Welcome to the Future. Here’s Your (Real) Jetpack.

November 12, 2015, 4:11 PM UTC
David Mayman JetPack Flight
JetPack Aviation CEO David Mayman test flying the JB-9 jetpack.
JetPack Aviation

Even if all the hoverboards, self-driving cars, and hand-held communication gizmos haven’t convinced you, there’s no more denying that we live in a mind-bending science fiction dreamland.

The jetpack is here.

The JB-9, which Van Nuys-based maker JetPack Aviation calls the “World’s Only True Jetpack,” had its coming-out party last week during a flight around the Statue of Liberty.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCYSWyHDpfU]

There have, of course, been many other claimants to the jetpack name. But the JB-9 is “different to anything else being flown, or [that] has been flown historically,” says David Mayman, JetPack Aviation’s CEO and test pilot.

The JB-9 is the product of ten years of collaboration between Mayman and Nelson Tyler, a process chronicled in a forthcoming documentary to be titled Own the Sky. Tyler is best known, appropriately enough, as an inventor for Hollywood, where his advanced camera tools have earned him three Oscars for technical achievement.

Tyler was also the brains behind a so-called “rocket belt” developed in the 1970s. Inspired by the Bell rocket belt that appeared in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball, Tyler’s version had a long career in the movies and TV.

But, just like most other almost-jetpacks, the rocket belt had serious limitations. Flight times were under 30 seconds, which is why their main application has been in Hollywood. The JB-9 has flight times of ten minutes or more.

Then there’s Yves Rossy and his Jetman Dubai team, who fly jet-powered wingsuits. But those deploy from a helicopter, while the JB-9 offers true vertical takeoff and landing. According to Mayman, he can almost land on a dime.

Finally, the Martin Jetpack is perhaps the least convincing contender for the title—it’s neither a jet, nor a pack. “They called it a jetpack because it’s a sexy marketing term,” says Mayman, in his genial Aussie burr. “But it’s actually a gasoline powered piston engine that drives ducted fans.”

It’s also the size of a large motorcycle, and impossible for a wearer to carry. “Effectively it’s a drone,” says Mayman, “and then they put a man inside it.”

The only proper jetpack previously produced, at least by Mayman’s standards, was the Bell Aerosystems and Williams International “Jet Belt” of the late 1960s. But it was extremely heavy, and barely got past the R&D phase.

The JB-9, in contrast to the Martin, runs scaled-down versions of the same kind of jet engines that drive a 747 or F-16. Unlike the old Bell-Williams device, it’s light enough to be carried by a wearer on foot, and small enough to fit into the back seat of a car. The JB-9 also runs on a range of fuels, including diesel and kerosene. Mayman says most of the JB-9’s performance advantages are thanks to recent advances in jet engine technology.

There is still that eternal question of the jetpack—how do you not burn your legs? “It’s really not hot,” insists Mayman. “I could fly in shorts.” That’s because the exhaust mixes with ambient air almost immediately.

Another advantage of the ‘pure’ jetpack is its performance in high winds and turbulence. “We have no wings, so when we fly into 30 or 40 mile per hour winds, we hardly feel it.”

All of that makes the JB-9, at the very least, the first jetpack with potential practical applications. Mayman is particularly keen to see it in the hands of emergency responders, who could travel several miles over rough terrain much more easily than in a helicopter. Mayman says he’s fielded inquiries from Hollywood (no surprise), individual collectors, and marketers who are curious about setting up a jetpack race series (cross your fingers).

There are caveats. Even if the design is ready for prime time, the JB-9 is a prototype, and production at any scale is still in the future. Mayman wouldn’t speculate on the units’ eventual price.

Mayman is also the only person who has ever flown the JB-9. His swing around the Statue of Liberty came after what he admits was a sometimes-rocky learning curve, including dozens of practice flights on a safety tether over two years. Quicker training would be essential to real-world adoption.

Legally, Mayman says JB-9s could be sold tomorrow, under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Ultralight aircraft classification. But, acknowledging that this is a particularly risky form of flight, JetPack Aviation wants to carefully select and train prospective pilots. Even Mayman hasn’t taken the machine to its altitude limits, since the planned parachute assembly isn’t complete.

For all the market demand for a true jet pack, Mayman says the JB-9 has always been mainly a passion project. He’s a dedicated pilot of planes and helicopters, but he says nothing compares with the jetpack experience.

“Ah, it’s extraordinary,” Mayman gushes. “It’s like riding a motorcycle in the sky. It’s so maneuverable, all you have to do is think—I want to go left. And really you don’t do anything, it just goes left.

“It becomes part of your body.”

For more about the futuristic present, watch this Hyperloop video:

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