National Geographic : 2011 Sep
and notoriously difficult to control. Just ask Bill Suitor. His neighbor Wendell Moore, a Bell Aerospace engineer, needed an average guy to test the Rocket Belt, which he was developing for the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, and recruited 19-year-old Suitor. Now 66, Suitor has own more than 1,200 times. "Controlling the rockets' power was the biggest challenge," he says. "It's like a re-breathing dragon." Inventors continue to try to bring the comic book fantasy of personal jet ight to life, and Yves Rossy has come closest. is Swiss pilot ings himself out of an aircra wearing a six-foot-wide carbon- ber wing of his own invention, powered by four tiny jet engines. In May, Rossy leaped from a helicopter above the Grand Canyon and ew eight minutes before parachuting to Earth. e jets give him powered ascent and the oomph to do loops. at freedom doesn't come easy; it took Rossy years to master his tiny cra . "I steer myself in space with only my body," he explains. "To go le , I turn my shoulders le , and that's it!" He says it's like parachuting with a wing suit, whose panels between the body and limbs slow a skydiver's fall, but with more liberty. "It's awe- some, it's great, it's fantastic!" You won't catch me jumping out of a plane with a wing strapped to my back. But I yearn for even a small measure of Rossy's joie de vol. A er ve runs o the Outer Banks dune last April, I was getting closer---able to y into the wind, then oating gently down onto my feet. It was as if the glider wasn't there. I wanted more. Sandra Vernon, a 47-year-old mother of three in my class on the dune, egged me on. She'd been ying towed tandem ights, pulled up to 2,000 feet behind an ultralight. is usually grants a hang glider a good ten-minute ight back down to Earth, even if there are no Flying journalist Nancy Shute contributes to NPR, Scienti c American, and other media outlets. 1977 A British prize set up in 1959 for the first human-powered plane is finally claimed by the Gossamer Condor, which has Mylar wings and a furiously pedal- ing pilot. 1990s French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon soars in his batlike nylon wing suit. He dies testing a new model in 1998. • "Controlling the rockets' power was the biggest challenge," says Bill Suitor, who's flown with a rocket belt for decades. "It's like a fire-breathing dragon."