...and I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed.
This is the Twenty-First Century, ergo I (and any other average citizen) should be able to own a jetpack. While science fiction has promised all sorts of other supposedly more important things such as teleportation, a cure for cancer, or colonies on mars and the moon; I can't seem to get nearly as excited about those ideas as I am about the idea of strapping on a suped-up jet engine (or two) and a hi-octane fuel tank and going for a walk in the clouds.
In World War II Germans were experimenting with jumpjet systems for their army engineers to cross minefields without walking on them. Later, in Thunderball, James Bond made an escape before the opening title sequence by using the very real Bell Rocket Belt. While they have existed, these things have been tantalizingly unavailable for purchase.
Until now. Now there are two viable commercial options. The Jetlev and the Martin Jetpack.
The more disappointing one is the "Jetlev," shown here:
It looks cool at a glance, but on closer inspection you'll notice the large yellow hose attached to the back. The other end of that hose is attached to the "boat" which it drags along in the water behind the "jetpack." The boat does nothing but carry a pump driven by a 4-cylinder engine which supplies high pressure water that provides the thrust allowing the pilot to tool around on their local lake or whatever. The hose also serves as a tether preventing the pilot from reaching an unsafe altitude.
While the Jetlev seems like it might be a fun toy, it's just that. A toy. The tether/hose brings with it an inherent level of safety that seems contrary to the allure of a proper jetpack. Maybe it's entertaining for a few minutes, but it can't go over land and it can't kill you. What fun is that?
Closer to the jetpack image I've always envisioned is the Martin Jetpack, shown here:
You can read more about it at http://www.martinjetpack.com/.
This one is actually self-contained and carries enough fuel to make a 31.5 mile jump. This is 30 minutes of flight time at the FAA-mandated maximum speed of 63mph (to classify it as an ultralight aircraft*). This also means that it could potentially run out of fuel while you're cruising along at an altitude of thousands of feet. Now we're talking.
There is a downside though. Although it's made out of the latest greatest lightweight carbon fiber composite materials, this beast still weighs in around 250lbs. Not exactly the wearable, ultra-portable alternative to, say, a helicopter that I'm hoping for.
These aren't the only commercially availabe jetpacks by any stretch, but they are the most sensible options. If you're so inclined, you can get a hydrogen peroxide-powered jetpack much like the Bell Rocket Belt at www.jetpackinternational.com. If you're more thrifty and adventurous, there's a Mexican manufacturer making the same sort of thing and you can read about them at www.tecaeromex.com. Oddly, a Mexican-built jetpack is just a bit too adventurous (read: likely to kill you) for my tastes.
While those are the limits of commercially-available jetpacks, I'm still optimistic that there will be more, better versions available soon. Especially in light of the recent stories of a certain Swiss airline pilot/adventurer named Yves Rossy. Not too long ago he crossed the English Channel in his winged jetpack. Here's a shot of him wearing it:
The wings are folded up in the above photo. In practice, this guy hitches a ride on a normal plane until it reaches altitude. Then he drops from the plane, the wings unfold to the full size, the jet engines fire, and he takes off at speed.
Here's another shot of him in flight:
You may have read about him this past year when one of his engines failed and he landed by parachute in the Mediterranean Sea.
In my book he was really cool until they mentioned the parachute. For me, the jetpack always seemed like it should be the next advancement/alternative to the parachute. When your fighter plane gets shot down, you just eject, fire up your jetpack, then draw your pistol and you're back in the fight. But that's just me. Well, me and this one other guy:
So while we're getting closer, I don't think jetpack technology is quite where it should be yet. The ideal jetpack should be lightweight, able to fit in a suitcase or the trunk of a sports car, and have adequate range to take me from downtown Petaluma to somewhere in the vicinity of Moscow, stopping only to poop.**
I'm going to be really disappointed in the world if I still don't have such a device twenty years from now. I can just see me now, sitting in my bubble-domed mansion on the moon, eating my meal-in-a-pill, and bitching about the lack of jetpacks to my robot butler.
*According to the FAA, a powered "ultralight" is a single seat vehicle of less than 5 gallons fuel capacity, empty weight of less than 254 pounds, a top speed of 55 knots, and a maximum stall speed not exceeding 24 knots. Restrictions include flying only during daylight hours and over unpopulated areas.
**I figure I can pee in flight as long as I'm above a certain altitude. By my calculations urine should break down into its component gases after falling a few thousand feet.