Private Air Magazine
Inside the White Horse pub, the regulars cracked jokes about the man who would strap a jet-powered wing to his back and, the next afternoon, starting from Calais, attempt to fly across the English Channel. Outside the pub, which occupied the first floor of an ancient stone house in Dover, there was wind, rain and general gloom. It was late September in a changeable clime, and the weather had already forced the delay of the attempt by 24 hours.
"The question is: How deep will they have to dig to find him after he's come down?"
"We should take bets on it."
"He better be careful. Remember Icarus."
"Does he know we have ferries?"
"Does he know we have a tunnel?"
No one could even say what the man's name was, nor settle on the nickname he was supposed to go by—Jet Man, Rocket Man, Bird Man, Fusion Man, this last one something of a head-scratcher.
"What, precisely, is he fusing?"
In fact, his name was Yves Rossy, and he came from la Suisse Romande—the French-speaking region of Switzerland, near Geneva. A former fighter pilot in the Swiss Army, he had a day job now as an airline captain for Swissair, but for the last fourteen years he had dedicated his life to perfecting "the dream," as he called it. He had just turned 49. You shouldn't describe his project as a hobby. "It is not a hobby," he will reply, offended. To develop his wing through some eight prototypes, he'd already spent about four hundred thousand of his own Swiss francs. His wife had divorced him. "The goal is to fly with the body, like a child playing airplane, like everybody dreams of," he told me later, smiling peacefully as he said it. "I am still a kid." His nicknames were all of the above.
At the South Foreland Lighthouse, which sits high atop the White Cliffs and has cast its beam across the English Channel for 165 years, the media gathered for the flight. The weather had cleared. The delays were over. Rossy had chosen to land at the lighthouse for specific reasons; he had a sense of history. Not two miles to the south, Louis Bleriot, the French pioneer aviator, had crash-landed in 1909 after making the first ever flight over La Manche in an airplane. Bleriot had used the South Foreland lighthouse tower—white as the cliffs on which it sits—as an aiming point. When the Frenchman emerged from his monoplane, its landing gear mangled, its prop destroyed, the photographers swarmed around him. He would soon become world famous. He also collected the £1000 prize promised by the Daily Mail to the first aviator to accomplish the Channel-crossing feat.
Now, for Rossy's redux, dozens of still and TV cameras were trained on a swatch of green country-club lawn between the lighthouse and the cliffs—the spot upon which Rossy intended to descend by parachute after the crossing. The documentary film producer for the National Geographic Channel, a severe dark-haired woman of early middle age in sunglasses, scarf and stiletto-heeled boots, marched all over the lawn giving orders to her assistants while taking drags off a Dunhill. So many media organs had sent reporters to the event—BBC, CBS, ABC, Sky TV, CNN, Al Jazeera, AP, Times (London, New York), Mirror, Telegraph, Guardian, Sun, USA Today, me—that this rural sea-edge lighthouse in Kent, surrounded by rolling hills and flax farms and herds of sheep, seemed to reside at the absolute fulcrum of the world's news cycle, notwithstanding the fact that, everywhere else, the story of the century had been developing: a global financial system on the brink of collapse.
"Of all the crazy things in the world to do, this has to be the most ridiculous," said a TV reporter to his cameraman.
"Most of these world-record breaker types, if they keep at it, they die."
Everyone peered into the cloudless sky, hands shielding eyes. Gulls soared over the cliffhead and the water. Their sleek black forms were stark against the bright horizon, the French coast 22 klicks in the distance, and whenever I saw one of the birds, I flinched—Rocket Man!—even though I knew he wasn't scheduled to launch for another hour.
It was probably inevitable that a sense of the zany hung over the entire affair. Weird details kept accumulating. For one thing, only nine months earlier, Rossy had taken his project to the next level when he'd convinced Hublot, a Swiss watchmaker based in Nyon, not far from where Rossy lives, to sponsor him. Hublot, owned by the uber-luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, makes the kind of chunky diamond-studded wristwatches that have faces the size of speedometers. The brand's cheapest piece costs six grand and its standard method of advertisement relies heavily on the sales forces at Hachette and Hearst and Condé Nast.
Jean-Claude Biver, Hublot's rather proprietary chief executive, was enthusiastic, despite the possibility of much bad press should Fusion Man recall Icarus and plunge into the sea. It was Biver, a somewhat off-kilter fellow himself, who had dubbed Rossy "Fusion Man." "It was my idea to call him like that," Biver later told me, excitedly. "Because I believe that Yves' project is the fusion between man and bird." Though Rossy was now an airline pilot—with all the official aversion to risk that such a vocation implied—he was also an expert skydiver and hang-gliding enthusiast. He had, in other words, more than a little of the daredevil in him—he was a winged Suisse Romande Evel Knievel.
Rossy had used Biver's sponsorship money—about $150,000 to start—to build and test this latest version of his wing, which he first unveiled over the Savoy Alps this past May as a smattering of local media stood on a mountaintop and watched him zoom overhead. Footage of the flight became a YouTube sensation, greasing the gears for Rossy's fame and the kind of marketing bonanza Biver evidently had in mind.
But now there was the Channel, and far more publicity—both for Rossy and Hublot, whose money had made the attempt possible. The endeavor smacked of Bleriot and his flight undertaken for the £1000 newspaper prize, and it smacked even more of something bygone and somehow innocent: of those tight-rope walkers and biplane wing-riders who performed their feats of death-defiance under contract to publicize soda pop or breakfast cereal. Only this time, it was conspicuous-consumption wristwatches hardly anyone could afford.
For the Channel crossing, National Geographic approached Rossy about filming a documentary and, when Rossy agreed, that organization's practiced TV pros took over the operation. This, in turn, had created a minor turf battle between the media outlet and Fusion Man's watch-smith sponsor. Neither Biver nor any Hublot representative traveled to Dover or Calais for the event. The words "Fusion Man" were nowhere to be seen in Dover, not in the press kits, not on the banners that bedecked the media tents at the landing site. National Geographic preferred "Jet Man."
Then—more drama. A bank of low blue-gray clouds formed on the northern horizon just as Rossy was about to take off in the Pilatus Porter skydiving plane from which he always launched. Suddenly there were whispers at the lighthouse of "weather issues" and further delay. And, indeed, Rossy had decided to cancel, to try again the next afternoon, but in order to placate the assembled media, a helicopter shuttled him from Calais to Dover to answer questions at a press conference. Addressing the cameras, he was still in his flight suit, its legs and chest and arms all bearing the word "Hublot."
He said, among other things, "I am not disappointed. It is risk management. I would be disappointed to be in the water now, and then tomorrow it's perfect blue sky . . . The goal is not to speak in front of you. It's to do it."
For the trip back to Calais after the press conference, Jet Man took the ferry.
Yves Rossy's home in Nyon is filled with aviation objets d'art. It is his lone decorating theme. A long wooden propeller hangs on the living-room wall. A large model of a Mirage jet fighter depends on a string from the ceiling of a stairwell. (As a Swiss Army pilot, Rossy flew the Mirage III. When he got into skydiving and, then, skysurfing, in the early 1990s, he jumped out of an airplane with this very Mirage model strapped to his feet. "It did not fly very well.") On another wall in the foyer there's an old advertisement, circa the nineteen-teens. It says, "Captain Pobjoy's Flying Circus" overtop illustrations of biplane Sopwith Camels in the air over the English countryside, stuntmen riding the wings.
Rossy is of medium height and wiry as a tennis star, yet his fitness regime is rigorous but not obsessive. He jogs daily for a few miles, and that's it. He has a pronounced Adam's apple, blue eyes and a microthin layer of gray fuzz on his head, as if his follicles had been swept clean by the onrushing air a thousand miles up. Farsighted, he wears reading glasses on a fob around his neck. On his wrist is an enormous slab of watch with a face that turns from black to blue depending on the way the light strikes. It is, of course, a Hublot.
About his comportment, demeanor and manner of speech there is something calming, centered, earnest, serene, as if he were a practitioner of some Eastern discipline. He peppers his talk with New Agey epigrams. "What is important is not the target, but the way to it." "I try to live the instant, to be here, to realize what I am living. This makes the thing tasty."
Rossy grew up in a small village near Lausanne, on Lake Geneva, where his father worked as a logistics chief for the national train company. The desire to become a pilot overcame Rossy at 13, when he witnessed the Patrouille Suisse, Switzerland's version of the Blue Angels, perform in their Hawker Hunters at an air show. When he entered army service—compulsory, of course, in Switzerland—he immediately won enrollment at flight training school. He had his pilot's license before his driver's. He stood out among his peers, and he eventually spent six years as a professional military aviator, flying Vampires, Venoms, Hawker Hunters, F5s and last but certainly not in Rossy's mind least, the Mirage III. He believes it to be the greatest fighter plane ever devised. "That is the absolute. That is the reference." The last of the so-called supersonic "bird" fighters, the Mirage III was stick-and-rudder, all mechanical and hydraulic and analog, rather than, like most modern fighters, digital fly-by-wire. For Rossy, this made all the difference. "There is no computer between you and the air."
The experience of flying the Mirage was the origin, the starting point, of Rossy's later obsession with "the dream." In a Mirage, because of its power and performance, combined with the intimacy of its controls, a pilot could achieve a freedom available almost nowhere else. Then, in 1994, the 30-year-old Rossy, already an avid hang glider and paraglider, took up skydiving. During his first 60 seconds of freefall, he "played around." He spread his arms wide and experienced the simulacrum of flight. It gave him "a feeling of liberty" unlike anything he'd known before, and he wondered if he could combine that "almost naked" freefall experience "with the same emotion I have in a fighter jet. If I could do that, then the dream is reality."
At first, he built a small wing out of wood, strapped it to his back and jumped out of an airplane—essentially, he made a kite and went skydiving with it. Then, he tried sky surfing, but with an aerodynamic wing—made with the help of an engineering student in Geneva—under his feet, instead of the typical snowboard-like plank. The wing-surfing experiment worked so well that Rossy tapped a friend with a bit more experience than a student for help in his next prototype design. Pierre Moran, chief of the Air France technical staff in Geneva, made some drawings and pointed Rossy, in 1997, in the direction of Alain Ray.
Moran and Ray knew each other from within the small world of Swiss airplane-model enthusiasts. They built their models and flew them in tournament competitions.
Ray, who owns his own carbon-fiber fabrication business, is at his essence a builder of toys. He says of his shop, "It is like the cave of Ali Baba. There, I have many things, but with those many things, I do special things." Shaggy haired, unshaven, now blind in his left eye from injuries suffered in a bad car accident in 2005, Ray has built all of Rossy's wings since Moran put the two in touch. His workshop, with plate glass windows overlooking the Jura mountains, is stuffed to the rafters with projects ongoing and abandoned: the roof for a new kind of scooter that a Geneva taxi company has commissioned, a miniature blimp, dozens of working airplane models, rebuilt carbon-fiber parts for injured Aston-Martins, the chassis of motocross cars with which Ray has driven to victory in races around Switzerland.
Gobs of carbon filament float around the room like cat hair. You come out of the shop with it sticking to your trousers.
After experimenting with several inflatable-wing prototypes (the better to fit inside the Pilatus, expandable once outside the plane), after seeking the expertise, and the wind-tunnel, of aerodynamicists at Sukhoi in Ukraine, Rossy and Ray eventually settled on the rigid-wing structure he would use to cross the Channel. It is powered by four kerosene-fueled jet engines—or "reactors" as they call them—manufactured by Jet Cat, a German company that makes equipment for airplane models and drones. (Rossy says that the most important member of his team might be Roman Kulosseck, a Jet Cat engineer who oversees everything related to the reactors of Fusion Man.) The wing, about eight feet in length, has hinges so that its tips fold up. In the air, after he hops through the door of the Pilatus, Rossy flips a switch and the tips spring open.
This latest version of the wing is not the final one. His ultimate goal is to build a wing with enough aerodynamic ability and power to take its flier "vertical," rocketing through three dimensions and performing maneuvers as he only could with his Mirage. "Once you have experienced that, those dimensions, going vertical, the energy—whoa! It's part of the elevation of the human. For me, in all meanings of the word. Elevation not only in altitude, but also in the spirit."
While testing his prototypes, Rossy has defied his fair share of death. There have been flat spins and engine failures. He has lost his orientation inside alpine cloud. A badly pitched prototype wing—unstable in the air, he soon discovered—once sent him oscillating, porpoise-like, up and down and out of control. But because he designed a "throwaway harness," by which he is able to jettison his wing whenever he finds himself in trouble, he claims to have reduced the dangers of the testing process. His minimum safety altitude is 1500 meters. An audio altimeter lets him know through an earpiece the instant he has fallen below that canopy. "Altitude is safety," he says. He will then cut himself from the wing and open his parachute. (The wing has its own automatic chute, so that it can be recovered intact.)
Lately, though, he has had trouble obeying the voice in his ear. With ten years of experience making these flights, he says he has grown perhaps a little too confident in his ability to recover.
"I had about three situations already now when I was just lucky. I was fighting too long." Only four weeks before the Channel crossing, while training for the flight in Switzerland, he lost an engine. He had asymmetric power; he was unstable. His altitude rapidly sunk. All the while, he struggled with the engine controls in an attempt to recover until the altimeter's voice said 1500 meters, 1200 meters, 800, 600. "The safe way would have been, throw it away. But to throw it away, I take the risk that I have to repair. And then I'm losing time and I will not be ready for the Channel." At 600 meters he pulled the rip cord, the wing still harnessed to his back. When his feet touched ground, all but the failed engine were still running.
Because of the inherent danger of the project, Rossy struggled for ten years to find financing over and above his own Swiss Air paycheck. He approached, and was spurned, by nearly a hundred potential sponsors—auto manufacturers, petrol conglomerates, power-drink makers, food companies, Swiss banks and Swiss watchmakers. Their reasons were simple: "All were afraid that I kill myself."
Enter Jean-Claude Biver, who has made a name for himself in the watch trade as something of an enfant terrible. A local Geneva TV broadcaster, mutual friend to both parties, put the two in touch in late 2006. Biver later told me that he expected nothing from the meeting. He expected another bullshit-artist full of big promises—all talk and no action. Rossy hauled his wing to Hublot's offices in the back of his Chrysler minivan. The two men had a look at the contraption right there in the Hublot parking lot.
Biver has crafty blue eyes, white hair on a bald head, and a pink face going slightly to jowl. A burly man, he wears monogrammed shirts ("J.M.B." on the breast pocket) that bulge over an affluent paunch. Laughter pours from his lungs like water from the fountains of Nyon. With a full white beard he'd be a kind of capitalist Claus. Member of an ancient family of Luxembourger cobblers, Biver became obsessed with watches as a university student in Switzerland. Their clockwork innards reminded him of the intricate steam-powered toys of his youth, he told me. He entered the trade on the business side in 1975, becoming a sales manager for the august brand Audemars-Piguet. Within that staid, slow-moving industry, Biver proved to be a canny operator. He made his fortune by purchasing an old but defunct Swiss brand called Blancpain for 18,000 francs in 1982, revivifying it, and selling it to Swatch ten years later for 60 million. In 2004, he took over as CEO of Hublot and has since expanded its annual revenue to around 150 million francs, growth field largely by aggressive marketing. Last April, Biver helped sell Hublot to LVMH for an estimated $500 million.
Rossy and Biver struck a handshake deal at the bumper of Rossy's minivan in the Hublot parking lot, no contract, no dotted line. Ultimately, the sponsorship money allowed Rossy to take an unpaid sabbatical year from Swissair so that he could work full-time on his project, with the aim of crossing the Channel. Biver says he wanted only to help Rossy; he was not looking "to chase any payback." Still, he knew that a successful flight had the potential to splash the Hublot name around the world. In the end, Rossy also struck his deal with National Geographic, giving it exclusive rights to film its documentary and produce its live broadcast of the Channel flight, which would be seen by who knows how many millions of people. Biver, meanwhile, couldn't make it. He had a scheduling conflict, he says: a Formula One race in Singapore.
If friction had developed between sponsor and sponsored, it appeared to have dissipated, and Biver now waxes philosophical about Hublot's link with Fusion Man. When he talks about anything to do with watchmaking, Biver speaks with the force of an infomercial's pitchman, but there also exists about him something of the slightly batty intellectual striver. Fundamentally, Biver told me, Hublot builds toys. Rossy, meanwhile, flies with one. "Rationally, a toy is useless," Biver went on. "Because what can you do with it? You play. But a toy gives so much irrationally. If children have no toys, they don't become adults in the same way; kids need toys. It is just like a football game. The team wins, OK, wonderful. So what? But, at the same time, everybody's happy. It's good—it brings the good emotion. When you make toys, same thing, you are making the dreams come true. Yves with his toy and his dream to fly like a bird is useful in the irrational. And this is beautiful, because human beings are a big part irrational. We are half irrational—to be on the safe side." And he laughed his wheezing bottomless laugh.
Alain Ray stood on the lawn of the South Foreland Lighthouse abuzz with nervous energy. He showed me a coin he'd received at a gas station in Geneva the day he left for Dover. The year on its face was 1909—the year of Bleriot's flight.
"It is a totem, you say, no?"
On-camera reporters, meanwhile, practiced their lines: "Ninety nine years after the first flier crossed the Channel, this modern day Buzz Lightyear . . ."
There were no clouds in the sky at all—no hint of overcast on the horizon—and from the Calais-Dunkirk airport, the Pilatus lifted off. Yves Rossy sat inside, his wing on his back. That morning, he had gone down to the port of Calais and put his hands ceremonially into La Manche. "I just said hello to the sea, to the water. I said, 'I hope that we will be wise together.'"
Now, Rossy inched through the open door of the plane until he stood outside on the footstep; he grasped the wing strut—Captain Pobjoy's Flying Circus—3300 meters above Cap Bleriot down there on the coast of France. Roman Kulosseck, sitting inside the Pilatus, ignited the reactors with the remote control device in his hand. The engines whirred on low power. "Four engines stabilized, four green lights. That means, OK, let's go," Rossy said later. "And then, at that moment, everything, all these months and years of work . . ." He pushed himself from the plane. He flipped the switch that sprung his wings, and he plunged immediately into a vertical dive. "You are seeking the speed. I wanted the speed." He was now out over La Manche, its water filigreed with a moderate chop. For 400 meters he dove, all the while throttling slowly up until he had gathered optimum speed—186 miles per hour—and then he pushed the throttle full bore, full thrust. With a simple arch of his back, head held high, he climbed the air, building altitude to 2600 feet. Now it was a straight shot. Now he could see the White Cliffs, a literal line of chalk 20 kilometers distant. There was no burst of adrenaline. "It was like plenitude, a fullness, all these energies. I was not alone there. I knew people were looking at me—my helpers, my team, and also all the others. I was giving something during that time. It was not adrenaline. It was . . . full."
When Rossy flew over the English shoreline, he let out a whoop ("I was—how do you say?—shouting in my helmet.") and again he went to full thrust, collecting altitude. The old fighter pilot performed a celebratory figure eight.
From the lawn of the lighthouse, the maneuver was not legible. The gathered throng of reporters and cameramen and local Dover curiosity seekers—several hundred people in all—peered into the sky, necks craned, as Rossy crossed into English airspace. Shouts went up as Rossy—possibly?—came into view.
"Is that him?"
There was joy bordering on exaltation in their voices.
I, however, saw nothing until Rossy and his entourage of aircraft flew directly overhead: a freckle of black in the lead, followed by two chase planes, the Pilatus included, and a helicopter. The four together formed a cross. With a little imagination, the speck of black had the shape of a batwing. It moved slowly across the sky, over to the other side of the lighthouse, and then suddenly the speck bloomed: a parachute—and a man descending at a stately pace with it.
Someone said, "I wonder if he has his passport."
The tailwind had blown Rossy beyond his planned landing point on the lawn. Instead, he was falling toward a fallow field that spread across hundreds of acres on the inland side of the lighthouse. A chain link fence separated the South Foreland grounds from this field—and suddenly people were clamoring over the fence, circumnavigating the fence on both sides, swarming and pushing through hedgerows, tumbling over each other and dashing across the uneven soil—men with cameras, men with boom mikes, reporters with notebooks, neighborhood people and their children, Alain Ray and me and everyone else—a mass of people running and shouting and laughing and converging on the man with the wing on his back who had just come down from the sky.