It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s You Flying a Jetpack

Andrew Lampard
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It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s You Flying a Jetpack

When Glenn Martin was a boy, in 1969, he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Afterward, he imagined a not-too-distant future in which humans had bases on Mars and flew to work with personal jetpacks.

Later, in 1981, when he was an undergraduate studying biochemistry in New Zealand, Martin wondered why the future had not yet arrived.

“I was a bit disappointed it hadn’t happened,” said Martin, now 53 years old. “One night at the local watering hole we had a discussion [where we asked] ‘why don’t we have our jetpacks? Why don’t we have our bases on Mars?’ And I went back to the science library and started researching it.

Three decades later, Martin has realized his boyhood dream. His jetpack, which is called the Martin Jetpack, has been cleared for manned testing by New Zealand’s aviation authority. It can fly for 30 minutes and reach heights of 5,000 feet and speeds of 60 mph.

Asked if it’s safe, Martin said, “In comparison with a light helicopter or something like that we believe this is going to be significantly safer.”

In addition to having redundant operational systems, the Martin Jetpack boasts an impact-absorbing undercarriage and a ballistic parachute that opens in .2 seconds if needed.

Martin’s jetpack is not the only version of the fabled jetpack first introduced in the “Buck Rogers” comic book strip in 1929.The Bell Rocket Belt, created in the early 1960s, is probably the best known among previous jetpacks (one currently hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum). It allowed users to leap or travel small distances and was fueled by hydrogen peroxide. But it could only fly for 26 seconds, according to Martin, who has spent his working life researching and developing jetpack technology.

Added Martin: “You needed to weigh around 120 pounds to fly [the Bell Rocket Belt]. I weigh 220 pounds, and I wanted to fly for more than 26 seconds. So I wanted a practical pack.”

In Martin’s view, a practical rocket pack paradoxically means getting rid of the rocket and a gas turbine engine, commonly referred to as a “jet.” In their place, Martin devised a giant ducted fan, not unlike any modern aircraft, albeit one fired by a piston internal combustion engine, like the sort you would find on a personal watercraft or snowmobile.

After 20 years of tinkering, he and his team conceived of an engine that is 90 percent efficient in converting horse power to thrust. And it’s an engine’s thrust that gets you off the ground.

Once in the air, you are not in the control of the Martin Jetpack -- its onboard computer is. You pilot the jetpack’s computer with two joysticks. The left joystick controls your height and the right controls your direction. If you take both hands off, the jetpack hovers in place.

Martin foresees multiple uses for his jetpack. He said various governments and military units were interested in using the jetpack for border patrols and search and rescue missions. As for recreational flights, he plans to deliver a model by 2015 for approximately $150,000. With more than 2000 buyers on his wait list, it seems that consumer demand for the jetpack is already there.

Having shown that personal jetpacks are within mankind’s grasp (and his own financial success seemingly within reach), Martin is looking forward to delivering the “Buck Rogers” experience to like-minded futurists. That alone should validate his decision to dedicate his life to building a practical jetpack, but one moment in particular sticks out for him as a highlight: finding a congratulatory email in his inbox from Neil Armstrong.

Of course, his first time flying a Martin Jetpack prototype is a close second.