Hovering high above the water gives a different perspective to Mission Bay. The feeling is foreign at first, but quickly becomes exciting. As the water pressure explodes out of the jets, participants experience weightless flight as they float higher and higher. A flight session, which starts at $159 for a 15-minute flight, begins with a brief instruction video and the Jetlev R200 equipment orientation. After that, it’s into a wetsuit, life vest and helmet. That’s also about when the nerves start to kick in.
No amount of athletic ability can prepare a participant for the first time they strap into the buoyant 30-pound, carbon-fiber jetpack harness and wade into the water. For the first flight, an on-shore instructor controls the throttle and offers advice through a helmet headset radio, but turning, maintaining height and moving forward is left to the participant.
Two control arms adjust the angle of the jets, which are propelled by water pumping through a 30-foot hose attached to a 200 horsepower, four-stroke-engine boat unit.
The trick is making gentle adjustments and keeping the control arms aligned. Uneven adjustments cause sharp turns and can send the flyer dangerously close to the boat unit below. But the instructor and a kill switch strapped to the participant’s wrist can immediately shut off the engine. A shut-off from high up can make for an entertaining splash-landing for those on shore.
It’s unnatural at first. Most people don’t fly around on jetpacks. But after a few minutes of becoming comfortable with turning and moving on the water’s surface, it becomes easier. There’s a tendency to white-knuckle the grips while gaining height, but smooth, relaxed adjustments really are the key.
The instructor explains how to increase and maintain height and, with a little practice, people are 10 feet in the air and flying with no hands.
While floundering in the shallows, it can be hard to imagine that people start soaring over the bay early in their first session, but Jetpack America president and co-owner Dean O’Malley said most people tend to get the hang of it quickly.
“That’s one of the things we try to emphasize, how accessible it really is,” O’Malley said. “We’ve had customers from age 16 up to 85. We had three deaf customers who flew with us. We had an amputee. We’ve had a quadriplegic that we flew. It really is one of those things that if you give it a fair shot, in five minutes, maybe 10 minutes, we can have you flying. We’ve had a 95 percent success rate of getting first-time people up and flying.”
O’Malley said the activity took off when Jetpack America CEO John Morris partnered with the manufacturer, Jetlev, and offered the first customer flights in Newport Beach in August 2011. Since then, the company has expanded to Honolulu and San Diego.
“We’ve probably flown close to 5,000 people,” O’Malley said. “It’s definitely growing quickly, and we’ve taken a lot of people out to experience what it’s all about.”
The concept was developed by inventor Raymond Li in 2001. The inspiration — not surprisingly —came from a James Bond film.
“It was James Bond movie ‘Thunderball,’” O’Malley said. “He saw the jetpack in that movie and he was blown away by it. It stuck in his head and he always wanted to figure out a way to make that work and make that a reality.”
O’Malley said it became a reality when Li decided to abandon traditional jetpack designs and develop a jetpack powered by water pressure. The constant flow of water not only allows for longer flight times, but also makes it safer.
“If something goes wrong and you drop in the water, it’s not going to be life threatening, O’Malley said. “It truly does make it a recreational jetpack that anyone can come out and try. We’ll have splashdowns, people will come crashing down a little bit, but it’s all part of the learning process.”
Jetpack America’s Mission Bay flight center opened April 6, but the team has been working since last fall to ensure everything will run smoothly with a trained staff in time for summer.
O’Malley said he expects a rush in the summer as the majority of customers have really enjoyed the experience.
“It’s not a one-and-done activity. It does kind of get you addicted,” O’Malley said.
If someone becomes seriously addicted, he or she could purchase a jetpack for $68,500, but Jetpack America does have some more affordable options to continue flying. It offers monthly memberships, returning pilot discounts and group rentals.
If a customer buys the video package and achieves more than 200 views on Youtube, he or she gets a free flight.
Jetpack America is located in the Mission Bay Sportcenter at 1010 Santa Clara Place. For more information, visit www.jetpackamerica.com.
– To see video footage of Ethan Orenstein's high-flying experience, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iA1YnkxbOmk.