By Jean Balchin 20/06/2017

His science faltered in the sun hot sun 

he fell through 

blazing like gold 

at the end of a rainbow. 

Icarus, Michael Dransfield

Last night, I dreamed I could fly. I took off running, leaping off a yellow cliff, and soaring over a technicoloured basin of trees, hills and cottages. The wind ruffled my hair, and I gasped at the beauty of it all; Aotearoa stretched out before me like a Don Binney painting. Humanity’s desire to fly through the air like a bird has been etched in our collective consciousness, from the ancient Greek myth of Icarus to the space opera adventure comic strip Flash Gordon. The Martin Jetpack is this dream made real.


History of Flight

There are two key features that predispose us land-dwellers to crave flight. Firstly, consider the vestibular system of the inner ear, which evolved in humans alongside the ability to walk. Secondly, as any child with a crayon can attest, there is the ability of our consciousness to draw on its sensory input to construct a bird’s-eye perspective of the body and the surrounding landscape. Throughout history, thousands of hubristic humans have tried—and failed—to defy the incessant pull of gravity. In 9th century Spain, Abbas Ibn Firnas, a Muslim inventor allegedly floated through the air using a winged apparatus. This tale inspired Leonardo da Vinci, who in 1485 designed the ornithopter; a mechanical device equipped with bird-like, beating wings. Later, he sketched an early prototype for what would eventually become the helicopter, which used a spiral-shaped rotor to twist its way through the sky.

I have always been fascinated by jetpacks. I vividly remember the 2012 Parachute Music Festival at Mystery Springs, Hamilton. It had been a hot, sticky summer and all I wanted to do was dive into a cool pool to escape the heat. Unfortunately, my right leg was clad in a heavy plaster cast. I had never felt so tethered to the scorched earth. The crowd hummed with anticipation as we sat in the bleachers, craning our necks up at the blue, blue sky. A loud grumbling noise wrenched me out from my daydream of crystal springs and sun-dappled water. There, zipping across the sky, was a man, attached to a roaring jetpack. He hovered above us, then sped over the main stage. I was enthralled.


The Martin Jetpack

The Martin Jetpack is a single-person aircraft that has been developed by the Martin Aircraft Company of New Zealand (not related to Glenn L. Martin Company, the US company also known as Martin Aircraft). In development for over 30 years, the Jetpack was unveiled on the 29th of July 2008, at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 2008 AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The Martin Jetpack uses a 2.0-litre V4 piston 200-horsepower gasoline engine with two ducted fans to provide lift. It uses advanced composites (unusually high strength fibres) to produce a lightweight, safe structure. Given that the pilot straps into it, and does not sit, the device cannot technically be classed as a backpack device as it is too large to be worn while working. Moreover, the Martin Jetpack fails to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s classification of an ultralight aircraft: it meets weight and fuel restrictions, but it cannot meet the power-off stall speed requirement. To this end, the Jetpack designers want to create a specific classification for this device. “We are an aviation business that builds airworthy aircraft, yet we have a completely new way of flying within a very established and safety driven industry.”

It’s pretty speedy, with a maximum speed of 40 km/h, a flight ceiling of 3,000 ft, a range of 15–20 km and endurance of about 30 minutes flight. Eat your heart out, Iron Man. A tail rotor is necessary in most helicopters to counteract the rotor torque. This, alongside the articulated head, proves to be an enormous complication when it comes to flying, construction and maintenance. The Martin Jetpack however, is designed to be completely torque neutral. It lacks a tail rotor, collective, and articulating or foot pedals. Pitch, roll and yaw—the three means of rotation around the side-to-side axis, front-to-back axis and vertical axis respectively—are controlled by one hand, height by the other. The elimination of a tail rotor with its flapping blades renders the Jetpack far safer and compact. To quote the March 2017 newsletter, “the Jetpack does not fly like a helicopter nor like an aeroplane, yet it flies like both at times.”

Indeed, safety was of primary concern to the designers, with a ballistic parachute system that can safely recover the aircraft from just a few metres above the ground. According to Peter Coker, the ballistic parachute can open “at very low altitude,” and can actually save “both the aircraft and the pilot in an emergency.” Add to this the impact-absorbing undercarriage, enclosed rotors and Kelvar composite containment rings and you have one of the safest light aircrafts on the market. The Martin Jetpack began its journey in Kiwi inventor Glenn Martin’s garage when Martin became frustrated with the existing jetpack models. “After a night drinking at a pub with a few mates, complaining,” he said, “I decided to go away and research it.” At that time, the rocket-based technology could fly jetpacks for less than 30 seconds. Moreover, the pilot had to weigh less than 70kg; an unrealistic weight for your average Kiwi bloke. “I’m 100 kg and wanted to fly longer than 26 seconds.”

By 1998, the first prototype had appeared, and, lacking a willing cohort of paid test subjects, Martin strapped his long-suffering wife to the Jetpack. Thankfully, it worked. In 2004, a New Zealand venture capitalist firm agreed to fund his project, and the company was also fortunate to receive support from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Callaghan Institute. The Jetpack flew through many key milestones; in 2013 the Prototype 12 gained authorisation from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority for manned test flights, and the first public manned flight took place in Shenzhen, China on 6 December 2015. China is one of the fastest growing markets for aviation and recent civil aviation developments has seen previously off-limit airspace being opened up for civilian operations. This YouTube clip is mesmerising. The shiny crimson Jetpack zipping along the slate grey sky appears to me something out of a DC or Marvel comic. On 29 May 2011, the Martin Jetpack successfully completed a remotely controlled unmanned test flight to 1,500m above sea level. Prototype 12—a second version of the Jetpack—received approval from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to begin manned flight testing in August 2013.


Use in the First Responder community

In 2010, Time Magazine named it one of their Top 50 inventions, triggering numerous enquiries from the First Responder community who were excited about the possibility of using Jetpacks as a rapid response vehicle. Thus began the Martin Jetpack’s role in saving and improving human lives. Recently, 20 Jetpacks and two simulations have been purchased for first response situations in Dubai. The tallest building in Dubai is the Burj Khalifa, which rises 828 metres (2,717 ft) and contains 160 floors. The Martin Jetpack has a flight ceiling of 3,000 feet. According to Lt Col Ali Hassan Almutawa, director of the Dubai Civil Defence Operations Department, these Jetpacks are especially good for handling fires in skyscrapers. “Sometimes, in fires, people go to the top of the building. You cannot always get ladders there, and you cannot always use the elevators.”

The Jetpack can land on rooftops strewn with aerials and wires. It can also navigate tightly confined areas, making it a practical alternative to the huge, unwieldy helicopters traditionally employed by emergency services. Given that the Jetpacks have a total flight time of 30 minutes, pilots have more than enough time to examine the problem firsthand and maneuver around. The Jetpack may be flown both manned and unmanned, and according to the most recent bulletin, it will soon be available as “part of a mule train where a number of Jetpacks are controlled simultaneously by the pilot on a manned Jetpack or remotely.” Thus, a rescuer could bring an extra Jetpack to someone at the top of a skyscraper, and a pilot on the ground could fly them safely down.

Even though flying first class today is a pretty comfy ride, it’s a far cry from the free flight of birds and kites. The Martin Jetpack represents one more step in our quest to master the skies. Unlike Icarus though, we will not be falling into the sea.

Image sourced from Martin Jetpack Galleries.