A new attraction in Florida let's you fly your own jetpack. But it's not at easy as it looks, writes David Whitley.
The animated visions of the future made this look an awful lot easier. When the Jetsons whizzed around nonchalantly, their jetpacks seemed like tame, placid beasts. They seemed easy to control, a dream to manoeuvre and – most importantly – unlikely to send you hurtling towards a highly undignified dunking.
Well, the future is here, and it's much less smooth than those fictional cartoon families would have us believe. The principles behind controlling a jetpack are simple; putting them into practice, less so. Considerably more time is spent floundering around in the Straits of Florida than soaring above them like some sort of mechanically-aided human-eagle hybrid.
At the moment, the Florida Keys is the only place in the world where this future is available. The Jetlev R200 jetpack system was dreamed up by Canadian inventor Raymond Li, and after eight years of research, the world finally gets to have a play with one.
Instead of rocket fuel, the jetpacks run with water. Would-be Jetsons are strapped into a harness, which is attached to a tiny, floating boat-like contraption. If you can imagine having an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner hose attaching you to a cute little robot that whizzes around on the ocean surface, you're not far off.
The shiny robot-boat-thing is what makes the whole thing work, however. It may look sleak and nimble, but there's a really hardcore pump inside there that takes water from the sea, and shunts it upwards through that tube. From there, the water is blasted out of two holes at the bottom of the pack – like a space rocket, but not nearly as dangerous – and the laws of physics take over. The down force is so strong that the guinea pig in the harness is powered upwards. Well, if the guinea pig manages to control the thing properly, anyway.
The adventure starts off by the marina in Key West. Jetpack Adventures has been letting tourists have a go with the kit here since June 2011, and they estimate that only 500 or so people have actually tried flying with a jetpack so far. Expect that number to, well, take off – the Jetlev R200s cost a cool $US99,500 each, but expressions of interest are coming in from all over the world. It's not just about big kids wanting to pretend they're spacemen, either – the inventor had more practical purposes in mind when he was putting in the donkey work. The jetpacks could theoretically be used for fire-fighting, painting bridges, search and rescue operations and – perhaps more predictably – racing.
I sign my life away on one of those indemnity forms that one never bothers to read properly, and then I'm ushered on to a speedboat. Letting novices have a go with jetpacks around numerous expensive yachts is probably not such a great idea, so we bounce out over the water, past resort islands and parasailers to a relatively tranquil spot.
We're met there by Travis, who has the jetpack on and is, quite frankly, showing off. He's in the 'hover' position, a few metres above the sea, with water barrelling out from the bottom of his apparatus. He then starts whizzing around, turning corners, changing elevation and finishes off with a backflip. It all looks remarkably easy, but there are certain benefits to having plenty of practice.
On the deck of the boat, I'm given a fairly comprehensive safety briefing. I'll not be out there all alone – Travis will be on a jetski nearby to help out if need be, and he'll be able to communicate with me via an earpiece in my helmet. It's a one way affair, mind – he'll be spared my whooping, yelling and inane chatter. If I want to get any messages over to him, it's via the time-honoured method of up and down thumbs.
I'm strapped in with a five way lock – “if you want to do anything fun these days, you need a five way lock”, I'm told – and they go through how the thing works. Essentially, all I have to do is sit on a howlingly-painful seat that may as well have poison spikes on it, and control the thing using two handlebar-like arms. There's a little triangle that I might like to try and get my feet into, but it's not essential – the idea is to let my legs drift like dead weights and let the machinery do the work.
I can control the power to a certain extent with twistable handles on the arms, although until I'm ready to take full charge, any foolhardy turn-it-up-to-eleven enthusiasm can be curtailed by remote control from the boat.
The key, it seems, is in small, incremental movements. Move the arms up to go up, and down to lean forward. Lean slightly to the left with the arm slightly down to go left, the opposite to go right.
This all seems absurdly simple until you actually try it. Once in the water, the idea of essentially letting this thing take you for a ride is rather terrifying. There's always the temptation to steer just to convince yourself that you're still in charge. When tiny adjustments are required, the temptation to make sure it happens with a massive oversteer is often too great.
I manage to turn would-be smooth turns into great, hulking lurches. It puts everything into a spin. Sometimes, this can be rescued. Sometimes I end up twisting the attachment tube, cutting the power and tumbling towards a humiliating splashdown.
It seems counterintuitive, but things work far better when you relax. The balance between gaining height and forward motion is a tricky one too – soar too far up and the momentum starts to go. But get the gliding above the water trick right, lean rather than lurch into the turns and it's all very James Bond. Although I'm pretty sure that Bond and the Jetsons don't ruin the cool act by screeching: “Yeeeeeeeeeah!” every few seconds.
Getting the hang of it may not be quite as easy as I'd like, but the most important thing is that it's tremendous fun. I'm flying – like an injured bird – but I'm flying, and the joy makes any undignified crash worth it.
The writer travelled as a guest of Jetpack Adventures.
Jetpack Adventures (+1 305 294 2000, www.jetpackadventures.com) is based at the front of the Galleon Resort on 617 Front Street, Key West, Florida. It's a three to four hour drive south-west of Miami. The introductory flight experience lasts around two hours and costs $US267.68 ($A248). Advance bookings are essential.