Published July 30, 2008
Fly the dream, baby.
That's the slogan, more or less, of New Zealand's Martin Jetpack company, which debuted its $100,000 personal flight apparatus Tuesday at the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis.
As thousands looked on, inventor Glenn Martin's 16-year-old son donned a helmet, fastened himself to a prototype and revved the engine, which sounded like a motorcycle.
Harrison Martin eased about three feet off the ground, the engine roaring with a whine so loud that some kids covered their ears.
With two spotters preventing the jet pack from drifting in a mild wind, the teenager hovered for 45 seconds and then set the device down as the audience applauded.
"Wow, that went better than expected," Glenn Martin said afterward. "People will look back on this as a moment in history."
The imposing machine, technically an ultralight aircraft, weighs 250 pounds and doesn't exactly clip onto the user's back.
Rather, you strap yourself into it, and both and the machine are supported by a pogo-stick-like stand.
Nor is it quite a jetpack, despite the company's name.
The 200-horsepower gasoline engine powers two high-powered downward-thrusting propellers, enclosed in airflow-focusing cowlings, that push the craft and its rider off the ground.
That's possibly the most groundbreaking aspect of the Martin. True jetpacks, such as this one reported on by FOXNews.com in January, tend to sputter out in a matter of minutes or even seconds as their rocket fuel runs dry.
But the Martin's more conventional propulsion give it much longer staying power -- a whopping 30 minutes in the air, far longer than any of its rivals.
In theory, it can fly an average-sized pilot about 30 miles on a full 5-gallon tank of gas. And as long as the FAA classifies it as an ultralight, American owners won't need a pilot's license.
But don't expect to see commuters rushing to work by air instead of land. Ultralights can't be operated over congested areas, according to FAA regulations, and are to be used "exclusively for sport or recreational purpose."
That's fine, Martin said. He predicts the jet packs will start out as toys for the wealthy.
Then, as law enforcement officials become more familiar with them, Martin envisions jet packs used by the military, border-patrol officials and search-and-rescue teams.
His white jet pack with black trim stands on a brick-sized base with two legs sprawled behind it.
The pilot steps backward into the straps of a shoulder harness, his shoulder blades resting against two wide upward-facing fans that provide the thrust.
There's an emergency parachute that's effective above about 400 feet, and an impact-absorbing undercarriage that can soften a rough landing or short fall, Martin said.
He's still refining the safety features for those heights in between.
"A lot of it comes down to how do you fly, at what speed, at what angle," he said.
Like Kent Couch, the Oregon man who flew 235 miles earlier this month with 150 helium balloons attached to his lawn chair, Martin always wanted to soar through the air. He quit his job as a pharmaceutical sales rep to launch his jet-pack company.
Martin says venture capitalists are backing him, but he didn't give names.
Reaction to the test flight was mixed.
Attendees with aviation backgrounds raved, calling it an engineering marvel and saying the 45-second flight was fantastic proof that the idea works.
Others who hoped to see the machine go higher and move in different directions seemed generally disappointed.
Martin began taking orders Tuesday for jetpacks to be delivered at next year's AirVenture, though he's keeping his sales expectations in check.
After all, other entrepreneurs who chased the idea for about 50 years were unable to get off the ground.
German scientists experimented with jetpack technology during World War II as a way to help soldiers avoid mines.
Then scientists at Bell Labs produced a version that ran on hydrogen peroxide and provided a few seconds of lift.
Later a California company spent six years and millions of the military's dollars on the 8-foot-tall SoloTrek Exo-Skeletor Flying Vehicle.
During a disappointing 2002 test flight the machine hovered a few feet off the ground for 19 seconds.
Two other companies are trying to sell jet packs now.
Tecnologia Aeroespacial Mexicana in Cuernavaca, Mexico produces a custom-made rocket belt that costs $125,000. It uses hydrogen peroxide to power 20-second flights, according to the company's Web site.
The rocket belts are mostly sold for use in advertising and promotions, such as halftime appearances at football games.
Jet Pack International, based in Denver, produces two hydrogen-peroxide models and one $200,000 jet pack that runs on jet fuel.
An average-sized pilot could travel about nine minutes and 11 miles on the 5-gallon tank, the company said.
Jet Pack has "hundreds" of people on a waiting list for its jet fuel pack, spokeswoman Kelly McLear said, but she wouldn't say when it would be available.
"Our No. 1 priority is safety," McLear said. "We're not going to put a product on the market unless we've checked it a million times over and worked all the bugs out."
No other major companies have revealed plans to produce jetpacks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.