Swiss 'JetMan' puts brakes on Grand Canyon flight

AP News
Posted: May 06, 2011 9:24 PM
Swiss 'JetMan' puts brakes on Grand Canyon flight

Swiss "JetMan" Yves Rossy was fascinated by the Grand Canyon's unique elements _ its swirling air currents, its cactus-covered cliffs and its significance to the Hualapai Tribe that calls the rugged area home.

They were among the reasons he chose the scenic wonder as the site for his first U.S. flight in a jet-propelled wing suit.

But on Friday _ the day of his planned flight _ an apologetic Rossy stood before a crowd of reporters not in the black jet suit but in a T-shirt and jeans to declare the stunt was called off. He said the same elements that piqued his interest in flying over the massive gorge years ago also meant the flight would be too much of a challenge without any practice runs.

"If I do a mistake and half of U.S. television (is here), it's really bad for you, for me, for everybody," he told The Associated Press. "I don't want to take the risk to present something unprofessional."

Rossy, who calls himself the JetMan, has rocketed above the English Channel and the Swiss Alps in his custom-built wing suit. In his first U.S. flight, he planned to jump from a helicopter near Eagle Point on the Hualapai Reservation, spending eight minutes entertaining the small crowd with aerial stunts above the canyon before parachuting to the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave Rossy the final approval for the stunt Friday morning, less than an hour before he was scheduled to take off. The agency said it learned of the daredevil's plan through public reports and sent him a letter late last week outlining the requirements to fly in U.S. airspace.

Rossy got the tribe's OK three months ago, after two years of talks with tribal officials, visits to the reservation and pinpointing landing sites on Google Earth. But the adventurer wasn't in contact with the FAA until a few weeks ago.

The FAA quickly went to work on Rossy's plan, going back and forth with his representatives this week over whether the jet suit should be classified as an airplane or a power glider. The FAA said it never has been asked to evaluate such an aircraft, nor does it fit neatly into any category.

Rossy's jet suit averages 124 mph and has a 6.5-foot wing span; he wears it on his back, sending fuel to the four engines with a slight roll of his hand. The FAA ultimately grouped it with airplanes.

The agency usually requires 25 to 40 hours of test flights but waived that rule for Rossy, saying he already had a significant amount of flight time with the jet suit.

Rossy wouldn't comment Friday on whether he allowed the FAA enough time to review his proposal so that he could train and make the planned flight. He referred questions to John Parker, a consultant to Rossy's sponsor Breitling.

Parker told the AP that Rossy's representatives first contacted the FAA a month ago and believed that was enough time to get all the approvals and do two days of test flights.

"I honestly think the pressure was good," Parker said. "It's nice to have a focused end and keep the motivation."

Rossy's course would have taken him westward along the rim of the Grand Canyon, using only his body to steer and his eyes to navigate. He said he still would like to make the flight, but had not yet rescheduled it.

Windsocks were placed at the rim and bottom of the canyon to determine the wind's direction. Four boats were ready thousands of feet below the rim in the Colorado River, and emergency responders and helicopters were on standby in case anything went wrong.

In announcing his decision to scrap the flight, Rossy emphasized safety.

"It's the most challenging place I could fly," he said. "I don't know any professional aviator who will give a show without training."

Robert Bravo Jr., chief executive of the tribe's business arm, Grand Canyon Resort Corp., said he was disappointed about not getting to see Rossy take flight. But he said the tribe would be happy to welcome back the JetMan anytime.

"Of course safety is the No. 1 priority," Bravo said. "I believe that when certain things happen, they happen for a reason and we have to respect that."

The aviation world has kept a close watch on Rossy, a former fighter pilot who has flown over the Swiss Alps and the English Channel in the past few years. While jetpacks and hang gliders have taken to the skies, "this one is a bit unusual," said Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association.

"It's such a unique design and a unique pursuit that it doesn't fall in the usual categories," he said.

The Hualapai Reservation is known for the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass bridge that extends 70 feet from the canyon's rim and gives visitors a view of the river. The reservation lies west of Grand Canyon National Park.