The modern-day Superman?
Last month in the UAE, it was announced that the daredevil extraordinaire known to most only as ‘Jetman’ would be adopting a flying partner on his future stunts of acrobatic insanity. Cue the leaking of the incredible video below, engendering an online frenzy as people tweeted, Instagrammed and digitally waxed lyrical over Jetman and his new protégé (who won’t be called Jetboy apparently) soaring over the Dubai landscape.
With their feet back on solid ground, Esquire was ushered into the inner sanctums of their preparation chambers, to speak to the men behind the masks – Jetman, Yves Rossy and his young wingman, Vince Reffet.
When Esquire gathered at the Burj Khalifa for the announcement of your new tandem flight, we had sort of hoped to see you both launching off the building…
Yves: (laughs) We don’t quite have enough power to launch off buildings yet, but in the future, that’s something we’re working on. Besides, Vince here is actually a professional base jumper, and he already jumped from the Burj Khalifa last year! He’s one of the two guys that did it, so it’s kind of natural for him to go in this direction.
How did you get onto this particular (flight) path Vince?
Vince: Well, I come from a skydiving background. I’ve never piloted a plane before, but I’ve done a lot of skydiving from 15,000 feet and a lot of base jumping. I know how to control my body, but to go inside this machine we use, it’s like the evolution of all that I’ve been doing. It’s feels like an extension of my back rather than a machine, with the engines that push you to where you want to go. As a skydiver you always have a dream of flying, or jumping from higher, with this machine you’re getting closer to that dream of flying like a bird.
Where was your first flight, Yves?
Yves: I’ve had many first flights; I didn’t begin with these wings. First it was developing the harness, so that I was sure if something went wrong I could release myself from it. Now after this system was ready, I could use anything – different shapes or profiles to fly. And in a way, each prototype is a first flight. The first time I felt real lift coming from the wing was with an inflatable prototype – suddenly its going down, down, down then boom! It takes you off at the same altitude. That was a wow moment.
Be honest, were you scared?
Yves: Not then, but sometimes though. When you have these experiences of success, when you don’t know whether they’ll work and then you find the solution, it’s so good. You’ve dreamed of finding it and then it happens. It’s a feeling of immense pride.
So you’ve both never been about to jump and thought: ‘Nah… I don’t fancy it today’…?
Vince: Yes it’s happened. With base jumping and skydiving more, sometimes it just doesn’t feel right – that can boil down to the weather or just an instinct you have. Maybe you could go, but what’s more important – the jump or yourself? For example, last year I was flying with the Jetwing and it just didn’t feel right. I learnt a lot about this from Yves, usually I would just go for it but it’s good to learn to trust your instincts.
Yves: What’s in your mind is important. You know that journalists or TV crews from all over the world will be watching and that can be a push, but if you have that gut feeling, you need to be strong enough to say no. If you have parameters, weather or technical things then obviously that makes it easier to pull out of a jump, but with a gut feeling it’s harder. You have a whole team of pilots and technical guys around you, and you have to say no to your ego, because that can push you too far.
When was the last time you stopped yourself from doing a jump at the last minute?
Yves: I’ve twice pulled out with a lot of journalists around. Once at the Channel crossing on the first day, we were live on National Geographic. Millions of viewers watching, you can imagine…But I was told that storms were coming in – so I didn’t do it. Also, once in the Grand Canyon, we had invited all the biggest TV channels to come and witness what we were doing. Firstly, we couldn’t get authorisation from Washington to do the training beforehand, so we were there with no training. I couldn’t sleep beforehand and had real fear – lying awake, thinking about the sponsors and everything that was resting on this particular jump. But I couldn’t do it and said no. The Jetwing we use is not an aeroplane or a car, there’s no machine really, we’re half of what flies.
What’s the scariest moment you’ve experienced?
Vince: For me, it’s never really scary at the moment. You deal with things when they happen, then when you think about them later, that’s a little scary. But I guess the most frightening occasion was when we had an engine explosion – I was flying in the air in Panama, doing some barrel rolls; I was at the stage of shutting off the engine and opening the parachute to land, then I looked at the wing to see that the whole engine had exploded! But, even then, you’re relatively prepared for it. Myself, Yves and the team talk about everything that could happen, the good and the bad, before we fly.
Yves: I would say it’s good to have fear. It makes you more careful. You find solutions that make you feel better if something has failed; you correct your mistakes and go back into the air safer. Sometimes you need breaks, twice during development I had a six- month break. It was just luck that nothing happened during that development stage.
How did you two meet?
Vince: We met in 2008. When you’re from a family of skydivers you always know about new things that are coming. So, in 2008, Yves and I met through some friends, we were both training in Spain at the time. Yves wanted to see if someone would try the Jetwing, and that was me. I had jumped so many times at that point, I agreed as soon as he asked. It felt good, but really heavy! I’m used to just falling with my body and suddenly you’ve got this thing strapped to you, I felt uncomfortable and I honestly felt it wasn’t for me. I waited around a year before I did my first flight with the inflatable wing… and it felt beautiful. A wing that makes you fly properly? That’s amazing.
How heavy is the equipment?
Yves: It weighs 60kg before a flight, full of liquid for the smoke, and around 35kg post flight. It’s quite heavy but when you’re in the air you’re weightless. Like when you scuba dive, it’s heavy on land but in water you’re like a fish. That feeling of being a bird becomes so present.
How do you prepare for your flights? Do you have rituals or superstitions?
Yves: We have a mascot! It’s a small puppet that dances – it came into our lives one evening after the first motorised flight we had. We were in Spain eating dinner when we bought it off the street.
Vince: (laughs) She’s called Roberta. A very beautiful lady! Other than that, what we do before is just a warm up – I do yoga. When I first started learning how to use the wing I would always land tired, as you use muscles you haven’t used before. Now we just let the wing fly and assist its direction.
Yves: I jog sometimes; do normal stretches, neck and legs. It’s almost like a gymnastic warm up. It only takes about 10 or 15 minutes to get the full suit on. No superstions for me…
Vince: If we forget Roberta, we do think about it though…
What’s the next frontier for you guys?
Yves: To keep developing. Our biggest effort was to do that flight you see in the video. We came here around six months ago to put everything in place for it. It took so much energy just to fly! Now we want to take a small step back to begin again, and explore the potential of the aerodynamics, more powerful, engines. When we’ve got those ready it will open new projects. We won’t go to the moon just yet!
Will you ever do Jetman racing?
Yves: For sure, and fighting with lasers. And a military version with weapons!