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Swiss birdman in Alpine backpack-jetplane stunt flight

'I'm not married any more,' says fanatical air-head

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Famous backpack-jetplane pilot Yves Rossy has given his most daring public performance yet, leaping from an ordinary aeroplane to perform a variety of stunts above the Swiss Alps. He says he will fly his four-engined strapon flying wing across the English Channel later this year.

Yves Rossy soars to glory

Only the most committed airheads need apply.

Credit: Stephanie Thomet

The Swiss birdman described his flight yesterday as "absolutely excellent", and his sponsors Hublot Watches (who prefer that he be called "FusionMan") issued a statement saying:

The spectacle was impressive. Yves Rossy leapt from the plane with his wing folded, then deployed his craft and began the flight proper. He made several “figure of eights” above spectators aware of being present at an exceptional event ...

Yves Rossy represents the intensely close relationship between the development of a technology, a body honed to perfection which he uses to steer his craft, and a mind attuned to split-second coordination of flight parameters ... he flies like a bird ... The name FusionMan reflects this synergy of diverse skills that has made a dream come true.

Rossy has been working on his backpack plane equipment for years, following a madcap 1990s career of aerial stunts involving sky-surfing, fountain-surfing*, balloons, ordinary planes, parachutes and lord knows what else. In 2003, the former Swiss air force fighter jockey - currently an airline pilot in his day job - decided that his latest passion, gliding under an inflatable strapon wing, lacked a certain something - namely jet engines.

Many initial obstacles were overcome. Inflatable wings were found to be too bendy for jets, and were replaced with folding, rigid carbon-fibre jobs spread by an electric motor. In 2004 this prototype was "partially destroyed" after Rossy went into an almost-fatal spin at an air show. The next year he was back, and made successful flights in a twin-jet job, but this too was wrecked after "uncontrollable oscillations" led to another prang and saw Rossy prematurely resorting to his parachute yet again. The two engines, of a type normally used in model planes, were apparently a bit lacking in poke anyway, so Rossy was happy enough to rebuild again.

Here's some YouTube vid of an earlier test flight:

(You need Flash and a friendly firewall to view it.)

In November 2006, he was back with four engines on his back and a new wing. This time he seemed to have cracked it, making a successful five-and-a-half minute flight. But there was yet another pileup early last year, and once again the machine had to be rebuilt.

Now with sponsorship from Swiss watch company Hublot, Rossy is back once again with a new and even better wing - quadruple engines, much quicker gas-piston opening, almost 200lb of thrust allowing a climb rate of 1000'/min and fuel for ten minutes of powered flight at 185 mph. That should, as the intrepid birdman says, be enough to get him across the Channel and a bit to spare. It's a lot better than present-day vertical-takeoff jetpacks, which typically struggle to beat a minute's endurance.

Rossy's backpack jetwings won't be hitting the shops soon, though. The only controls or instruments are a throttle and an audible altimeter - the wing is steered using the body, and given his long history of crackups this plainly isn't easy even for Rossy. A flameproof suit is necessary to avoid leg burns from the jet exhaust, too. The only way of launching is to jump from a (great) height. Landing is by folding the wings and parachuting down - yet more skills to be mastered. (The latest wing has its own landing chute which deploys if it has to be jettisoned, which should ease the future development path somewhat).

The main application would seem to be stunts like yesterday's - or perhaps for certain highly unusual/barmy special-forces missions. Spelco, a military parachute company in Germany, is working on its "Gryphon" backpack deltaplane - an easier to operate, low-radar-signature, long-ranging version of Rossy's concept.

The cost of all this?

$285,000 so far, according to AP. And there may be other hidden prices to be paid. "I'm not married any more," says the 47-year-old Rossy, in a Hublot promo video. ®

*Apparently.

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