Culture

Where's My Jetpack?

James Bond flew one in Thunderball; Professor John Robinson flew one in Lost in Space, with some great Bernard Herrmann background music:

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Nerdy kids like me looked at that and dreamed of having our own rocket pack, flying over the neighborhood, escaping from the bad guys. The real Bell Rocket Belt would have been a bit of a disappointment — total flight time less than 30 seconds, and you really don’t want to run out of gas. Still, I’d have gone for it, and I’m disappointed to discover that while a few of them still exist, pilots are limited to 175 pounds.

Maybe things are (heh, heh) looking up. A New Zealander named Glenn Martin — no relation to me, and as far as I know, no relation to the other aviation pioneer named Glenn Martin — has been working for years on his own version of the jet pack. His version solves some of the problems.

First of all, instead of using real rockets, this uses two ducted fans driven by a gasoline engine. This is not as inherently cool as a rocket, but it means that you can get pretty reasonable flight time.

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Second, actually flying the Bell Rocket Belt was somewhat hairy — it was described as “dancing on the controls” as you tried to keep the rocket thrust aimed through your center of gravity. The belt was just not terrifically stable. The Martin Jetpack gets a second advantage from the big fans: they are basically big gyroscopes, and the positioning of them makes the jetpack much more inherently stable. They talk about an automated hover function — well, I’ve flown a helicopter, and hovering is a bear. If this thing hovers easily it’s a big win.

Third is the problem of being farther off the ground that you’d want to fall if the engine fails or the fuel runs out. A fixed-wing airplane simply glides. You have your pick of landing spots as long as you’re not too picky. A helicopter autorotates, which is more of a controlled crash than a landing, but people have walked away from autorotation landings. Unpowered, this thing would pretty much have the aerodynamic characteristics of a brick. So, it includes a “ballistic parachute,” which is to say a parachute that is shot from the vehicle by a rocket, so it has a chance to open.

I suspect it would still be a little nerve-racking, but on the other hand, Professor Robinson actually could fly around looking for Penny for hours.