Rise of the jetpack
A Denver company updates and commercializes a fantasy from the 1960s.
In August 2008, Troy Widgery's morning commute will get a lot more scenic. Instead of driving the five miles from Cherry Creek, Colo., to his office in downtown Denver, he'll fly it, wearing a crash helmet and a jetpack strapped to his back.
Widgery's company, JetPack International, has spent the past two years developing a device that fulfills those Jetsons-era fantasies - and can keep you airborne for all of nine minutes.
The original jetpack, introduced by Bell Aerosystems in 1961, could fly for a mere 23 seconds and was not commercialized. It wasn't just the short flight time that hampered development of jetpacks. The hydrogen-peroxide fuel - like the disinfectant but in far stronger concentration - was prohibitively expensive at $2,000 a flight, to say nothing of the risk of running out of fuel in midair. No wonder only 11 people have ever piloted such machines.
Enter Widgery, a former champion skydiver and entrepreneur. He founded Go Fast Sports in 1992, a company that markets energy drinks to extreme-sports fans in 18 countries. A taste for stunts led Go Fast to launch the first civilian unmanned rocket into space in 2004. Widgery decided that using a jetpack with the Go Fast brand at sports events would "just make us cooler."
His quest for a jetpack that wouldn't bankrupt the company soon took on a life of its own, eating up more than $1 million in development costs and spawning JetPack International (Jet P.I.).
Soon he hit upon the idea of using three small jet turbine engines, powered by jet fuel, and a pack constructed with lightweight carbon fiber. Fuel for a single flight would now cost just $20. "That's huge. No one has done that before," says Daniel Wilson, author of Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.
Jet P.I. has already been turning a profit, thanks to an earlier jetpack prototype that flies for 45 seconds. Pilot Eric Scott grosses $25,000 a flight by booking demonstrations at air shows as far-flung as Amsterdam and Bolivia, and at a recent Monday Night Football game. Scott has paid his dues.
During two years of test flights, rough landings led to reconstructive shoulder surgery, and he's blown out his knee six times. He also went through seven pairs of tennis shoes when early versions of the jetpack set his feet on fire.
The nine-minute model will retail for $200,000, two weeks of training included. That's way out of reach for all but a tiny niche market, says Al Gossling, CEO of Extreme Group, a London-based conglomerate of extreme-sports companies. "There are two basic groups: bored millionaires and the hard-core thrill seekers," he says. Based on interest from prospective buyers, Widgery's (highly optimistic) projection is for sales of $30 million a year by 2010. He is also developing a videogame and hiring professional pilots. "It's a dream job," Widgery says.
- JENNIFER ALSEVER