Bird man dreams of a flying motorbike

Yves Rossy over cap Blanc-Nez in northern France at the start of his historical cross-Channel solo flight to Dover Bruno Brokken

Self-proclaimed "jet man" Yves Rossy has been testing new prototype wings in preparation for his latest daredevil exploit: to fly across the Grand Canyon.

This content was published on August 17, 2009

Rossy is the first man to have crossed the English Channel with a wing powered by jet engines attached to his body.

"I don't know what is driving me, but I want to excel myself, to fulfil my wildest dreams," Rossy confided in an interview with in May.

He describes his birdman adventures, including the Channel crossing, in a new book presented at the Geneva Book Fair. Does the sky have no limits for "jet man"?

Yves Rossy: I'm just back from Spain, where I went to do some free-fall tests at Empuriabrava, near Figueras. The advantage is that there is plenty of space around the airport, in case you have to jettison the load, so no danger of hitting a road or dwelling.

This winter, I built two new prototype wings with the assistance of Ruag Aerospace and I went to try them out down there in Spain. The previous model was less stable. Now the situation has improved. I shall be able to move on to my project to fly over the Grand Canyon, above the Colorado River. A month ago, I went to spy out the land and found a favourable location. It's magnificent. There is an Indian reservation nearby – a very symbolic place. These trials and projects must cost a lot of money...

Y.R.: Using a wind tunnel to reproduce flying conditions requires enormous amounts of energy. To accelerate a mass of air to 300kph with huge propellers takes enough electricity to supply a small town. Two days of trials costs SFr100,000 [$92,000].

Until now, I've simply trusted my instincts, after an initial aerodynamic study performed seven years ago on an inflatable wing at the Sukhoi aircraft factory in Kiev. But the fundamentals are still the same, except that we have progressed to a folding rigid wing. How much does the wing you are using now weigh?

Y.R.: It weighs 55 kilograms, not counting two 13-litre tanks of fuel and smoke canisters holding four litres. Adding in my own weight, that's 145 kilograms plummeting to the ground when I jump from the aircraft. If I were to carry more fuel so I could fly further, I would be that much heavier, with the risk of stalling more quickly. But the aim is not to cover a long distance. What I really want is to create the airborne equivalent of a motorbike or jet-ski, a fun vehicle for exploring the third dimension.

Parachutists all tell me: "If only that machine of yours could be for everybody!" As with hang-gliding or paragliding, there is enormous potential for development and simplification. I shall never try to land without a parachute. The advantage is that I don't need a runway to land on. In any case, what would I use for an undercarriage? A wheel on my nose? What first inspired you to try and fly this way?

Y.R.: It all began when I discovered free-fall parachuting. As an air force pilot, I also flew Vampires, Venoms, Hunters, Tigers and especially Mirages, on which I clocked up over one thousand flying hours. I have flown with the astronaut Claude Nicollier. We practised aerial combat together, Claude in a Tiger, me in a Mirage. He is really an outstanding test pilot, an exemplary human being as well as an expert in his field.

For my wing, I have recently received an inquiry from the American special forces regarding a possible military application. They sent me an assessment form to fill in, but no one has come to see me fly. At air shows, an American has been giving demonstrations of hovering in the air using mini-jets on both arms.

Y.R.: I have seen this "rocket man" perform. Amazing! At Asnières, in France, there is also a chemist who uses hydrogen peroxide to speed up dragsters and holds the world speed record for a bicycle: 250kph on the airfield at Payerne. His process transforms energy into water vapour, which is forced through two small nozzles, giving 180 kilograms of thrust. But for flying it is a highly specialised technique.

I have had the opportunity to try it out, attached to cables, but I couldn't manage to keep steady. Three "rocket men" are giving displays at present. But they fly virtually on the spot, almost without lift. If the power is switched off, they drop like a stone. Then there is a weight problem: 30 litres of peroxide weigh 40 kilograms, carried on your back. They burn a litre of fuel per second, as opposed to five to seven decilitres in the case of my four jet engines. They can fly for only 30 seconds, while with my wing I can stay up for 13 minutes. You could also take part in air displays...

Y.R.: I have been asked. But to be seen at an air display you have to fly past at low level. For safety's sake, I fly at an altitude of at least 800 metres. In my case, the drama would have to be relayed to a big screen, otherwise people would see no more than a "noisy mosquito".

One solution would be to have the spectators stand on a cliff, as we did at the Croix de Javerne (2,000m), near Bex in canton Vaud. Then I could fly within 100m of the audience, while staying at a safe altitude. Can you now make a living from this passion of yours?

Y.R.: As an Airbus A320 pilot with [the airline] Swiss, I have been given a three-year sabbatical. But I am still looking for sponsors to make up the necessary funding of SFr600,000 a year.

With his solar-powered aircraft project, Bertrand Piccard is better placed to get support on environmental grounds. My project appeals more to the emotions: flying around in the clouds for ten minutes and giving people an enormous thrill. But I am also interested in the environment. My dream is to use organic fuel, a fuel produced from waste material, with assistance from the Engineering School in Geneva.

Olivier Grivat, (translated from French)

Yves Rossy

Yves Rossy, aka Fusionman, was born on August 27, 1959 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

He has worked for the past ten years as a commercial pilot for the airline company, Swiss. Prior to that, he worked for 15 years as a fighter pilot for the Swiss Air Force.

An accomplished sportsman, his past and present hobbies include surfing, water-skiing, wakeboarding, parachuting, aerobatics, motorbike riding, rafting and hang-gliding.

He has long been involved in flying adventures. He is a keen sky surfer - performing aerial stunts on a board after freefalling from a plane - and was the first to sky surf from a hot air balloon.

Another Guinness record comes from being the first person to be transported between two small planes while holding onto handles on the wingtips of each plane.

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Jet-propelled wing

Rossy zoomed into the record books on June 24, 2004 by becoming the first person to fly horizontally for four minutes with a jet-propelled wing strapped to his back.

On September 26, 2008 Rossy became the first person to fly solo across the English Channel using a single jet-propelled wing, retracing the route of French aviator Louis Blériot.

Rossy's transformation from human to jet-man involves putting on a Formula-1 fireproof suit, three parachutes, two for Rossy and one for his wing, a helmet that beeps a warning when he goes too low and his homemade three-metre-wide carbon wing, which is strapped to his back and powered by four mini jets. His invention weighs about 55kg with fuel.

The wing, which he conceived, built and fine tuned himself over eight years, has no steering capability so Rossy had to control his movement using his head, shoulders and arms. The only instrument is the fuel throttle.

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