There’s a certain category of news that makes you blanche at the terrifying technological progress that humanity has made since you picked up yesterday’s paper, and I have a new submission for this category. There are jet suits now!
Suits with a gas turbine jet engine on your back, and gas turbine jet engines on your wrists, allowing you to soar noisily through the sky in the manner of Iron Man. There are a few tiny snags, notably that the suits are being built on a very limited basis, cost £340,000, and are about as environmentally unfriendly a way of getting from A to B that I have ever seen. But then again – jet suits!
To the horror of the Telegraph’s health and safety team, I got to fly such a suit, but before I get to that, and before you remortgage the house in order to buy one, some background. The suits, of which there are currently five in existence, are the product of Gravity Industries, a British company founded by Richard Browning, a 39-year-old banker-turned-inventor, in 2017.
The jet engines give you 1,050 horsepower and about eight minutes of flying time, during which you use your wrists to steer and the tightness of your grip to dictate your level of thrust. Browning built a working prototype that he first flew in public early last year, earning him enough investment to build four more.
Browning and his jetsuits are all over YouTube, doing silly stuff like zooming across water, hurtling through a forest, and overtaking a car. It looks dangerous. It looks fun. It also looks like a good way to beat the crowds on the way to work, give or take a few burnt scalps on the part of pedestrians foolish enough to walk below your flight path.
I had no option but to accept an invitation to Gravity Industries, ostensibly just to try a jet suit but in reality to fly it up, away, and home, Browning receding to a fist-shaking dot on the horizon, keeping it for myself without paying a penny of the £340,000.
Gravity have a hangar on a former Royal Air Force station near Ipswich, and I arrive on a sunny Friday afternoon. I haven’t booked a taxi back to town because I fully intend to get there in a hijacked jetsuit.
The hangar, where I meet Browning and his phalanx of muscular dogsbodies, is used for flying lessons (which are much cheaper than buying the suits outright), and has been dressed up in a futuristically industrial style, complete with a button that emits photogenic dry ice on command.
I soon learn that, actually, I’m not going to be doing most of the flying. You can’t just get in one and soar around, apparently, because it takes a while to learn and is expensive and dangerous, etc.
So Browning gets trussed up in the suit, with the three silver nozzles attached to each wrist and the big black jetpack on his back. He tells us where he’s going to fly (out from behind the hangar, before hovering over a grounded Harrier and zooming through the hangar’s closing doors) and, because we’re making a video, where best to film him from.
He has done this before, evidently, and expects us to get it right first time. “I don’t want to have to do this three times,” he says brusquely.
So after a period of set-up and faff we watch him fly, and yeah, it’s pretty wild. The air beneath each jet ripples in the heat, and the engines roar. Clad in black from helmet to boots, Browning emerges from around the hangar’s corner, does everything he said he’d do, and does it with minute control over his speed and elevation.
Descending steadily, he nips through the closing doors before walking back out, triumphant, a couple of minutes later. This is what he does when buyers come to visit, he says, “and when they’ve scooped their brains back off the tarmac, we can go inside.”
Once I’ve had a go in a VR simulator, I get to try it myself. Strapped in like a hog by one of Browning’s goons, I’m led up to a metal dais and – damn! – tethered by a cable hanging from a crane. I won’t be stealing this jet suit just yet.
I’m wearing ear protection so Browning has to shout instructions: I have to start with my arms raised so they’re level with my shoulders, as if I’m making a T-shape, while leaning forward so as to counteract the thrust from my jetpack.
Then, squeezing the triggers in my gloves to heat up the engines, I gradually lower my arms so that the wrist jets are pointing downwards. The suit’s power levels have been turned down, but I can feel the thrust and hear its roar, and when I leave the ground (albeit with some help from the crane) I am concentrating harder than I have ever concentrated on anything in my life.
Despite that, I haven’t got my wrist direction quite right, and start spinning in mid-air. I’m lowered back onto the dais.
There’s nothing like not being able to fly for keeping your feet on the ground.