A pilot flying a Boeing 747 over Los Angeles looked out of the cockpit one evening in late July and saw something so strange that he alerted air-traffic control.
The July 28 incident was the third time in less than a year that a pilot flying near Los Angeles International Airport reported someone zipping around in a jetpack. All three incidents prompted the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration to launch investigations. The aviation community — including jetpack manufacturers — was abuzz with theories about how someone could get their hands on a relatively rare item, take off with one and fly thousands of feet in the air — all while escaping everyone’s notice, except for the pilots who reported them.
More than 14 months after the first sighting, federal investigators have no definitive answers. But the FBI this week floated a new theory, one that doesn’t involve jetpacks at all. It turns out that “jetpack man” may have been a balloon all along — possibly one shaped like the lanky Jack Skellington, the main character in 1993 Tim Burton film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
The first report of a jetpack flier came on Aug. 30, 2020, from an American Airlines pilot who was about to land at LAX. A commercial pilot made the second one about six weeks later on Oct. 14, saying they’d spotted someone more than a mile above ground.
From the start, several aviation experts said they were skeptical. There aren’t many jetpacks, and it’s difficult to get your hands on one, they said. David Mayman, CEO of the Los Angeles-based company JetPack Aviation, has five available for flying lessons, at $4,950 a session. He told the Los Angeles Times his company disables them when they’re not being used. The company’s JB-11 JetPack — which is powered by six modified turbo jet engines that feed on kerosene or diesel — weighs 115 pounds, can top 120 mph and run for 10 minutes.
Even if a rogue user got their hands on one, it would be hard, given the jetpack’s technological limitations, to reach the 3,000-to-6,000-foot altitudes reported by the pilots without running out of fuel, Mayman said. The company’s jetpacks have a technical ceiling of 15,000 feet but because of fuel limitations, can only actually reach between 1,000 and 1,500 feet.
“It’s very, very unlikely with the existing technology,” Mayman told the Associated Press after the first jetpack report. “I’m open to being surprised. But I don’t think there’s anyone working on technology that could do a flight from ground level to 3,000 feet and then come back down again.”
Experts speculated that the pilots had actually seen drones or balloons. Federal investigators haven’t found any other witnesses who saw someone flying a jetpack.
“So far, none of these sightings have been verified,” the FAA said in a statement to KNBC.
But the FBI and FAA did get video from the Los Angeles Police Department that has propelled their investigation. During a routine patrol flight, an LAPD helicopter crew shot footage of a life-size, human-shaped balloon floating above the Hollywood Hills in early November 2020, about two weeks after the second reported sighting of “jetpack man,” according to KNBC, which obtained the video. The balloon appears to be designed to look like Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
The police department gave the footage to federal investigators months ago, and it’s become part of a new hypothesis about what the pilots saw.
“One working theory is that pilots might have seen balloons,” the FBI and FAA said in statements responding to the LAPD footage.
That makes a lot more sense to Ross Aimer, a retired pilot and aviation consultant.
“This now explains that this could possibly be what they saw,” Aimer told KNBC.
Aimer said he thinks the pilots were making good faith reports but were simply mistaken. They would have only caught a glimpse of the object, given how fast they were traveling.
“There’s a very good possibility the previous ones were also balloons and pilots mistook them as jetpacks,” he added. “This is a better explanation to me and to the aviation community.”
Not everyone was so incredulous. The American Airlines pilot who made the first report was quickly backed up by another pilot on a JetBlue Airways flight in the area.
“We just saw the guy pass us by in the jetpack,” the pilot reported.
The air traffic controller’s response: “Only in L.A.”
And, maybe, not even there.