How I travel… with a jet suit
Real-life ‘Iron Man’ Richard Browning reveals how his gravity-defying invention got off the ground and took him all over the world
Flight has always been a key part of my life. When I was a kid, I used to build things with my father including model aircraft, from the original balsa-wood and tissue-paper models to radio-controlled gliders. I always had an interest in how things worked and how they fitted together.
My father was an aeronautical engineer, his father was a wartime pilot and then a civil airline pilot, while my other grandfather, Sir Basil Blackwell, used to run Westland Helicopters. A vivid memory I have of flying was when my dad’s friend, who had been in the RAF, took me up in his de Havilland Chipmunk. Experiencing what it was like to fly in one of those things was magical.
In my job as an oil trader for BP I travelled a lot, often to some quite unusual places such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Libya and Mozambique. It was while I was at BP that I began researching my jet suit idea. I would regularly get up at 1am to work on the suit design, then catch the train into London in the morning to work at BP.
The essence of my idea was to take an alternative run at the way human beings fly. I wanted the person to become, as far as possible, the flight machine and add the minimal amount of equipment to achieve that. I was familiar with small jet engines being one of the most energy-intensive devices that humans have come up with and realised that, in principle, they had more than enough power versus weight to be able to lift someone off the ground.
The first time I managed to fly in my jet suit was for only six seconds, but it was the culmination of so much experimentation and repeated failure. I didn’t really have a huge amount of confidence that the concept would actually work. That first flight turned from something that was an eccentric, even mad, idea into something I knew was the beginning of the next phase of the journey.
I realised that small jet engines had more than enough power versus weight to be able to lift someone off the ground
The year I launched my company Gravity Industries, I was asked to speak at TED 2017 in Vancouver. It was the first time I travelled with the jet suit. I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 5 with two enormous Pelican cases, which turned out to weigh far more than the luggage allowance. I had to buy extra suitcases from the suitcase shop in the terminal and must have looked like one of those families you see frantically repacking their cases pre-flight, except I was doing it with a jet suit. I spread the suit’s components among three suitcases, got on the plane and got to San Francisco, where I had accepted an invitation to do a demonstration on my way to Vancouver for the startup investor Adam Draper and some Silicon Valley influencers. It was from this demonstration that Tim Draper, Adam’s father and the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, decided to invest in my company.
Since then, with my team we’ve done 115 events in 34 countries and nearly all of those have been flying with British Airways. Almost all of them have been by shipping a 1,000-horsepower jet suit in suitcases (funnily enough, there is nothing in the rules that says you can’t travel with jet engines). I’ve flown in Johannesburg, Saudi Arabia, India, Australia, Brazil, and the mountains in Arizona. I flew the suit in the Maldives at a private island resort and in 2018 I opened the baseball season in Japan for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars by flying around the packed stadium on live television.
One of my most memorable flights was in America when I flew around Britain’s aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, for a diplomatic visit it was making to the US. Because I had been a Royal Marines Reservist, the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. asked me to fly out to greet the Pentagon and Department of Defence officials as they approached the carrier in shuttle vessels. The first thing they saw rather than the aircraft carrier was me in my old Royal Marines green beret flying out to meet them.
Wherever I have been, the reaction to seeing me fly has been the same, no matter what the country or culture. People often become quite emotional, or they almost don’t believe what they’re seeing. It seems to have uncovered a consistent fascination that human beings have with flight. As children we’ve all looked up and watched the birds wheeling around in the sky and admired their degree of freedom that we don’t have. The jet suit is a step closer to achieving that kind of freedom.
Richard Browning’s Taking on Gravity: A guide to inventing the impossible from the man who learned to fly (£20, Bantam Press) is available now
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