He calls himself Jetman.
Harnessed into a six-foot-wide, 45-pound carbon-fiber wingpack shaped like a boomerang with a raised fin, Swiss adventurer Yves Rossy pulled off his first escapade in the United States on Saturday, shooting along the rim of the Grand Canyon for about eight minutes before opening his parachute and wafting down to the canyon floor.
It was a spectacle, to be sure – and the ride will definitely end up on YouTube. But whether Jetman's performance qualifies as a publicity-seeking stunt of the "balloon boy" variety or a quest to expand the limits of human endeavor, well, that depends on the beholder.
As for Mr. Rossy, he portrays his winged adventures as a bid to push the envelope of human flight.
“I built this wing to realize my own dream: to fly like a bird,” he says in an interview released by his Beverly Hills-based marketing firm, Centigrade Inc. “Flying is a passion. I always wanted to fly since I am a child. My inspiration has always been to realize my dream.”
Rossy does not exactly float through the air like a bird; he rockets along at 35 to 50 miles per hour. For his Grand Canyon adventure, he hit 190 m.p.h., his promotional team said. He steers with a gentle turn of his head and arms. Jetman has already traversed the English Channel and the Alps, but he ended up in the waves when he tried to cross the Straits of Gibraltar in November 2009.
A former fighter pilot and captain for Swiss International Airlines, Rossy has been developing and refining his wings and jetpack for more than 15 years. The wings started out as inflatables and have morphed into a solid wing that folds out. Four Jet-Cat P200 engines run on kerosene.
Rossy typically takes off inside a Pilatus Porter plane, puts the wings on his back and turns on the engines while inside the plane. He then jumps out at about 1.5 miles and flies for about 10 minutes. When he is out of fuel – tanks hold between four and eight gallons – he opens his parachute and tries to land with the wind at his back. Crew aboard nearby airplanes or helicopters film his escapades and post them on YouTube.
On his Grand Canyon flight, Rossy launched from a helicopter at 8,000 feet and flew about 200 feet above the rim of Grand Canyon West. Media representatives and vicarious thrill seekers jammed into a special media vantage point atop the canyon rim to watch.
Some analysts put Rossy in the same category as boundary-pushers such as Richard Branson and Steve Fossett. Humans have wanted to leave terra firma for millennia, they say, and, gradually, inventors from Leonardo da Vinci to the Wright brothers have ratcheted up the ability to do so. Rossy follows in this same tradition, they say.
Others put him in the category of stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel, who made a living thrilling audiences by jumping over buses and cars.
Still others say the Jetman fascination is a cultural Rorschach test that says more about who is watching than it does about Rossy or his achievements.
“He’s a stunt guy like Donald Trump … do what you can to get attention, and then after the check is cashed run back to the cave and start all over again,” says Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM PR in New York. “None of this is real or adds value. He climbs, the French guy [highwire artist Phillipe Petit] climbs, and every so often [magician] David Blaine disappears or submerges. All for PR and/or money. What should a reporter ask...? When will you go away? They’re all carnival barkers looking to get attention one way or another.”
“This is the future promised to us since the end of World War II, and I, for one, am still waiting for jet packs and flying cars,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. Even for those suspicious of Jetman’s motives, at the very least he provides a diversion for a country caught up in a tough economy and Middle East unrest, says Dr. Thompson.
He cites the 2009 case of “balloon boy” – in which a runaway gas balloon reported to have a young boy on board was chased down on live TV, only later to be found to be a hoax perpetrated by someone angling for his own reality TV show.
“Balloon boy never happened and that was tough to deal with, but this [Jetman exercise] appears to be the endeavor of someone pushing for discovery and we are fascinated," says Thompson.
Another culture theorist, Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, has an observation about masculinity and asks a question he says could be very revealing about America.
“Note that Jetman and all the well-known historical precedents including Evel Knievel are not just men, but men of a certain type,” says Mr. Lehman. When Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974, several reporters wrote that it was a welcome diversion from the exhaustion of Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
“So the most intriguing question is not whether figures like them take our attention away from serious issues like Watergate and the death of Osama bin Laden, but rather why does it take the spectacle of a certain death-defying macho masculinity to distract us from such serious issues at times like this? We seem to seek an almost comic-book or superhero-filmic hyper-masculinity to divert us away from reality. It is disturbing that we place so much value on conventional spectacles of masculine power at times like this.”