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Swiss strap-on jetplane ace flies Channel

Barmy backpack birdman does a Blériot

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Renowned Swiss birdman Yves Rossy has, after several weather-related setbacks, finally flown over the English Channel using his unique backpack jetplane.

Leaping from a plane 8,000 feet above Calais, Rossy extended his wings, fired up his four mini jet engines and zoomed across the Channel in less than ten minutes, following the very route taken 99 years ago by Louis Blériot. The intrepid Swiss landed by parachute near Dover shortly after 1 pm.

The flight was broadcast live on the National Geographic Channel, and some early YouTube grabs are now appearing - such as this one (apologies for the quality):

According to the BBC, Rossy described his flight as "great, really great" and added: "I only have one word, thank you, to all the people who did it with me."

Rossy got into backpack jetplanes following a madcap 1990s sky-stunt career featuring various kinds of aerial surfboards, balloons etc. In 2003, he began experimenting with jet engines attached to inflatable man-wings.

Over the next five years, Rossy made many daredevil test flights, mainly over the Swiss Alps, gradually eliminating flaws as successive strap-on planes went out of control or cracked up in accidents - though Rossy himself always managed to parachute down safely.

Today's wing is a rigid carbon-fibre job, extended after Rossy jumps from his drop aircraft by a gas piston. The four miniature jet engines are cased in kevlar, to prevent the dashing birdman being riddled with high-velocity debris in the event of a turbine coming to bits. A flame-proof suit is necessary to avoid burns from the hot jet exhaust.

Rossy's current backpackplane won't ever be a common transport choice. It can only be launched by leaping from a great height, and landing is strictly by parachute - a small drogue is opened first to slow down, then the main descent chute opens. In the event of a loss of control in flight, Rossy can jettison the wing - the latest model has its own chute to bring it in to a soft landing, intended to prevent the destruction which has resulted on previous occasions (provided the flight isn't over water like this latest one).

The least user-friendly thing about the jetpack is that there are no controls or instruments other than a throttle and an audible altimeter. Rossy is the only man in the world who knows how to fly it, by moving his body and head, and it's plainly quite difficult even for him.

But Rossy says he aims to develop a more useable machine, with enough thrust to make a vertical takeoff rather than jumping from a height. The current model has better than 200lb of poke, but weighs 120lb fuelled up without its pilot. It also lacks any feasible means of control at low airspeeds. Even so, the resourceful birdman reckons one day to sell backpack planes - perhaps not VTOL ones - at the same sort of prices as current microlight aircraft.

For now, though, the former Swiss airforce fighter pilot will be sticking to his day job as an airline pilot. ®

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