Water-powered jetpacks are as close as it gets to personal (and safe) human flight
BY JEREMY THOMAS
Like most comic book-obsessed kids, I always wondered what it would be like to be Superman. The thought of lifting off the ground and soaring, experiencing the pure freedom of flight, was—and still is—the stuff of many a daydream.
At Jetlev Southwest in Newport Beach, which offers training sessions in water-propelled jetpacks, I came about as close as possible to feeling like a full-fledged superhero. Connected to a mobile, floating engine with a 30-foot hose, the Jetlev Flyer shoots highly pressurized water from two attached nozzles. With the device, one can hover, fly, and dive—over and under the water—with the greatest of ease.
Jetlev Southwest president Dean O’Malley, a longtime snowboarder, believes hydro-powered jet packing has the potential to become one of the world’s hottest extreme watersports.
“I fully expect within three to five years it’s going to be everywhere you go,” O’Malley said confidently. “Every resort place with a body of water and people doing water sports, it’s going to be there.”
After experiencing the jetpacks for myself, it’s easy to see the reason for O’Malley’s enthusiasm. Prior to my flight, he explained that while the learning curve is steep, most fliers get the hang of it quickly.
“The first five minutes are very frustrating … everything seems counterintuitive,” he admitted. “But once you work through that period, everything starts to click.”
And you don’t have to be athletic to try, O’Malley explained. As opposed to strength sports, jet packing is all about touch and finesse. The best fliers, he says, are the ones who can relax the most.
Despite his reassurances that there’s almost no risk of injury besides maybe a bruised ego, I was admittedly a bit nervous. After arriving at Jetlev’s offices, I was treated to a short video describing how to start the jetpack and where to keep my hands. Next, I sat in a mockup and got a feel for the controls. Movements are supposed to be subtle; the slightest motion of the arms can cause big changes in direction, much like steering a motorcycle.
After the demo, I walked to the 18th Street Beach several blocks away, where Eric Luna, my coach for the day, was waiting. Beginners aren’t given control of the throttle; that’s left up to the instructors, who adjust it via remote control.
Claude Mokbel, a “floating assistant,” mans the pontoon boat on the shore. He compared mastering the jetpack to learning to ride a bike, and said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the amount of fliers who come back for more.
“It’s cutting edge,” he said. “It’s the new thing on the market, and everyone wants to give it a try. People come by and watch in awe of the idea. It’s like something out of a sci-fi movie.”
With a few minutes before I was set to go, I watched a first-timer and a more experienced flier, Carlos Verdenelli, take their turns. Verdenelli lives in nearby Fountain Valley, and often comes out to get a break from work. After watching him make it look easy, it was time for me to get strapped in. The instructor equipped me with a one-way communication helmet so I could hear his commands, and I was buckled tightly to the pack with a safety harness. Walking the contraption chest-deep into the cool water, I breathed deeply, trying to clear my head.
I engaged the key and pressed the starter button. Lurching forward awkwardly, I flopped around in the water like a wounded seal. At first, my body wanted to do the opposite of what my brain was telling it.
Through the headset, Eric reminded me to keep my arms level and let the jetpack do the work. I relaxed and visualized the jets behind me as I started again. Suddenly, I was rising, inch-by-inch, out of the water. Hovering, with my feet dangling below, I began circling, concentrating on keeping an even keel. As my movements became steadier, Eric told me he was increasing the throttle, and I rose up over the marina.
This is it, I thought. I’m flying. Just as O’Malley promised, something clicked, and after a while I didn’t have to think much about my arms. In a strange way, it felt entirely natural.
With paddleboarders and curious observers passing by on boats, pointing and taking pictures, I lifted off first 10, then 20 feet above the blue-green waters below. I caught glimpses of Newport Bay—and farther out, the expanse of the Pacific Ocean—on the abnormally hot Southern California day.
At the peak of the ride, it was difficult to not let a fear of heights and adrenaline take over. At one point, I nearly performed a dreaded back flip, and Luna cut the power, dropping me safely down. When I got back to baseline, he talked me through a “submarine” maneuver. Arms all the way in, I shot down headfirst like a pelican after a fish, and after several seconds in a dive, I pushed the handles out and shot up out of the salty ocean. This is what a dolphin must feel like, I imagined.
Nearing the end of the flight, I was more comfortable in the chair, gaining confidence. I focused on my breathing, and a Zen-like peace took over. I was up with the seabirds, where man is not meant to be; yet there I was nonetheless. With my instructor’s guidance, I explored more advanced maneuvers: walking on water and flying (briefly) with no hands. Forget Superman; I became Iron Man, Aquaman, and Boba Fett all rolled into one.
I didn’t want the experience to end, but my arms tired, and the 30-minute ride was soon over. I shut off the power and walked the jetpack back to shore.
“What a rush!” I shouted, as my coaches offered congratulations. My heart still racing, I felt I’d just become a member of an exclusive club. The glow lasted several hours, and I can’t wait to try it again.
Unfortunately, for now, Newport Beach is one of few places within a day’s driving distance where mere mortals can experience the thrill. The first outfit to open on the West Coast, Jetlev Southwest, has operations in Hawaii and Lake Havasu, Ariz., and plans to eventually expand northward to Santa Barbara and the Central Coast, as interest in the sport grows through viral marketing and word of mouth.
Since opening the outfit in Orange County a year ago, O’Malley said he’s been encouraged by the amount of repeat customers. Though it’s taken some time, he said, jet packing is beginning to spread like wildfire.
“It’s not one of these bucket list, one-and-done and move on things,” he explained. “They actually see it as a sport that they want to get good at. Hopefully over the next few years it’s going to be blowing up as a big sport, rather than just a novelty on the fringe.”
Hydro-powered jetpacks stand to get a lot more exposure soon. Tied in with the 100th anniversary of the world’s first extended transoceanic flight from Newport Beach to Catalina Island, on Sept. 29, O’Malley will try to make the first trip to the island by jetpack. In attempting a new world distance record, O’Malley hopes to symbolically ring in the next century of over-water flight.
“We’re just barely scratching the surface,” he said. “I don’t see how it won’t become the next big thing.”
Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas is the next big thing (he’s really letting himself go). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.