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Real-life 'superheroes' fly in the world's first jet suit race

Against a backdrop of skyscrapers and super yachts, airborne athletes competed in the inaugural Jet Suit Race Series, an event organized by the Dubai Sports Council and Gravity Industries, the manufacturers of the jet suit.
Posted 2024-03-01T15:50:14+00:00 - Updated 2024-03-01T17:55:50+00:00
Superheros in Dubai: Jet Suit race series takes off

(CNN) — From futuristic architecture to pioneering infrastructure, Dubai is no stranger to weird, wonderful, and downright wacky innovation. But on Wednesday, the “City of Superlatives” went full sci-fi when eight pilots, suited and booted like Marvel’s “Iron Man,” took to the skies.

They were not fighting supervillains or alien warlords, though. Against a backdrop of skyscrapers and super yachts, the airborne athletes competed in the inaugural Jet Suit Race Series, an event organized by the Dubai Sports Council and Gravity Industries, the manufacturers of the jet suit.

“Unlike most racing, you’re racing in three dimensions,” says Richard Browning, chief test pilot for UK-based Gravity Industries, which he founded in 2017. “There’s pilots above and below, and all over the place, so it’s a really interesting experience.”

The eight pilots raced around a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) course, maneuvering between 12 giant inflatable obstacles placed in the water. Four heats created a leaderboard that culminated in a final round, with each race only lasting around 90 seconds.

“We had people getting disqualified, we had people losing it, we had somebody go in the water — we had just utter chaos, in a great way,” says Browning.

He hopes that the event will inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to dream big: “Most technology is ludicrous and impossible until it isn’t.”

‘The power of a Bugatti’ in a backpack

Gravity’s technology combines five engines — a large one on the back, with a pair of “micro jet engines” on each arm — in a 3D-printed polymer, aluminum, and titanium suit that can lift a person into the air. Browning compares the 1,700-horsepower jet suit to “the power of a Bugatti Veyron” sports car in a 30-kilogram (66-pound) backpack.

Pilots control their flight path by altering the direction of their arms — for example, pointing their arms down to go up, or lifting their arms to the side to go down. The jet suit uses aviation fuel or diesel, and can go at speeds of up to 136 kilometers per hour (85 miles per hour), Browning’s own record.

As with any adrenaline sport, there’s always risk. Gravity likens jet suit crashes to “falling off a motorcycle,” and flies low to the ground over water or grass to minimize risks.

“By doing what we do over water, if you mess it up, you just fall in the water — it actually adds some drama. It’s a little bit expensive to repair, but everybody’s fine,” says Browning.

Issa Kalfon, Gravity’s deputy head of flight training and former professional gymnast, took first place at the showcase, followed by fellow British pilots Paul Jones and Freddie Hay.

While Kaflon has flown in over 30 Gravity events and demonstrations, not all of the pilots were so experienced.

(Currently, jet suits are not recognized in any aviation categories, so they do not require any permissions — however, Browning adds that they work closely with aviation regulatory bodies, like the CAA in the UK and FAA in the US to ensure they respect existing rules and safety measures. In 2020, there was a fatal jetpack accident in Dubai, though it was not a Gravity suit.)

Ahmed Al Shehhi, an adrenaline junkie and regular skydiver, represented the UAE in the race and was the only competitor who wasn’t a Gravity team pilot. Al Shehhi first flew in the jet suit just three weeks before the race, completing an intensive 12-day training course in the UK where participants practice on a safety tether system before moving onto free flight.

“If you added up the full minutes that he’s had with the engines running, it’s probably 25 minutes,” says Browning. “It’s amazing how quickly you can get people to adapt to this.”

More than entertainment

The showcase was designed to show what the technology can do — and that’s because entertainment is just one aspect of the jet suit’s potential. A former Royal Marines reservist, Browning is already working with industries including search and rescue, medical, and military defense to implement the jetpack into their operations.

In 2020, the Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS) tested Gravity Industries’ jet suits on the hilly terrain of the Lake District in the UK, cutting a 25-minute hike to a 90-second flight. The company made headlines again in 2021, when the British Royal Navy and Royal Marines spent three days testing the jet suits with Commando Royal Marines off the UK’s southern coast, to help soldiers quickly board ships at sea, which is typically done via helicopter.

“(We train) special forces and medical responders to move over any terrain, night or day, over wire, mud, mines, water, in weather that grounds most helicopters, to get to any square foot of the planet, do a job and, importantly, to self-extract,” says Browning.

Other companies are also trying to overhaul human mobility: California-based JetPack Aviation claims to have built the world’s first jetpack, which have been used in television and films, and Indian startup Absolute Composites is exploring military applications with the nation’s army.

The showcase is just the beginning of the sport, says Browning: Gravity plans to hold a championship in Dubai next year, with at least 12 competitors, which Browning hopes will “spark the imagination” of people and cities around the globe about the possibilities of this technology.

“To a lot of our audience, this is science fiction coming to life,” says Browning. “Whether it’s ‘The Rocketeer’, or ‘Ironman’, or the ‘Jetsons,’ there’s lots of people that come up to us and say, I was waiting through my childhood for this and you finally delivered on what that vision was, what that ambition was,’ which is pretty cool.”

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