Saturday, September 6, 2008

'Fusion Man' is at it again

I've blogged before about Yves Rossi, the Swiss adventurer who calls himself 'Fusion Man'. In May I reported on his flight beneath a back-mounted wing fitted with four jet engines used to power model aircraft.

It seems he's about to tackle a new challenge. In two weeks he'll attempt to fly his "human wing" across the English Channel.

If all goes well, he will be the first man in history to cross the Channel as a human jet. If it does not go according to plan, he could find himself floating in the busiest shipping lane in the world. Or worse.

But having jumped out of more planes with more strange contraptions attached to him than almost anyone alive (or dead), Yves is full of confidence.

Not only will he have three parachutes on his back but, just the other day, he managed to fly the same distance as the Channel using his latest prototype and land safely.

However, on that occasion, he was flying over his native Switzerland, where he did not have to worry about oil tankers and tides.

'If I calculate everything right, I will land in Dover - but if I get it wrong, I take a bath,' he says cheerfully when we meet at his suburban home outside Geneva. 'So I must ask the Big Bird up above in Heaven to help me.'

Yves Rossy is a real-life Buzz Lightyear, the winged character in the Oscar-winning film Toy Story, who takes to the skies with a cry of: 'To infinity and beyond!'

Classical scholars might prefer the analogy of Daedalus and Icarus, the mythical ancient Greek characters who fled captivity in Crete with man-made wings (Yves would, doubtless, prefer to be compared to Daedalus, who made it, rather than Icarus, his son, who flew too close to the sun, melted his wax bindings and crashed to his death).

His latest creation is so extraordinary that he has even been classified as a UFO. It required several meetings with the Swiss government before Yves managed to prove that he was not an 'unidentified flying object in Swiss airspace'.

'Perhaps some people think I am mad,' says the former fighter pilot. 'But I do not play with death. I want to survive. I will not do anything stupid.' Really?

The plan is that on or around September 24, Yves will climb into a light aircraft somewhere near Calais with his wing firmly strapped on to his back and a live television crew from the National Geographic Channel filming his every move.

When the plane is at 8,000ft, he will fire up the four little jet engines attached to the underside of the wing and then jump out. In the plane, the wingtips are always folded or Yves would not fit through the door.

Once in the open air, he will pull a cord and the two spring-loaded ends will snap open to give him a full wing span of just over eight feet.

He will open up his engines, dive for a few seconds to pick up a speed of around 200mph and then level out at around 5,000ft before flying in a straight line at roughly 115mph to England. As long as the wind is not above 10mph in the opposite direction, he should have enough juice to get him to Kent.

There, he will pull his parachute ripcords and drop safely on to Blighty's fair shores.

It all looks fairly simple on paper. But if so, how come no one else has done this before? I have come to Geneva to find out.

The technology is James Bond-meets-Thunderbirds, so I expect to discover a huge hangar full of boffins in white coats and headphones glued to computer screens.

Instead, I find a basement garage containing a windsurfer, a mountain bike, a motorbike, a punchbag, water-skis, mountain skis, snowboards, scuba kit - and a thing that looks like an aerofoil off the rear end of a racing car.

This is more of a toy cupboard than a cutting-edge laboratory.

Yves laughs at the comparison. 'I love my toys. I am still a big child,' says the 49-year-old son of a railway manager and a farmer's daughter.

He has lived alone since his 12-year marriage ended in divorce two years ago. He remains friendly with his ex-wife, Nadia, but says that there is no room for anyone else in his life right now.

With no children, he devotes all his spare time away from his airline job pursuing his ultimate quest: creating a jet-powered wing capable of vertical flight so that, one day, man really can soar and dive and fly like a bird.

At the moment, he can only fly horizontally because of a fundamental technical problem: in order to achieve sufficient vertical thrust, the engines require more fuel than the wing can actually carry.

'But we are working on new engines, new systems,' says Yves. 'In my lifetime, I hope that I will be able to jump off a cliff and just fly up into the sky.'

Of course, man can already fly quite happily dangling beneath a hang-glider or a microlight. The concept of strapping a rocket to your back is not new, either.

A so-called 'jetpack' was used in the 1965 Bond film, Thunderball.

'I did try a jetpack under controlled conditions but it was very unstable,' says Yves dismissively. 'It lasts only for 30 seconds and can travel only 150 metres. It's not flying.'

He does not merely want to travel above the ground. He is a purist who wants to fly like a bird.

Yves has been flying since joining the Swiss Air Force as a 17-year-old cadet. Over many years, he flew the full range of fighter jets (neutral it may be, but Switzerland has always maintained a well-equipped air defence).

He moved on to the national carrier, Swissair, flying a Boeing 747 all over the world. In due course, he was promoted to the rank of captain in the airline's Airbus fleet. At the same time, though, he took up skydiving and then skysurfing - jumping out of a plane with a parachute on his back and a surfboard on his feet.

'In a plane, you are surrounded by computers and shielded from the air. But I wanted to fly naked.'

He competed in the world skysurfing championships and, in 1995, he decided to experiment with a wing on his feet. It nearly killed him when it flipped over and got caught in his chute leaving him with ten seconds to cut it free. It was an important lesson.

'Birds do not fly with wings on their feet so we should not either.'

He designed a harness and strapped a new, longer wing to his back instead of his feet. 'That was a major breakthrough because I finally had the feeling that I was flying. In 2002, I crossed Lake Geneva twice in a day and that was when I decided I wanted to try to cross the Channel.'

Yves was not alone. Others were trying similar stunts. In 2003, Austrian parachutist Felix Baumgartner managed to cross the Channel with a wing on his back by jumping out at 28,000ft and then gliding from England to France with the wind (and a very rich sponsor) behind him.

But Yves had always wanted to fly, not glide. And he wanted to fly from France to England. Yves is adamant that he wants to follow the route of his hero, Louis Bleriot, who set off from Calais in 1909 and became the first man to fly across the Channel.

He knew that power would be essential. So, he teamed up with a German company which makes engines for model aeroplanes. They developed a small jet the size of a Thermos flask with a thrust of 49lb.

With four of those attached to the wing, Yves found he had cracked the power problem. As long as he stayed below 9,000ft, he could fly more like a bird than ever before.

The Swiss aviation authorities, however, told him he was breaking the law. 'They could not decide what I was. With no wing, I was a parachutist. With a wing, I could be a hang-glider. But they had no category for a wing with an engine so, they called me a UFO.

'Eventually, I persuaded them to give me a special licence. It was only because I am a professional pilot and former fighter pilot. Otherwise, they would say I was crazy.'

The jury is still out in that regard. Money continued to be a problem. Yves says that he was spending all his spare cash - around £25,000 a year - on his project. But then, last year, the Swiss watchmaker, Hublot, came on board as a sponsor.

He gradually managed to fine-tune the capacity of his fuel tanks and the distances he could cover. Finally, a few weeks ago, he flew for 13 minutes - enough to see him safely across the Channel. The big dream was finally on.

I ask Yves to put on his kit and it is quite an operation. He climbs inside a fireproof body suit and puts on his fireproof boots with the extra ankle protection. The engines will be blazing by his feet but, when he lands with his parachute, his ankles will take the strain.

Next on is the parachute - all three of them. There is a 'braking' chute, a main chute and a reserve chute. The wing has a chute of its own in case Yves has to jettison it.

'I would not want it to hit someone on the head. It comes down more slowly than me.'

His helmet contains various sonic altimeters which beep noisily at certain heights. The loudest is the 1,800 ft warning. If he has not got his chute open by then, he is in trouble.

Finally, he puts on his wing. He has to reverse into a gap in the middle which is moulded precisely to suit his dimensions. Then he straps it all on. He looks like an enormous fly, waiting to buzz off.

I try it on but, being tailor-made, it doesn't fit my frame.

Today, the wing weighs a hefty 66lb but that is because it is empty. When he jumps out of that plane later this month, fully loaded with kerosene, it will weigh nearly nine stone.

Hence, Yves keeps to a strict fitness regime.

Having trained as a mechanic in his youth, he does all his own repairs and servicing at a local engineering plant.

The wing tips need new metal strips so he carefully loads his pride and joy into his people carrier and we drive along the shores of Lake Geneva to the factory where he starts cutting bits of metal by hand. Yves admits that his technology is still pretty basic.

'In years to come, people will think this is a piece of s***, just as the early hang-gliders were pieces of s***. But we will improve and one day, I hope, many people will have one of these.'

His achievements have already been noted and one of his early prototypes sits proudly in Switzerland's Museum of Transport.

Yves is not a celebrity - 'no one stops me in the street' - but most people are rather proud of their home-grown rocket man. 'People look up and they recognise the wing, not the guy beneath it.'

He is not bothered about fame. If he really wanted to promote himself, he would call himself 'Rocketman' or 'Jetman' - names the media have already given him. Instead, he insists on giving the project the rather innocuous title of 'Fusion Man'.

He is keener to promote the technology than himself. He even wrote to the producers of James Bond offering his equipment - for free - for use in future films. He was rather saddened when the only reply, months later, was a strongly-worded lawyer's letter.

'They said they had no interest in my technology so that if anything similar appeared in a future film, I would have no legal claim. It is a sad sign of the times. It is always the officials who get in the way of everything.'

You do not cross Yves Rossy. He says that one of the most painful periods of his life was the collapse of Swissair in 2001. For several months, he found himself jobless until the new Swiss International Air Lines was born.

He has never forgiven the Swiss bankers who killed the old national carrier, so much so that when he found one of them on his plane the other day, he ordered the man off the flight. The banker refused and a huge row with the bosses ensued.

Yves was grounded for a week. 'I have no regrets. We must stand up to these disgusting, arrogant people.'

So, I have no doubt that Yves will give the Channel his best shot. If he succeeds, he will have made aviation history. If he runs out of fuel, he will get wet. Either way, he cannot delay his attempt beyond September 28.

He may be one of the boldest aviation pioneers. He may be following in the footsteps of Louis Bleriot. But, on September 29, he is the duty pilot on Flight LX8100 to Luxor in Egypt. And he wouldn't want to delay anyone's holiday.

Best of luck to you, M. Rossi! We'll be watching and hoping for your success.


No comments: