For centuries humans have been enamoured with the idea of flight. Even with aircraft zipping across the planet, humans have pushed the limits to go higher and faster.
But the one thing that has truly captured our imagination is the personal flying machine.
“Look at every superhero movie; they’re all whizzing around. That freedom, I think we all want that,” Engineers Australia Fellow and Chartered engineer Roderick McDonald FIEAust CPEng, Principal Engineer at Black Square Engineering, told create.
Since ancient times, humans have wanted to whiz around the way gods and superheroes do. Create takes a look at the long and surprising history of personal flying machines
Scientist of a feather
Engineers have long copied nature when looking for inspiration, and flight is no different.
The tragic story of Daedalus and Icarus is one of the best-known early attempts at flight.
Daedalus was said to be an inventor and carpenter imprisoned with his son Icarus on the Greek island of Crete. To escape, Daedalus built wings of wax and feathers for the two but warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, because the wax would melt. However, Icarus became overconfident and ignored his father’s warning. Just as Daedalus predicted, the sun melted the wax on Icarus’s wings and the boy plunged into the sea.
Like most Greek myths, this story is used more as a moral educational tool rather than hard science, but some scientists have nonetheless examined the feasibility of their flight.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Leicester published a paper noting it would have taken between 43 and 70 minutes for Icarus’s wings to melt. But because it gets colder as you fly higher, Icarus could have flown as close to the sun as he liked — he would have died of lack of oxygen or frostbite before his wings had a chance to melt.
Although Daedalus and Icarus are fictional, some real historical figures have tried flying with birdlike wings.
In A.D. 875, an Andalusian scientist named Abbas ibn Firnas “covered himself with feathers … attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air.”
Although feathers were involved, it’s believed Firnas actually used a glider made of wood and silk. According to historians, Firnas flew for somewhere between two and 10 minutes and though the landing was rocky he emerged mostly unharmed. A lack of “tail” probably led to Firnas’s less than graceful landing.
Two centuries later, an English monk would attempt a flight similar to Firnas’s. Eilmer of Malmesbury gained the nickname “The Flying Monk” after strapping wings to his hands and feet and jumping from the top of Malmesbury Abbey.
We don’t know what Eilmer used for his wings, but we do know that he flew for a distance of a “furlong,” or about 200 m. He was likely airborne for roughly 15 seconds.
Like Firnas, Eilmer failed to add a tail to his flying device, meaning he was probably blown sideways, leading to a rough landing. The monk broke both his legs and was forbidden from ever attempting to fly again.
The invention of the box kite by Australian engineer Lawrence Hargrave really helped get things off the ground, but what flying enthusiasts were really looking for was something with a bit more oomph.
Jet pack madness
Jet packs have often been considered the future of personal flight, but humans have been trying to nail the art of jet packs since the 17th century.
In 1633, Ottoman aviator Lagâri Hasan Çelebi built what was likely the very first jet pack. Lagâri attached seven wings to a chamber filled with 63 kg of gunpowder. Before the flight, Lagâri told Sultan Murad IV “O my sultan! Be blessed, I am going to talk to Jesus!”. Lagâri flew 300 m before falling into the ocean. When he swam back to shore, he said, “O my sultan! Jesus sends his regards to you!”.
The television show MythBusters attempted to recreate Lagâri’s flight but, since records from the time don’t elaborate on exactly how Lagâri built his rocket, the team was dubious about the story’s accuracy. The prototype the team built exploded mid-flight.
Russian inventor Alexander Andreev designed a jet pack in 1919 powered by oxygen and methane. Though Andreev never actually built his jet pack, he was one of the first to see the devices’ potential military use. He imagined jetpacks would allow soldiers to “siege fortresses, bypassing all earth obstacles [to] fly over freely to the rear of the enemy.”
It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that jetpacks began to really take off. In 1952, with limited funding from the US Army, inventor Thomas T. Moore built and personally tested a device he called the Jetvest. The Jetvest worked by igniting hydrogen peroxide to produce a vapour-gas strong enough to lift a person. Though Moore successfully demonstrated the device, funding for his project dried up, and Jetvest was not developed further.
Instead, the US Army went in a different direction.
In 1954, it built the HZ-1 Aerocycle which functioned like a one-man helicopter. Similar to modern Segways, the Aerocycle was controlled by the user’s weight. Unfortunately, the project was abandoned in 1956 after a number of crashes and reports that the device wasn’t as easy to control as previously thought.
The army wasn’t quite ready to give up, but it did temper its expectations slightly. In 1958, Garry Burdett and Alexander Bohr demonstrated the Jumpbelt, a device that would allow soldiers to leap six-metres into the air using high-pressure compressed nitrogen. However, the army was not forthcoming with further funding, so the project stalled.
For the next decade, private industry continued to develop the jetpack. Bell Aerospace became a leader in this space, creating the Bell Rocket Belt (1961) and later the Jet Flying Belt (1969).
The Rocket Belt is probably the most well-known jetpack, particularly after its appearance in Thunderball where Sean Connery’s James Bond uses one to escape to his Aston Martin.
Similar to the Jetvest, the Rocket Belt used hydrogen-peroxide to fuel its flight. The pressurised hydrogen peroxide is sent through a series of fine-meshed screens made of a silver catalyst. This expands the hydrogen peroxide into superheated steam, which thrusts the user into the air.
Unfortunately, the Rocket Belt, like many other jet packs, eats up fuel like crazy.
“It’s basically just sheer rocket fuel lifting someone off the ground; you could probably fill up a car and run for a week on the back of that thing for 30 to 40 seconds of fun,” said McDonald.
Our willingness to take on risk also changed, and the idea of strapping a potential explosive to our backs fell out of favour.
“People from [the 50s and 60s] era certainly had a different comprehension and acceptance of risk. Even the test pilots were taking up crazy new plane designs when we just didn’t genuinely understand how stuff was working,” said McDonald.
Modern jet packs
At the turn of the century, jet pack inventors started to throw off the shackles of the traditional jet pack. Rather than focusing on a backpack that could lift a user from a standing position, some tried creating devices that would hold up users who were already flying.
One of the most famous iterations was Swiss pilot Yves Rossy’s flight in 2006. Rossy became known as “Jetman” after launching himself from an aircraft in a carbon-fibre winged jet suit. Attached to the suit’s 2.4 m wings were four small jet engines that burned kerosene.
Rossy’s jet pack was so successful that, in 2008, he flew solo across the English Channel in 10 minutes.
In the late 2000s, entrepreneurs attempted to tackle the fuel issue in jetpacks with the invention of hydrojetpacks. These use water pressure to lift users into the air, similar to being attached to a fire hose. Hydrojetpacks like Jetlev and the Flyboard have become the most commercially viable jetpacks; however, according to the NSW Government they’re still not recommended for general use.
The late 2000s had another force driving interest in the jet pack: Marvel’s 2008 box office hit Iron Man. When British inventor Richard Browning demonstrated his privately funded jet suit in 2017 it was hard not to see the similarity between Browning’s Daedalus Flight Pack and Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit.
The Daedalus has four micro-turbine engines mounted on the arms and an additional two on each hip. This forms a “teepee of thrust”, as Browning calls it. The thrusters on the arms are an interesting but logical development; when we fall, we naturally put our arms out to stop ourselves, so placing the thrusters there makes flying much more intuitive.
The Daedalus suit is still a way off from becoming a consumer product. According to McDonald, it’s unlikely we’ll be riding around on jet packs anytime soon.
“We’ve made great strides in battery improvements, so I could see us heading in a drone-like direction when it comes to personal flying machines,” he said.
“It’s still very energy intensive though and, quite frankly, rolling around in a set of wheels on the ground is much safer and more efficient.
“Besides, could you imagine the traffic?”