The Jetpack - Free Individual Flight

It's been a long time, longer than anyone can remember, since airplanes began allowing man to do what he was never meant to do. Yet, despite over a century of flight, there have been few those who managed to fly free, without feeling trapped in the steel cylinder we call today an aircraft. Back in the days of the Greek Gods, Icarus is said to have attempted flying out of the massive labyrinth in Crete, where he was imprisoned with his father, Daedalus, by using a pair of wings. We all know how that ended. In the 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci drew amazing schemes of machines meant to take man into the skies. Still studied today, his drawings, as they were, never became reality. Our grandfathers, and even fathers, have grown up with comic books depicting all sorts of superheroes. Most of them fly without mechanical aid. Some use weird contraptions strapped to their backs, machines they usually call jetpacks, to go about their planet-saving business. Finally, our children may be the ones who will eventually manage to really fly free. Today, after a few decades of science fiction and several failed attempts to produce a viable jetpack, we're closer than ever to achieve this goal. HISTORY OF THE JETPACK
A jetpack is a machinery which allows humans to fly. Unlike traditional flight, a person does not enter this machine, but literally wears it. The jetpack is strapped to a person's back and, by using thrusters which spit out gases, pushes the wearer off the ground.

The story of the jetpack began sometime in the 1920s, when sci-fi literature and comic books became popular. At that time, commercial flight was virtually nonexistent, with airplanes being the toy of choice for the military and flight pioneers.

As with any pre-war gizmo, the jetpack started being seriously looked into when the biggest conflict mankind ever knew erupted. The second World War was the perfect medium for the jetpack to develop, even if only one presumably functioning, yet unsuccessful model, has been built.

The efforts which started with the army continued after the war in the private sector, with several companies developing jetpacks. For most though, the jetpack remained in the realm of “what if.” It can be done, it can be made to work, but it will never do.


In the final years of the second World War, the Nazis were losing ground, plenty of men and, why not, their minds. In an effort to turn the tide once again, the German scientists were put to work to develop what at the time were considered insane technologies (most of their research turned however into major breakthroughs in technology after the war). The V flying bomb with its Argus As 014 pulse jet engine is the perfect example of a technology which had little impact on the outcome of the war, but was the stepping stone for the space exploration which started in the 1960s.

At about the same time the V bombs were being developed, scientists and engineers began considering strapping a downsized version of the Argus As 014 on the backs of Germany's soldiers.

The idea was to send soldiers, mostly from the engineering corps, over enemy lines without using the big, noisy, easy to hit transport airplanes. By being hard to spot, because of its size, and highly maneuverable, the Himmelsturmer (Skystormer) would have been the perfect tool for precision hits, sabotage missions and commando actions.

The jetpack, if it can be called that, used two low-power rockets to allow the wearer to jump (very high and for long distances) rather than fly.

The Himmelsturmer was apparently never used though, as the war ended before it could be deployed. When the war was over, a Himmelsturmer was captured by Allies and, as it happened with most of Germany's technologies, was sent behind the front line for further study. This unit ended up in the backyard of Bell Aerosystems, who turned it upside down and inside out to make it work. Apparently, because nobody had the guts to be strapped to the thing, it was never tested. Nobody knows what happened to the Himmelsturmer.


The Himmelsturmer, as just about everything else made by the Germans during the war, ignited the imagination of the military. Most of the devices created in the 1950s and 1960s by several companies where built at the army's request (although, truth be told, none of them really became anything more than amusement gadgets for the army brass at demonstrations).

The first jetpack to become reality after Bell's modified Himmelsturmer was the so called Jumpbelt created by the same Bell. It was showcased, time and again, in between 1958 and 1961, but the low heights it manged to achieve failed to impress the army.

Building on the Jumpbelt, Bell developed the Rocket Belt, a bettered version which was capable of higher, longer flights. Whereas the aforementioned problems have been pretty much solved, another one appeared. The Rocket Belt was too heavy, which meant that the guy wearing it had little chance of staying in the air for very long (it could stay airborne for about 20 to 30 seconds).

The Rocket Belt had more disadvantages than advantages. The army planned to use it for surveillance, but the thing made too much noise. It posed a serious danger for the operator, as it flew too low for him to be able to deploy a parachute, but high enough to seriously hurt him if it crashed.

While the army waved it off, Hollywood embraced it. As soon as the civilian world found out what Bell was up to, the imagination of script writers exploded and the jetpack made its way into the world. Since the 1960s and Thunderball, the jetpack has become one of the gadgets of choice for the celluloid spies, action heroes and new comic book superheroes.


Not being in the business of giving up so easily, both Bell and the military gave the jetpack another try. Towards the middle of the 1960s, the company presented the Jet Belt. This time, they made it work.

The maiden flight of the Jet Belt took place on April 7, 1969, achieving all the objectives set. Flown by test pilot Robert Courter, the Jet Belt flew at 7 meters (23 feet) and proved it can reach speeds of 135 km/h (83 mph) and fly for as long as 25 minutes.

The stage appeared to be set for both military and civilian use of the technology. Unfortunately, Bell still couldn't make the device worth the investment. They sold all patents to the technology in the 1970s to Williams Research Corporation. The company currently manufactures jet engines for airplanes, but no jetpacks.


Since Bell sold the rights to the technologies it has been working on for decades, many other have tried to build their own jetpacks. Up until now, most remained in the realm of “what if,” with few people truly believing the technology will be one day viable.

One company however begs to differ. Specially created to develop jetpacks, the Martin Aircraft Company is getting close to becoming the first to commercially distribute a jetpack.

Dubbed by its creators the “first practical jetpack,” the unit, first of all, works. With a maximum thrust of 600 lbs and a range of 31.5 miles (50 km) at a maximum speed of 63 mph (101 km/h) and an altitude of 2,400 metres (7,840 feet), the Martin jetpack is as simple as they get. Anyone can fly it, after going through a short training session.

What is more important is that the jetpack proved its worth. Currently, Martin has received 500 orders from emergency services and unnamed defense companies. The adoption of the technology by state agencies will do nothing but boost the jetpack into the consumers' eyes. From all the jetpacks developed so far, Martin's has the biggest chance of becoming a market hit. The first market hit.
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 Download: Martin Jetpack spec sheet (PDF)

About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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