Flying Frenchman to fulfil Channel crossing 'dream'

Zoé LEROY with Stuart WILLIAMS in Paris
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Franky Zapata is set to test his jet-powered hoverboard or "flyboard" with a flight between France and Britain across the English Channel

Franky Zapata is set to test his jet-powered hoverboard or "flyboard" with a flight between France and Britain across the English Channel (AFP Photo/DENIS CHARLET)

Saint-Inglevert (France) (AFP) - A daredevil French inventor said Wednesday he was ready to realise his dream of flying between France and Britain across the Channel on a jet-powered "flyboard" after finally overcoming bureaucratic obstacles.

Franky Zapata, a former jet skiing champion, aims to soar above the Channel "like a bird" on Thursday morning in a scene likely to resemble a science fiction film.

In a tribute to past aviation heroes, the 40-year-old has picked the day that marks 110 years since pioneer Louis Bleriot made the first airplane flight across the Channel on July 25, 1909.

Zapata plans to take off from Sangatte on the northern French coast just outside Calais, make the 35 kilometre (22 mile) crossing in 20 minutes, and land in Britain around Dover in a location that has yet to be disclosed.

His plan hit choppy waters initially as the French maritime authorities refused to give the project their blessing -- while stopping short of an outright ban -- due to busy shipping traffic in the Channel.

But the maritime authorities said they lifted their "unfavourable opinion" after receiving guarantees from Zapata about his refuelling plans and safety.

- 'New way of flying' -

"I feel good. The hardest thing for me was the authorisations," Zapata said Wednesday at a news conference in Saint-Inglevert outside Calais. "It was a lot of stress."

The flamboyant native of Marseille, southern France, said "the wind could cause issues" but added that he could refuel twice if conditions were really poor.

"The wind strength is still high, it could make the crossing more complex," he said.

Zapata said he suffered a serious injury at the end of February which left him with 20 fractures in different parts of his body but then trained three times a day for the last four months to catch up.

Without disclosing precise timings, he said he planned to leave Sangatte between 6:00-8:00 am (4:00-6:00 am GMT) to have the "best chances of success".

"We created a new way of flying. We don't use wings. You are like a bird, it is your body that is flying. It is a boyhood dream."

"We want to walk a little bit in the footsteps of the pioneers of aviation," he added.

Zapata sprung to national prominence at the July 14 Bastille Day military parade when he soared above the Place de la Concorde in Paris in front of world leaders including President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He carried a rifle during that demonstration and the French defence ministry said it was studying how the flyboard could be used by its troops.

Zapata has said he is ready to work with the armed forces, but insists the main point of the device is to revolutionise travel for civilians.

He also has plans to develop a flying car.

- Kerosene-filled rucksack -

Zapata's flyboard, which is about the size of a skateboard, is powered by five small jet engines that allow the rider to fly at speeds of 190 kilometres an hour (118 mph).

It is fuelled by kerosene stored in the rider's backpack and Zapata will carry 47 kilos (104 pounds) of it on Thursday.

He aims to maintain an average speed of 140 kilometres an hour (87 mph) for the crossing and expects to be around 15-20 metres (50-65 feet) above the water.

If all goes to plan, he will make one refuelling stop on a boat in mid-channel to pick up a second pack of kerosene.

The device is controlled by a handheld throttle, which Zapata activates to take off after strapping himself into a pair of boots attached to the board.

Zapata said that if he arrives successfully on the English coast one of his first ambitions will be to find a good meal.

"For three months I have had to keep an eye on what I eat. I think a good restaurant would do me the power of good," he said.