As I flew uncontrollably towards the side of a mountain ridge with an experimental jetpack strapped to my back, I began to wonder if I'd made the right decision. I was going too fast. Everything was too loud. And between the two jet engines blasting behind me and the California sun, I felt like I was being cooked. On the verge of passing out, I willed myself to stay in the moment — though it wasn’t like I had much choice. It was either stay awake, or crash and burn.
The machine on my back was the JB10 jetpack from aviation startup Jetpack Aviation. The brainchild of CEO David Mayman, the experimental vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) device sports two jet engines capable of producing nearly 400 pounds of thrust, with an operating ceiling of 15,000 feet, not to mention a max speed of around 120 mph. It runs on kerosene, and with a full tank it'll last for roughly 20 minutes of flight time. At that point the engine shuts down — so hopefully you didn’t fly too high.
Mayman says he first got the idea to build a jetpack when he was young, inspired by childhood TV shows. He’d go on to develop and unveil the JB9 — a precursor to the JB10 they let me fly — when he famously flew it around the Statue of Liberty in 2015, the moment he considers the birth of JetPack Aviation.
Since then, he’s gone on to create newer and more refined versions of the jetpack, as well as the Speeder, a VTOL that looks like a cross between a snowmobile and a flying DeLorean. Mayman described it to me as a "flying motorcycle," and says he believes it'll be foundational for the future of urban travel.
"In 15 or 20 years, we’ll play a big role in urban air mobility," Mayman told me. "We want to take the flight control systems we’ve built for the Speeder and put it in an electric aircraft to autonomously allow you to fly from one part of the city to another part of the city."
The Speeder is still very much in the development stage, so I settled for checking out the JB10. The request came partly for work, partly out of curiosity, and partly because it’d be fulfilling the dreams of my 10-year-old self who watched in awe as Arnold Schwarzenegger jetpacked around a snowy Minneapolis in "Jingle All the Way" every Christmas.
Mayman agreed and invited me to join a training session that he holds for paying students. With a starting price of $5,000, folks can take part in a two-day session to learn how to fly the JB10 while tethered to a cable, which performs the double duty of supporting the jetpack as the student trains, while also preventing them from hurtling uncontrollably to their deaths.
Once someone accumulates at least 50 tethered training flights, they graduate to untethered flights — and that’s when the real fun begins. Untethered flights offer the promise of actual unbridled honest-to-god jetpacking. For as long as there’s gas in the tank, you can take to the skies like Daedalus and Icarus, escaping the labyrinth of your mundane life to soar with the birds. Hopefully, that’s all you’ll have in common with that myth.
Me? My goal was to just survive the day, plain and simple.
JetPack Aviation's training space consists of an outdoor concrete slab the size of a basketball court along with several trailers with bathrooms, a resting area, and a workshop space to tinker with the jetpack. All of it was tucked away on a mountain ridge outside of Moorpark, California. When I arrived, I met with Sean Ray, director of training for the company, who would show me how to operate the JB10. Joining me were two other students who paid to take part in a two-day training session that promised multiple opportunities to take part in tethered flights with the jetpack.
"I’ve wanted to do this since I saw ‘Lost in Space’ as a kid," Kam, a 66-year-old man who drove all the way from Iowa to take part in the class, told me. He then gestured to the sky saying, "I want to get my 50 flights in so I can go off tether."
"I’m so fucking excited, bro," Tanner, a 32-year-old man who flew in from Northwest Territories, Canada, told me when I met him. His excitement was infectious. "You have no idea. I couldn’t sleep at all last night."
I hadn't been able to sleep either — though for me it was less out of excitement and more out of mortal terror that an experimental jetpack would explode while I was wearing it.
Mayman hadn’t arrived when we showed up, so we suited up in protective clothing while we waited. This included two layers of socks, long polyester underwear, shiny aluminized fire-resistant pants, a racing suit, long gloves, and a face-covering motorcycle helmet. By the time I got the last piece of clothing on in the 80 degree heat, I was already sweating like I just sprinted a mile.
Eventually, Mayman showed up.
"Let’s get started!" he boomed, after a quick introduction.
Here’s how you fly a jetpack, or at least the JB10, according to Mayman: First, get strapped in by your trainer. This involves belts criss-crossing your torso and under your crotch, tightened until your eyes water. Then, grip the two handles sticking out from the back of the pack on each side like joysticks. The left handle controls the jetpack’s yaw, allowing you to turn. The right controls the thrust, allowing you to fly.
Each control is very sensitive, so the slightest turn of the control could result in losing control of the jetpack — which is what the tether is for. Too much thrust and eventually the tether would catch you and you’d spin "around and around" the wire, according to Mayman.
And on the right handle is a silver metal switch, which you flip up to start the engines. Then it’s time to fly.
That’s it, at a very basic level. Listening to Mayman speak, I began to realize that flying a sophisticated piece of machinery like the JB10 is more art than it is science.
"The jetpack becomes almost a part of you," Mayman told me. "You’ll learn to adjust your body to what it needs from you. Eventually, it’ll be like second nature."
The training lasted all of 20 minutes. When it ended, it was time for us to start flying. I felt like someone just explained to me how to operate a nuclear submarine and handed me the keys.
Kam was up first. I stood on the side of the concrete basketball court while they strapped him into the JB10. Once in, he flipped the switch and the engines roared to life.
Ray motioned to Kam to slowly twist the throttle to increase thrust. As he did, the jetpack sounded like a slowly advancing waterfall — a dull roar at first, and then louder and louder until my teeth rattled in my skull. When it felt like it couldn’t get any more cacophonous, Kam began to lift off the ground and I stopped breathing. He was actually flying.
When he finished, everyone cheered and high-fived. It was Tanner’s turn next. Both him and Kam flew less than five minutes each. Just enough time to hover in the air, turn, and land a few times. Then it was my turn.
My fellow jetpack students patted me on the back, telling me how much I was going to love it. Inside, I felt like I was walking towards a firing squad. I backed into the jetpack while Ray helped strap me in. Once finished, I flipped the switch and the jetpack rumbled to life behind me.
Ray motioned for me to ease the thrust up. As I did, the JB10 roared louder and the heat on the back of my legs grew scorching. The smell of burning kerosene became almost overwhelming. Everything in my body told me to stop — that it was hubris and an affront to nature that humans attempt to fly like this — but I kept going. Finally, pressure eased off my feet as the jetpack lifted me up until I was completely off the ground.
Even though I had just watched the other two do this, I was still in shock. I was doing it. I was flying a jetpack.
But then I must have moved forward too quickly. I tried to correct my position but ended up veering too far to one side, so Ray motioned for me to throttle down. We went that way for what felt like an eternity: Me flying up, accidentally moving too far one way or the other, and then throttling down before starting over again. Frustration set it, and the joy I initially felt quickly faded.
I was also exhausted. Most of the time, I was just standing there making small adjustments to the control with my hands. In reality, I felt like I was going through 12 rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson. It took everything in me to keep the jetpack level. Meanwhile, I had to keep my body positioned correctly so the jetpack didn’t roast my legs underneath it. Flying the JB10 was a punishing affair.
That’s when it happened.
Ray grabbed my body and began to push me around to different positions. He was shuffling backwards when I felt myself lean a little too far forward. At the same time, he tripped and fell to the ground. With no one to hold me back back, the jetpack rocketed me forward, right over Ray, and towards the rocky hill next to the training facility.
Immediately, I throttled down, but it felt like it was too late — I was traveling forward with the momentum of a literal jet engine. I resigned myself to becoming a smear on rocks when I felt the life-saving tug of the tether whip me backwards like a dog on a leash. Miraculously, I was able to find my footing and stopped myself from hanging just by the tether.
I stood there dumbly for a moment before turning around on shaky legs to see Ray getting up from the ground and Mayman running to me to make sure I was alright. I nodded. He switched it off and unstrapped me.
When I ripped off my helmet, I could hear everyone around me cheering despite my obvious failure. I couldn’t help but smile too. I thought I was going to die but didn’t. If that’s not cause for celebration, I don’t know what is.
"Great job, man," Kam told me.
"Holy shit, that was wild!" Tanner said.
I apologized to Ray. He told me he was fine, that he'd tripped while moving me backwards, so it wasn’t completely my fault. I looked up at the steaming jetpack dangling from the tether and thanked my lucky stars that it was strong enough to stop four hundred pounds of thrust from yeeting me into the hillside.
For me, it was enough. I changed out of my jetpack suit and bid them all farewell, more than happy to take my rental car back home.
As I drove, my mind raced with adrenaline. Was it hot and uncomfortable? Yes. Did I think I was going to die every second of the way? Yes. Do I think it's going to be a viable transportation method in the near future? Probably not. Would I do it again? Honestly, I'd love to. But also, I think I'm more than happy to just grab a bus or an Uber if I need to get anywhere.
There was one thing that made me reconsider, though.
My rental car wound down the ridge and eventually I made it to the 101 heading south to Los Angeles. While I basked in the air conditioning, grateful to have survived, I wound up hitting bumper-to-bumper traffic outside the city. As I sat there on an endless strip of asphalt, with dozens of other cars stuck between two gas stations advertising gas for $6 per gallon, I saw a flock of black birds soaring in the sky towards the Pacific Ocean. For the first time ever, I could actually see myself flying alongside them, taking off into the horizon and finally getting away from it all.
Special thanks to our colleagues at The Donut for assistance with this story.
More on jetpacks: New Race Would Force Jetpack Pilots to Careen Through Obstacle Course