion tracker from Aliens (covered in a previous edition), jet packs would be far better used by rescue personnel. Gravity and Jetpack have tested their rocket packs for reaching injured or stranded people, as these flying machines are ideal for getting help to anyone stuck on a mountainside or in terrain hit by a natural disaster (although it probably won’t be much use for airlifting someone out).
The Howard Hughes Award for Aviation Innovation
The original creator of the Rocketeer, writer and artist Dave Stevens, has a cameo appearance in the film as a German soldier trying a prototype jetpack (with incendiary results). The Nazis actually did experiment with a prototype rocket pack they called Himmelstürmer (Sky Stormer), utilising a pulse jet system similar to that used by the infamous V-1 flying bomb. They were never used in combat, but the design may have influenced the subsequent American Jet Belt design (seen in the James Bond movie Thunderball).
Track it down
The Rocketeer is rollicking great fun, and it’s available to stream on Disney Plus, alongside a 2019 animated series for kids featuring the original hero’s great-granddaughter.
Last year a sequel titled The Return of the Rocketeer was announced, with David Oyelowo producing and possibly starring as a Tuskegee airman who dons the jetpack, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll ever take off.
Where’s my jetpack? You can actually fly one, although, for myriad safety and environmental reasons, it’s probably best to leave rocketeering to the rescuers.
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