OSHKOSH, Wisconsin – There’s a moment in every flight where gravity cedes control to Yves Rossy and for a few minutes he flies as birds do, with only a wing on his back and the wind at his face. Sure, there are jet engines, but he hears mostly the wind. It’s perhaps the greatest feeling of freedom one can experience, and after all these years, it never gets old.
“That is one of the best moments, this pass from vertical to flying,” he says. “I am flying. I am not falling anymore, I am flying.”
The 54-year-old pilot, known worldwide as Jetman, flies with nothing more than a carbon fiber wing and four tiny jet engines strapped to his back. He’s been doing it for years – he’s flown over the English Channel and across the Grand Canyon, among other things – and videos of his feats are easily found on YouTube, but you just can’t appreciate how amazing it is until you’ve seen it in person.
Rossy all but stole the show here at Airventure in Oshkosh when he flew in formation with a Boeing B-17, the famous World War II “Flying Fortress.” WIRED was among those invited to ride along, and to see Rossy turning his head and shoulders to fly in formation alongside the B-17 was simply incredible. And we weren’t the only ones impressed.
“The perspective of seeing a guy off your wing, with a wing on his back — there’s just nothing to prepare you for it,” said B-17 pilot George Daubner. “I don’t think any of us expected the maneuverability he had.”
Rossy flies with the grace of an eagle, and the subtle body movements he uses to maintain flight – and perform his loops, rolls, and other maneuvers – mimics a bird of prey.
The former Swiss Air Force pilot has flown everything from sailplanes to fighter jets. Before becoming Jetman full-time four years ago, Rossy was a captian flying the Airbus A320 for Swiss International Air Lines. But he always dreamed of a more freeform way of flying. He’d been skydiving, but that wasn’t quite what he was looking for.
The idea of flying a wing strapped to his back began in 1993. The first step was to simply glide. To start, he strapped on a custom built inflatable wing and learned how to glide. Once he had the basics of that figured out, he built a rigid carbon fiber, kevlar reinforced wing and added a pair of tiny jet engines. That was the breakthrough that allowed him to make level flight.
“It was totally crazy,” he says of that first powered flight. After so many glide flights, the first time he flew straight and true without descending was like having someone pulling a giant handle on his back he says, “I can remember it very well, because it was so not normal.”