Innovations: king of the rocket menA century of jetpacks has failed to achieve our dream of personal flight. But, with his Flyboard Air, this man just might have cracked it, and he isn’t even a scientist
Franky Zapata, 37
The Ideas Man
Franky Zapata, 37
In 2011, jet-ski ace Zapata unveiled the Flyboard – a jetpack propelled by water pressure. Fame and success were his, but the Frenchman wasn’t done.
Five years on, his dream of flight without the need of a hose and jet-ski exhaust is reality. In April, he broke the world record for the longest hoverboard flight at 2.25km.
THE RED BULLETIN: If you don’t have a pilot’s licence, how easy is the Flyboard Air to control?
FRANKY ZAPATA: Balance is the same as on a bicycle: lean too much to one side and you’ll fall. The water-powered Flyboard can’t exceed 20kph, so there’s not much G-force when you turn, but with the Flyboard Air you can go over 70kph and lean into the curve. It’s like turning on a snowboard, putting your back into the curve and pushing with your toes and heels. The hardest part is landing – on the water-powered Flyboard, even some of the best riders aren’t able to do it. It’s easier on the Flyboard Air, because the centre of gravity is underneath, so it stabilises you.
What kind of speeds are you achieving?
In OK conditions, you could do around 150kph, but I never go faster than 75kph, because I lack the skill. You use the air pressure from the speed to lean forwards and it’s scary. It can achieve an altitude of 2,000m, but we never pass 27m. With the JB-9, the Martin jetpack or the NASA original, if an engine fails, you’ll drop like a stone, because they all have one on each side. We have the jet in the middle, so if one engine [of four] breaks, we stay flying. Our job is to develop electronics with a Plan A and Plan B to ensure we never fall, because if it cuts out at 2,000m, that’s not good.
Wearing jet fuel on your back seems rather risky…
I can eject it in less than a second. There’s no electrical source close to it, and if the boot is on fire the fuel line can resist for about 30 seconds. I also wear an inflatable life jacket. The Flyboard Air isn’t heavy at 20kg – I think it’s the lightest flying machine in the world – but if you tried to swim with that strapped to your feet, you wouldn’t get far.
You’ve broken the hoverboard distance record. What’s next?
We want to do something the world won’t believe, like riding the clouds as a snowboarder rides the powder. And maybe, a year from now, we’ll have a new sport for a new generation. Motorbikes and cars are cool, but if we can fly, those are the past. The goal is to contact the best skiers and snowboarders and create a league of 10 superhumans racing each other. I think it’s something we can easily achieve.
How soon before we get to fly it?
For racing, or just to experience it, a year. But to buy? It’ll take years to get approval; it’s already hard to get liability for the water-powered Flyboard. We can do a lot of things, like road security, helping the army and rescuing people, but to get to where you could use it to go the shops and buy bread, we have to change the general mentality. But we can change the world. And the world wants to change.