- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

People have always dreamed of flying independently, like birds. From Icarus in Greek mythology to Da Vinci to Superman, flying at will has been seductive. I, too, grew up on comic book heroes with personal jet packs that let them fly about to right wrongs.

Well, Thunderbolt Aerosystems is trying to make it happen. The company has just released its Thunderpack, a backpack rocket that will let you fly, sort of, for up to 75 seconds.The price is only $100,000.

I hope the idea takes off, so to speak. Alas, there are problems that will keep it from working.

The YouTube video is … interesting. Test pilot Bill Suitor stands with the device on his back. A hissing roar ensues. Obscured by a cloud of smoke, he rises a few feet, flies around a bit, and lands.

According to the company’s Web site, the founder, Carmelo “Nino” Amarena wanted to “shorten the grueling commute to his Bay Area office.” The company envisions that its next version, which will use jet engines instead of rockets, will have much greater range, and be useful to rescue teams, the military, and so on. Well, maybe.

But … commuting? Think about it. In Arlington the user, dressed in K Street fatigues — conservative suit, shiny shoes — straps on the Thunderjet. With a tremendous whoosh he sails off toward Washington. Homeland Security probably shoots him down as a terrorist, but nevermind. A thousand feet above the Mall, the engine fails. Engines do that. On the freeway, you pull onto the shoulder and call AAA. In the air, it’s shriek-splat. From a marketing point of view, this is suboptimal.

Now, in fairness to the company, the jet version in design sounds more practical. “Indeed, in Phase I efforts, Mr. Amarena has identified engines and manufacturing designs for a dual engine Thunderjet and foresees developing a system within a year capable of providing up to 35 minutes of sustained flight.”

The underlying problem is that to stay in the air you need either thrust (from rockets or jets) or rotors as in a helicopter, or a wing, such as hang gliders use. Each has apparently fatal flaws for use in a personal flying device. Hang gliders have a proven track record of being extremely dangerous, not ideal for commuting, and work only under certain conditions, such as having updrafts. They are a dead letter except for the gutsy and mildly suicidal.

The fundamental flaw of the jet pack is safety. The human body has the glide path of a brick. If the engines fail, you are dead. Sure, you could wear a reserve parachute, which is what hang gliders often do, but I don’t see parachute training as a big seller for people trying to get to the office every day.

If the engine quits on a helicopter, it can often autorotate — i.e., let the rotors spin freely — and come in for a more or less (often less) safe landing. People have experimented with autogyros, which are sort-of one-person helicopters. They are cute gadgets for people with considerable courage or not much judgment. But again, a forced landing in the Potomac in January has drawbacks.

Maybe jet packs will be useful for specialized, highly trained people in the armed services or the police. The idea sounds like a sure-fire way to get research money from the Pentagon (which has already experimented with such things). But as a way to swing off with the family for a Sunday aero-jaunt over the Blue Ridge, or to get to the salt mines on weekdays — never happen.

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