Inside Gravity’s daring mission to make jetpacks a reality

Richard Browning hovers above a lake at the New Forest Water Park in Hampshire

Inventors like Richard Browning have been trying to build jetpacks for a century. Now they’re here, what do we do with them?

The first time someone flies a jetpack, a curious thing happens: just as their body leaves the ground, their legs start to flail. Adrenaline floods into the bloodstream. The lumbrical muscles in the feet tighten, toes grasp desperately at the earth. It’s as if the vestibular system can’t quite believe what’s happening. This isn’t natural. Then suddenly, thrust exceeds weight, and – they’re aloft. Millions of years of evolution are overcome in an instant, two dimensions become three. Latitude, longitude, altitude.

It’s that moment, lift-off, that has given jetpacks an enduring appeal for over a century. Human beings have long dreamed of flying outside the confines of an aircraft, but without lift-off, existing means – parachutes, hang gliders, wing suits – are really elegant ways of extending a fall.

“It’s indescribable, in an overwhelming, visceral kind of way,” Richard Browning says. Browning, who is 41, brown-haired and bearded, with the lean physique of an endurance athlete, is the founder and CEO of the jetpack startup Gravity Industries. (Its slogan: “we build 1,000 horsepower jet suits.”) He is also the company’s main designer and chief test pilot. Since launching Gravity three years ago, Browning has taken off thousands of times, performed live demonstrations in more than 30 countries, set a Guinness World Record (twice) and accrued more than ten million YouTube views for his exploits. But he still remembers his first lift-off: it was November 2016, on a farmyard a few minutes from his house in Salisbury.

Jetpacks – At the time, Browning was an oil trader, with a steady desk job at the petroleum giant BP. But Browning has always been a tinkerer, and drawn to pushing limits. He runs ultramarathons; practises calisthenics, a form of intense bodyweight training (he does push-ups while standing on his hands); and served six years in the Royal Marines Reserve, earning his green beret. At BP he had developed an innovative method of tracking global oil movements by monitoring ships’ GPS transponders. The system was built on a £20,000 budget and, he says, made the company £50 million within six months. (Similar systems are now standard across the industry.) “He would always be doing something else, something big, something unusual,” Maria Vildavskaya, one of Browning’s former colleagues and Gravity’s chief operating officer, says.

In the spring of 2016, Browning decided to buy a jet engine on the internet. It was not an entirely impulsive purchase: Browning comes from a long line of aeronauts. His maternal grandfather, Sir Basil Blackwell, was a former CEO of Westland Helicopters, the other a wartime pilot. His father, Michael Browning, was also an aeronautical engineer and a serial inventor. As a child Browning would spend his holidays home from boarding school helping out in his father’s workshop. Together they would build model gliders from balsa wood, then drive up to a nearby hilltop to launch them. “Thanks to my father and my grandfather, I could probably describe how a jet engine works at the age of ten,” he says.

The engine Browning bought was a micro gas turbine. Essentially jet engines in miniature, micro gas turbines work by compressing air at extremely high velocity, then burning it with fuel (usually kerosene) to generate thrust. Although far too small for civilian aircraft, the technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, largely thanks to amateur enthusiasts and a growing market for military training drones. “The world of micro gas turbines had been entirely dominated by model aircraft people, so they’d accelerated in this kind of unbound way,” Browning says. The chief draw is their size: an engine not much larger than a 2L Coke bottle and weighing only 1.9kg can put out 22kg of thrust. Join a few together, Browning theorised, and you’d have enough power to lift a person.

Browning fired up the engine as soon as it arrived. “My god, the noise was unbelievable,” he says. Encouraged, he built an aluminium arm housing, and repurposed the trigger from a power drill as a throttle. Soon he was standing in a country lane with what looked like a supercharged leaf blower on one arm, attached to a fuel tank in a mop bucket. “It was a profound moment,” he says. He worried that the torque from the engines would twist his arm off, but “it was just a spongy push, like a firehose of water.”

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