‘Something Goes Wrong, You Die’

Brandon R. Reynolds explains how he learned to stop worrying and love the jet packs.

jet packs los angeles newsletter
Michael Cole

In August and October 2020, pilots on approach to Los Angeles International Airport reported seeing what looked like a “rocket man” or guy with a “jet pack” flying around a few thousand feet up.

News stories eagerly noted the gossipy exchanges between pilots and air traffic controllers. Pilot: “We just saw the guy pass us by in a jet pack.” Controller: “Only in L.A.” The FAA is investigating these sightings, as is the FBI. (A bureau agent told me that they’re looking into it but there’s nothing to report at this time.)

There’s certainly something up (no pun intended), because the jet pack is back! At the end of July, a pilot once again reported seeing “a possible jet pack man.” This time, the high-altitude gossip included references to UFOs and Iron Man.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

So what is actually going on?

No one’s ruling out that it actually could be a person flying a jet pack, although cost, noise, and limitations to fuel capacity are arguments against. One theory suggests it may be a mannequin attached to a drone.

David Mayman allows for the mannequin theory but doesn’t rule out an actual person with a jet pack. Mayman is the CEO of Van Nuys–based JetPack Aviation, a company developing personal jet packs and larger air vehicles through contracts with the U.S. military. (He insists these jet packs didn’t come from his shop.)

Mayman eagerly promotes a jet pack future via showing off for the press and plumping for the hot dog industry. He told the Wall Street Journal that advances in technology—cheaper, smaller accelerometers and 3-D gyros—make it not-crazy to finally have a conversation about how jet packs may become part of our transportation present. (His caveat: “Something goes wrong, you die.”)

They’ve certainly been a long time coming, as Daniel H. Wilson exhaustively (and exhaustedly) explores in his handy guide to the future that almost was, Where’s My Jetpack?

While jet packs zoomed into pop culture via a Buck Rogers story from the late-1920s, we saw our first real one decades later, when Bell Aerosystems Company developed a “rocket belt” in the 1950s that Bell pilot William Suitor flew a version of (as James Bond) in 1965’s Thunderball.

Suitor reprised the role (sort of) when he zipped around the Los Angeles Coliseum for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 1984 (which beats running on a treadmill).

Forty years later: some progress. Just recently, the Royal Marines showed off their skills in May, and in July, JetPack Aviation hover-tested its “Speeder” at its SoCal testing site. The Speeder is not a jet pack per se, but a flying motorcycle that the company says will have “multiple applications across emergency, cargo, military, and civil sectors”—to say nothing of entertainment, for really, how long before Tom Cruise nearly kills himself on one of these things in an upcoming Mission: Impossible movie?

California will almost certainly be a player in any kind of flying future. The state is home to a number of flying-car startups and intriguing experiments. L.A.’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, announced in December the creation of an Urban Air Mobility Partnership, the goal of which is to get flying electric aircrafts in SoCal airspace by 2023 or so.

If we do indeed see flying cars or jet packs in our skies soon, they’ll be soaring through a lot of bureaucratic fog. Because the United States airspace system is complicated.

Consider what Gregory McNeal, a professor of law and public policy at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, told me about where jurisdictions start and stop. “According to the FAA, under their current guidance, state and local officials can only regulate the takeoff and landing of aircraft,” he says. “The FAA believes that they control the airspace down to one millimeter above the ground.”

So as long as your feet are on the ground, you’re subject to the laws of that city, state, whatever. But strap a jet pack to your back and hover a few feet off the ground, suddenly different rules apply. Because the FAA isn’t in the business of regulating privacy if you’re, say, an airborne Peeping Tom looking in second-story windows.

That became an issue a few years ago, with celebrities in L.A. complaining about paparazzi snapping backyard pics from drones. The state passed AB 856to protect privacy from airborne assault, but it’s only the beginning of our renegotiation with the skies. Jet packs, should they begin appearing in your neighborhood, may require similar legislation.

Rocket men, mannequins, flying cars, or drones, there will certainly be more of something in the skies of the near future. We’d better start thinking more seriously about them. Until now, we’ve been so busy looking ahead, we haven’t paid nearly enough attention to what may be right over our heads.•

Brandon R Reynolds is a cultural spelunker living in California.
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