Dubai Jetman: History On The Fly

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If YouTube and Instagram had existed when Wilbur and Orville slipped the surly bonds in Kitty Hawk, the whole thing would have pixeled by as just a brightly colored Koi in the overwhelming river of digital content that numbs the senses. You’d have been wondering … this isn’t new, right? I’m just seeing it now, right?

That’s the reaction I had when I saw this footage of Vince Reffet—aka the Dubai Jetman—lifting off from a pier on the Dubai waterfront. Given that most of us are slap silly from smartphone overstimulation and the inescapability of social media, we might lack the contemplative mental bandwidth to appreciate what’s going on here. It’s history in the making in the arc of what we in skydiving sometimes call human body flight. Or, put another way, if being in an airplane is flying, riding in a boat is swimming.

What Reffet pulled off is human flight about as pure as it can get if purity is defined as being birdlike. And if a bird can climb 2000 FPM. In this video, jetpack pioneer Yves Rossi briefly describes a maneuver in skydiving called tracking. We all do it at the end of every jump to put some airspace around us to open canopies safely. The body position is arms and legs back in a tight delta. For those 10 seconds, you can look down from 4000 feet and see the landscape scroll slowly by. Flying can be imagined, but the houses are getting rapidly bigger so it’s really less than a glide, but more than an Acme anvil kicked out of the airplane.

But Reffet’s flight was something else entirely. It marked the first time either he, or his mentor, Rossi, launched from flat ground, not an airplane or a platform. He hovered, turned, circled back and landed. Another first. (Success two flights all from pier. Zoomed over city. Inform press. Home Easter.) 

Vince Reffet: Dubai Jetman

I can’t find much technical detail on the wing pack, but if it hews to Rossi’s original design, it has no aerodynamic controls at all; no ailerons or elevator, no flaps, no rudder. It’s a lifting body with undiluted thrust from four 50-pound engines vectored entirely by weight shift and body position. If it has been improved, they’re not talking much about it. Look at Reffet’s hover, turn and landing. The movements are so subtle as to be undetectable. It looks like he has something in his hand, but on takeoff from the helmet-mounted camera, his hands look empty. In previous interviews, Rossi says he has a finger-mounted throttle control. I suspect Reffet has the same. As if the hover and landing weren’t gobsmacking enough, Reffet turned, angled up and zoomed out over the skyline. You can almost see the thrust, weight and lift vector equations in motion, but what I see is the glorious wonderment of why I’m not on a flight to Dubai to buy one of these things and enroll in flight school.

So where’s this interesting milestone in flight going to go? Will it be just a minor footnote; a niche curiosity for a few people gutsy enough to try it? This is the world’s top skydiving team and they are on top by a margin so wide as to be a chasm to the second place team. Thirty years ago, this level of performance couldn’t be imagined. When skysurfing was a thing 20 years ago, some people thought it would remain a thing. It didn’t. When wing suits appeared a decade ago, some people thought it was a passing fad. It wasn’t. Having learned skills we couldn’t conceive–subtle body positions that deflect air and shift a lift vector you can actually feel— wing suiters now fly formations of up to 100 or more people. Although they lack the ability to sustain climb, wing suit pilots can swoop and roll like a neophyte bird, but a bird nonetheless.

And anyway, if birds had somewhere to put the fuel, they’d have jet engines, too.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. When I read an AVweb article, I try not to look at the byline, but rather to guess who wrote it. It never takes long to spot PB’s poetic prose. When I read this first pragraph and: “would have pixeled by as just a brightly colored Koi in the overwhelming river of digital content” – yes, that’s Paul Bertorelli. Interesting article too – as they invariably are. 🙂

  2. As a former skydiver, I particularly liked “if being in an airplane is flying, riding in a boat is swimming.”

    Only aviation history buffs will get “(Success two flights all from pier. Zoomed over city. Inform press. Home Easter.) ”

    Only people of a certain age will know that the origin of ” it’s really less than a glide, but more than an Acme anvil kicked out of the airplane.” is from Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies.

    And as a writer for several (regional) aviation magazines, I am constantly amazed at Paul’s ability to incorporate these bits of entertainment into his writing. A good writer knows his readers–and a good writer makes them feel like they are “insiders.”

    Perhaps THAT’S why this is called “Avweb Insider!” Thanks, Paul, for providing the “clubhouse” in this site.

    • “Clubhouse.” That’s good, Jim … I like it.

      I think I detect PB salivating at the thought that maybe he, too, might get a chance to do this. Too dangerous. Write about it, fly it vicariously then FUHGETABOUTIT, dude. We’d miss you. If you feel the need for speed … go fly that yellow thing you have.

  3. This video is the embodiment of that dream that occasionally visits those of us who worship flight. Taking wing like a bird, with control of our trajectory harnessed by ever so slight natural body movements is the ultimate. Reffet seems to achieve this and make it appear effortless, as in that dream.
    Only Paul Bertorelli can herald this accomplishment in a fitting manner. In his usual manner, he captures it radiantly. Thank you once again for your brilliant writing.

  4. The seeming lack of any responsive ripples as this invention is dropped in the pond of history could be simply because, at first blush, it looks just like James Bond’s jetpack stunt. That thirty seconds of on-screen time (which incidentally, was also its real-life endurance) forever cemented the idea that a Buck Rogers future was here, if albeit impractical.

    At least, that was my reaction at this video. Until Vince Reffet throttled up further, leaned forward, and FLEW OFF INTO THE SUNSET!

    Not simply drifted away – he FLEW. Fast, far, and with great control. And loops and rolls to prove this was no 14bis, this was Wilbur Wright in 1908 Paris.

    Forget drones. Where do I get one of these? Do I need a multi-engine turbine rating?

    PS – speaking of drones, I suspect this jet-pack has some kind of drone-like computer-controlled system on board. It could be “just” a four-into-one thrust controller that minimizes power differences and handles engine-out scenarios. Or it may be some kind of Segway-like stability system with mini-thrust vectoring. How else would you get a device like this to pivot in place with just a CG shift? However it’s done, it’s impressive.

    PPS – has anyone seen a bird do an actual loop? Not being tumbled, or briefly inverted, but an actual loop? I remember reading Richard Bach’s frustration at seagulls, despite being rated and equipped, coming tantalizingly close in their maneuvers but never actually doing a real loop.

    • If you look closely at the video, you’ll see a technician pull a cable off the machine and there are some flashing greet indicators suggesting some kind of electronics. The 3D gyro packages found in consumer drones are dirt cheap, so you have to wonder if something like that has been adapted here.

      The two jets we know of that hover–the AV-8 Harrier and the F-35–use vectored thrust to do that. I could imagine the engines on some kind of small limited motion gimbal to do that, but I have no idea if that’s what’s going on. Could it even be some kind of nozzle vector, such as the F-22 has? It can actually hover, too, although pointed straight up. Dunno.

      Someone asked why he did this over water and I think I know why. Any kind of failure at low altitude could lead to loss of control with insufficient altitude to deploy a parachute. The wing has a fast acting jettison system and its own parachute, so if he does jettison, it’s an easily survivable fall to the water. That wouldn’t be true over land.

      There must be some kind of coffin corner between about 25 feet and maybe 300 feet, above which a reserve or BASE-type parachute might be deployable. Above that and climbing, he’s got more options. I hope more detail about it will become available because I think it’s a real breakthrough in human flight, even if it lacks commercial legs.

  5. Yves Rossi always launched from an airplane in flight, so Reffet has introduced an important but incremental advancement. It’s interesting to watch the pilot’s feet which are in constant motion below the engines’ thrust line as he maneuvers in hovering and forward flight – a crude form of thrust vectoring?

    The aerobatic maneuvers were performed at considerable altitude and, it appears, with nearly zero fuel. It suggests their outcome was not entirely assured. The demo leaves me wondering how long it took Reffet to build those control skills and whether he made use of a protective tether early on.

    All that said, this was a truly breathtaking demonstration and I wholeheartedly share Paul’s enthusiasm.

  6. At 2:08, you can see a small oval device looking very much like a computer mouse in the pilot’s left hand. At 3:13 we get a better and very clear look at this wireless control(s). It appears that he controls the vectored thrust and/or throttle with the button clearly seen in his left hand at 3:13 just a fraction of a second prior to chute deployment. To me, this explains how he can wave with one hand and yet turn at will both climbing and descending when over the water just prior to his landing on the pier before his second take-off and flight over the city. Sort of a taxi and pre-take off check prior to his actual flight going from take off hover from the pier transitioning to full flight just like a Harrier or F-35. When in full flight mode, he is controlling his attitude with his body and the thrust vectoring I am sure. That probably took a lot of practice to coordinate the two. Outstanding effort engineering and flight wise.

    At this point seems pretty well thought out and reasonably reliable. I am sure that mouse was sewn or Velcro’d very securely to his left hand/glove. Fly by wire and body (FBWAB) technology including what Paul described as 3D gyro technology common in drones and many RC planes. Next step is having enough on board fuel to fly longer than a minute or so.

    What is as amazing as the feat itself is the calm demeanor of the pilot prior to flight and his ease in hover, chosen direction and transition to full bogie, way cool flight. That tells me this was very well thought out, engineered and safely practiced before this breath taking aviation first.

    Contrast this with other now deceased guy’s effort, emulating Evil Knievel’s attempt to launch himself over the Snake River decades ago, in a steam powered rocket to “prove” a flat earth. I wonder who will get the most views from the globe’s cell phone centered, virtual reality inhabitants?