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.
According to Greek legend, when Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings of wax and feathers promptly melted. Leonardo da Vinci built models of an ornithopter, a human-powered set of wings.
The 20th century saw the development of wingless jet packs and rocket packs that enable the wearer to lift slightly off the ground and zip around for about 30 seconds before settling back to terra firma. James Bond used a jet pack rather than a getaway car in the film "Thunderball."
Advances came through trial and error. A French skydiver, Patrick de Gayardon, invented a nonmechanical wing suit that allowed him to glide for miles. He died in an accident in Hawaii in 1998. Seven years later, Visa Parviainen of Finland attached two tiny jet engines to his feet and jumped out of a hot-air balloon. He flew straight as an arrow for about 30 seconds, and lived to tell about it.
Only Rossy, however, has figured out a way to fly upward in a serious way -- climbing in altitude in a controlled fashion, using only his body to steer. He can ascend as much as 2,000 feet at a time. Eventually, he wants to achieve complete vertical lift.
"You'd see a little gap in the cloud and -- poof! -- you'd go straight up through the hole to the sun, and come back down again," he said. "I hope I am not far away."
Rossy has grand plans for other breakthroughs.
In September, he is scheduled to attempt to fly across the English Channel. If there's no wind, he has calculated that it would take 12 minutes to cross, or more than double the duration of his demonstration flight in Switzerland.
Recently, however, he managed to stay aloft in a test flight for 11 minutes, and he figures he can carry enough fuel to stretch it to 14.
He'd also like to fly across the Grand Canyon. "I could do it tomorrow, it would be easy," he bragged.
Rossy has become a legend in skydiving circles. Bruno Brokken, a world-champion aeronautic acrobat from Belgium, said people had their doubts that Rossy's approach would work.
"Many people would have given up years ago. But he kept trying new ways, new designs, and it finally succeeded," said Brokken, a longtime friend and adviser. "I wouldn't do the things he does. You need to be a special kind of person to do that kind of stuff. He can stay cool in a tough situation."
Rossy said he always adheres to strict, self-imposed safety standards. If things threaten to go awry during a flight -- if he feels a spin coming on, or if the voice altimeter tells him he's dropping dangerously low -- he pulls his parachute cord.
But he admitted that it's getting harder to hold himself back. The more he accomplishes, the more he is tempted to walk the edge, to wait a few more seconds before bailing out.
"I am my own biggest danger now," he said. "There have been times where I had to say afterward, 'Okay, that was too far.' It's typical human behavior. You always want to do more, to achieve this super ability to fly. But if we were really meant to fly, we'd have feathers instead of hair."