Image: Martin Jetpack
Martin Jetpack
The Martin Jetpack lifts a test pilot into the air.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/29/2008 6:07:56 PM ET 2008-07-29T22:07:56

One of the classic dreams of aviation is to rise into the air with a flying machine strapped to your back . The jetpack dream is so iconic that it has shown up in movies ranging from "Thunderball" to "The Rocketeer" — and so elusive that it has spawned a book about high-tech failures titled "Where's My Jetpack?"

Over the years, several ventures have tried to realize the jetpack dream — and now a New Zealand inventor is taking the wraps off a secret decade-long effort that he hopes will bring the dream to a sky near you.

Today's unveiling of the Martin Jetpack is one of the marquee events at the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture, a weeklong air show that is drawing hundreds of thousands of people — and about 10,000 airplanes — to Oshkosh, Wis.

Through next weekend, Oshkosh will serve as a mecca for the aviation world's dreamers and builders. Many of the private planes parked in the fields surrounding the town's airport were built by their owners. The hundreds of events on this week's schedule range from quiet seminars on aircraft maintenance to ear-splitting flyovers of military jets.

The show focuses on the experimental side of aviation — and that makes Oshkosh the perfect place for Glenn Martin to unveil his jetpack. "This is an experimental aircraft with a big 'E,'" he told me.

Jetpack or ultralight?
Whether the Martin Jetpack technically qualifies as a jetpack is debatable. It's not the type of rocket belt that James Bond wore in "Thunderball," and it's not anything like the jet-powered, wearable wing that a Swiss daredevil cranked up to 186 mph in May. As far as the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned, what Martin has is an experimental ultralight airplane, equipped with a gas-powered, V-4 piston engine and two ducted fans that provide the lift.

That puts it in a class with several other fan-powered lifters, including Trek Aerospace's Springtail, Urban Aeronautics' X-Hawk and even Moller International's flying-car prototype . But Martin believes his 250-pound ultralight, initially priced at $100,000, stands the best chance of going commercial. He sees it as a recreational sport vehicle that just might be in the right price range for affluent thrill-seekers.

"I've made a Jet Ski for the sky," he said.

'A beast that roars'
Does it really fly? Definitely. This sneak-preview video shows the Martin Jetpack in action, in the backyard of Martin's host in Fond du Lac, Wis. Other videos show pilots tooling around a test field, flying as high as 6 feet off the ground. Two team members are hanging onto handles attached to the prototype to keep the pilot at that height, for safety reasons.

"One or two have cheated, you know?" Martin said. "It's very hard to hold people back."

One of the test pilots was Martin's wife, Vanessa.

"It was really an exciting experience, because at the time it was just a prototype. It was very loud, very noisy, very hot. It was like a beast that roars," she told me. "But once you throttle up, you feel it bite, and you leave the ground, and there's this feeling of floating and freedom — you become quite overwhelmed."

Training required
Theoretically, the jetpack can fly for 30 minutes and rise to a height of 8,000 feet. But Glenn Martin said the flight envelope will be carefully tested over the coming months. Martin is opening the order book as of today, and said 10 to 20 vehicles could be sold by the time next year's Oshkosh air show rolls around.

Jetpack buyers will be required to go through about 15 hours of flight training as well as a safety screening. "If for some reason they're not coordinated enough, we'll send them their money back and give it to the next person in the queue," Martin said.

As an added safety measure, each jetpack is equipped with a ballistic parachute.

If you do buy a jetpack — whether it's Martin's or another brand — don't expect to take it to work anytime soon: The FAA regulations for ultralight aircraft rule out that kind of point-to-point travel, Martin said. But if regulators ever adopt a NASA-inspired scheme for a "highway in the sky," that could set more liberal rules of the road for jetpack commuters as well as flying cars, he added.

Swathed in secrecy
Jetpack aficionados might well wonder whether Martin has enough technical competence to make his venture fly. After all, his formal background is in pharmaceutical sales and biotech rather than engineering. But the 48-year-old said he's been tinkering on the jetpack concept ever since he was a college student.

"I had my day job going on, as well as what some people called my secret night job," he said.

In 1998, he received enough venture-capital backing to devote full time to Martin Aircraft Co., and today he has a staff of 12 and a posse of corporate partners in New Zealand.

Over the past decade, Martin kept his venture swathed in secrecy — to the point that his teenage son couldn't tell his schoolmates how cool Dad's job was. Martin explained that he was trying to avoid the fate of an earlier pair of aviation tinkerers, the Wright brothers, who found themselves embroiled in years of patent battles.

"If you read the Wright brothers' diaries, it's almost cliche, isn't it?" Martin said.

Today, Martin feels secure about his patents — and he feels he has a product he can sell.

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