Innovations: King of the rocket menA century of jet packs has failed to achieve our dream of personal flight. But the man behind the Flyboard Air 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 jet pack 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 7,388 ft.
THE RED BULLETIN: 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 12 mph, so there’s not much G-force when you turn, but with the Flyboard Air you can go over 43 mph 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 center of gravity is underneath, so it stabilizes you.
What kind of speeds are you achieving?
In OK conditions, you could do around 93 mph, but I never go faster than 46 mph, because I lack the skill. You use the air pressure from the speed to lean forward and it’s scary. It can achieve an altitude of 6,561 feet, but we never pass 88 feet. With the JB-9, the Martin jet pack 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 6,561 feet, that’s not good.
Wearing jet fuel on your back seems … 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 44 lbs., (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 shopping and buy bread, we have to change the general mentality. But we can change the world. And the world wants to change.