Thursday morning, the Swiss pilot Yves Rossy fell into the blue Rio de Janeiro sky with the backward rolling entry of a scuba diver. He began with a downward plunge toward the Brazilian cityscape, then leveling off and completing a barrel role before vapor-trailing past the Deco statue Cristo Redentor, tracking south and finally pulling his parachute to land safely on Copocabana beach.
All of this was done with the jet-powered wing that Rossy helped design.
Lasting over 11 minutes, this was only one in a series of flights made by the self-described "Jetman." Over the past half-decade, he has flown across the Grand Canyon, over the Alps and even between actual jet airplanes.
His recent successes have come with some ominous setbacks, though. In 2009, Rossy attempted to fly across the Strait of Gibraltar, which geographically separates Spain from Morocco, but strong winds and engine complications forced him to scuttle into the Mediterranean, where he had to be rescued by helicopter. The Spanish coast guard later retrieved his jet wing.
Rossy's wing is the result of over a decade of trouble-shooting, which decade has seen over 15 prototypes of the model. In its current design, the wing is made from carbon-fiber and spans roughly eight feet. Strapped to the back of the pilot, it is propelled by four mounted kerosene jet engines up to speeds of 189 miles per hour.
Classified as a legitimate aircraft by the FAA, the wing was engineered to let Rossy "fly like a bird, with a minimum of instruments but with the ability to steer himself in space," according to the Jetman website. One of the most complex technologies Rossy's wing employs, aside from the engines, are the altimeter, used for safety purposes, and the throttle that Rossy holds in his hand. He uses his body to steer.
Perhaps more interesting than Rossy's innovative technology is the endeavor it embodies. Human flight has always been motivated by the desire to mimic bird flight. The word "aviation," after all, comes from the Latin word for bird, "avis." By attempting to create the most visceral experience of human flight, the Jetman project might be the truest expression of our envy for the utter freedom of the birds that soar overhead.