Zooming Around the Alps In a Homemade Wing Suit

Yves Rossy, a.k.a. "Bird Man of the Alps," takes flight in Switzerland on May 14, 2008.Video Copyright Hublot TV
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 4, 2008

CRANS-PRES-CELIGNY, Switzerland -- Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's . . . Fusion Man!

Make that Yves Rossy, a 48-year-old Swiss daredevil also known as Jet Man, Rocket Man, the Bird Man of the Alps.

Thanks to his homemade, jet-powered wing suit, Rossy can flash through the air at a Superman-like 186 mph. Imagine George Jetson, the futuristic cartoon character, pumped up with nuclear steroids and leaving his boy Elroy in the dust.

"It's always been my dream, to fly like a bird," Rossy said in an interview at his home in this Swiss village overlooking Lake Geneva. "And I don't want to do it just for myself, but to show mankind how to do it."

A former fighter pilot in the Swiss air force who now flies commercial aircraft for Swiss airlines, Rossy has been scheming for a decade about possible ways to transform himself into a bird, albeit a mechanical one.

Should his wings be inflatable or rigid? How could he strap jet engines to his back but keep them cool enough so they wouldn't burn him alive? How much fuel can he afford to carry so he doesn't sink like a rock? Is it possible to use his body to steer without collapsing into a fatal spin dive?

For years, Rossy tinkered in his garage: drawing up test flights, revising plans, repairing broken prototypes.

Finally, on May 14, high above the Alps near the Swiss town of Bex, Rossy put it all on the line. He invited journalists and camera crews and promised a mind-blowing show, fully realizing that if he flamed out or crashed, they'd portray him as a world-class fool.

At an altitude of 7,700 feet, he dropped out of an airplane, his 120-pound wing suit strapped around his shoulders, back and arms. He gassed the throttle and off he went: soaring across the sky at race-car speeds as a helicopter tried to keep up so it could videotape his performance.

After a flight of slightly more than five minutes, with fuel running out, Fusion Man pulled the cord on his chute and floated gracefully to the ground, landing on his feet.

"Absolutely excellent," he told reporters afterward. He cheerfully admitted that his most spectacular maneuver, a 360-degree loop-de-loop, was intended to "impress the girls."

Nobody's ever been able to fly like this before, though people have tried for centuries.

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