‘Jetpack Man’ has been spotted over LAX international airport several times in the last year. Is it a clever prank, or has someone finally created a real jetpack?
On 30 August 2020, American Airlines flight 1997 was approaching LAX for landing around 6.20pm. The flight to that point had been routine, a regular service running from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
But as the pilots began their final approach, a few minutes north west of the airport over Santa Monica, they spotted something unusual. What appeared to be a man, flying alongside them at around 3 000 feet, in a jetpack:
Pilot: Tower, American 1997, we just passed a guy in a jet pack.
Tower: American 1997, OK, thank you, were they to your left side or right side?
Pilot: Off the left side at ah maybe 300-ah-300 yards or so, about our altitude.
A few minutes later a pilot on a different plane, Southwest airlines flight 6046, reported the same thing. Air traffic control now warned all planes in the area to be on the lookout.
Tower: JetBlue 23 please caution a person with a jet pack reported 300 yards south of the LA final at about 3000 feet.
Pilot: JetBlue 23 we heard and are definitely looking.
Tower: Only in LA.
While the tower’s droll responses highlight the bizarre nature of the incident, there was a more serious aspect.
LAX is one of the world’s busiest airports, and the airspace over the city is crowded with planes, and carefully monitored. A complex network of radar and communications is in place to keep air passengers safe. Any unauthorised entry into this airspace, could be dangerous.
Someone using a jetpack would be too small to be picked up on radar, and a collision with a large plane could be catastrophic. Based on the reports of the pilots and the control tower, the FBI began an investigation. A month later, in October, Jetpack Man was spotted again.
This time a China Airways crew reported ‘what appeared to be someone in a jetpack’, flying alongside their plane at around 6 000 feet. In December, a flying instructor saw the Jetpack Man, and this time was able to capture a blurry video.
The incidents were reported to the FAA, and the pilots and crew interviewed by the FBI. A public plea was made, for anyone with information to come forward.
If there really was a Jetpack Man buzzing LAX, someone must have seen them take off and land.
But beneath the media coverage of the incidents and the official investigation, lurked a mystery. While actual jetpacks exist, and have been around for decades, they come with strict limitations.
For a variety of reasons, no one has ever been able to build one that could fly for more than a few minutes. This has prevented them from flying at the altitudes reported by the pilots over LA, for extended periods, several thousand feet in the air.
Jetpacks have had a grip on the public imagination, going back at least a hundred years.
In the early 20th century, magazines publishing science fiction tales became popular. These periodicals laid the groundwork for a lot of modern sci-fi, the writers inspired by technological advancements and the approaching space age.
Common topics included manned space travel, rocket ships, astronauts and aliens.
In 1928, Amazing Tales magazine published ‘The Skylark of Space’, a story where a man made belt and backpack provides the ability to fly; likely the first story to feature a jetpack-like device. The idea was soon expanded upon by other writers, and more stories were built around this imaginative concept.
By 1949, Republic Pictures were able to build a film franchise around it. That year they released ‘King of the Rocket Men’, a serialised film adventure that has the evil Dr Vulcan building a rocket backpack to attack America’s leading scientists, who scramble to create the same technology to fight back.
New York is reduced to rubble, in the ensuing chaos.
By this time, jetpacks and rocket packs had established themselves as a popular sci-fi trope. But could they be created in real life? The US military decided to find out.
In 1953, the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) approved an experimental program to be developed by Hiller Aircraft.
Based on a design originally conceived in the 1940s, Hiller created the ‘VZ-1 Pawnee’, also known as the ‘Flying Platform’. This utilised two piston engines and a large fan, to create a flying disk-shaped platform that could take one person aloft.
Hiller successfully tested the device in 1955, and made three variants of different sizes. But the ONR decided not to pursue the vehicle; while it was stable, its range both horizontally and vertically was small, a limitation that would hinder other projects in the future.
In 1958 two engineers at the Thiokol Corporation created the ‘Jump Belt’.
Thiokol was an industrial firm that made components for Air Force planes, and for the growing field of missiles and rocket-based weapons. The Jump Belt was an experimental device designed to be used by army personnel in the field: two cannisters of nitrous oxide were attached to the person’s belt, opening a valve boosted them into the air for a few seconds.
While not enough gas could be included for proper flight, it was thought this would be useful in scouting and reconnaissance. The Jump Belt’s creators nicknamed it, ‘The Grasshopper’.
This was also successfully tested and demonstrated for the army, who decided not to fund the project.
Then came an apparent breakthrough.
In 1961 Wendell Moore, an engineer at Bell Aerosystems, launched the ‘Rocket Belt’: the first successfully tested, practical device that largely matched the public perception of a rocket pack. The design, which Moore worked on for nearly a decade, featured a tank worn over the shoulders, and two exhaust jets for thrust. Compressed nitrogen was again the fuel.
Moore’s device was demonstrated for the army early in 1961, but although this was successful it fared no better than its predecessors. The maximum flight time achieved was only 21 seconds: this was all the fuel that could be included, in a tank small enough to wear. The army decided this was not practical for use in the field, and discontinued the project’s funding.
But Moore’s device did not go away.
In 1962 it was demonstrated for the public, and gained a favourable response and enthusiastic press. As the space race against the Soviets was heating up, here was (seemingly) another facet of it: a real life rocket pack, straight from the pages of a pulpy sci-fi mag!
The look of it undoubtedly played a part in its popularity: this is what a rocket pack was meant to look like.
Engineer Harold Graham, part of the Rocket Belt design team, also became its test pilot. He gave a demonstration for President Kennedy at Fort Bragg and, as Bell pushed on with the project without the military, took it around the world trying to drum up interest.
He would eventually perform demonstrations in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Germany, and France, as well as a number of locations in America. Despite the excitement over the belt, its limitations proved an insurmountable obstacle; no country’s military were interested, and Bell finally abandoned the programme.
Moore worked on some additional designs and variations, before the project was curtailed in 1965.
But for 30 years, this is as close to a proper jetpack as anyone could devise.
At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, a ‘jetpack’ made an appearance as part of the opening ceremony, pilot Bill Suitor flying into the stadium and landing on the main field. This dramatic moment captured the attention of the world, and was designed to project an image of America as technologically advanced and supremely confident (I vividly remember seeing this, when I was a child).
The jetpack used that day? A leftover Bell Rocket Belt prototype, built 25 years beforehand.
In 1992, a small group of enthusiasts decided to try and revive the Rocket Belt.
Two years of work lead to the creation of an advanced model, which they called the RB2000. Similar in appearance to Moore’s design, this had more powerful thrusters and a larger fuel tank, although test flights still topped out at 30 seconds duration.
But before the RB2000 could be advanced any further, several of the investors had a falling out.
Brad Barker, a former insurance salesman, became dissatisfied with the partnership and made off with the RB2000 prototype. Larry Stanley, a former engineer turned oil entrepreneur, then sued Barker for fraud. Stanley won the case, and Barker was ordered to return the RB2000, and pay damages.
When he refused, Stanley had him kidnapped. Barker was held prisoner for 8 days, before managing to escape; Stanley was subsequently arrested, and spent 8 years in jail. One of the other investors was later found murdered, the case remains unsolved.
The RB2000 was never recovered.
A book was written about this wild series of events, ‘The Rocketbelt Caper’, later adapted into the 2008 film ‘Pretty Bird’, with Paul Giamatti playing a character based on Stanley.
While the jetpacks of science fiction have proved elusive, other devices that mimic their operation have been developed.
In the early 2000s Yves Rossy, a former Swiss military pilot, oversaw the development of an engine powered jetpack capable of high-altitude flight over distance. Rossy’s device features a carbon fibre fixed wing, and four kerosene fuelled engines; it can reach speeds of up to 300 km/hour, and altitudes up to 8 000 feet.
The limitation with Rossy’s device is that he must first be carried aloft in an airplane, and launched from it at a significant height.
Known as ‘Jetman’, Rossy has completed several high-profile trips in his jetpack, including a crossing of the English Channel, and a flight over the Alps. He often appears at air shows, and extreme sports events.
Developed around the same time, ‘JetLev’ is a simpler device that harnesses water to achieve flight.
The JetLev backback trails a hose that sits in a water source; usually a lake, or the ocean. Water is sucked up into the backpack, and then fired out at very high pressure through twin nozzles, with sufficient force to lift the wearer off the ground.
The limitation with this device is that the hose is effectively like an extension cord: the user can only go as far as the hose reaches.
Nevertheless, JetLev has proved popular, and under a variety of names can often be found as a beachside tourist attraction, in summer.
Other experimental devices have been created, that seek to create a truer, sci-fi style jetpack. These have had promising, but varied, results. The idea remains potent.
On July 29, 2021, Jetpack Man returned to LAX. This time he was spotted 15 miles east of the airport, at 5 000 feet, by the pilot of a cargo plane.
Air traffic control issued a warning to pilots in the vicinity:
‘Use caution. The jetpack guy is back.’
This new appearance triggered another round of investigation and speculation. Experts were divided as to what was actually in the sky, over LA.
Based on the jetpack’s history, and their well-known limitations, many have dismissed it as a prank. No known jetpack could fly so high, for such a long period. Recent prototype devices had gone to the same altitude, or even above, but only for very short periods of time.
In this take, Jetpack Man is likely a drone, tricked out to look like a man wearing a jetpack, being flown near the airport as a prank.
Documents released via a Freedom of Information indicated the FBI had shown one of the pilots who had sighted Jetpack Man a video of a drone dressed up to look like a jetpack. The pilot confirmed it matched what he had seen. The same FOI request had the FBI questioning staff at an LA based jetpack manufacturer.
The investigation continues.