Jetpacks and Wingwalking: 2020 keeps getting weirder

4 Sep 20 9 Comments

Twenty-twenty was always an interesting sounding year, popular with futurists and science fiction writers for having something of a ring to it, a year in which clean fuel and commercial space travel and Jetson-style jetpacks could be a reality.

Well, we might have been right about one of them.

Last week, Fox 11 broke the story of the bizarre report from the flight crew of American 1997 inbound to Los Angeles International Airport reported seeing “a guy in a jetpack” flying just off of their wing.

Here’s an edited copy of the audio file from LiveATC highlighting the incident:

American 1997: Tower, American 1997, we just passed a guy in a jetpack!
Controller: American 1997, OK… thank you. Were they off to your left or right side?
American 1997: Off the left side. Uh. Maybe uh 300… 300 yards or so? At about our altitude.
Controller: OK. […]
SkyWest: Tower, SkyWest 3961. We just saw the guy passing by us in the jetpack.
Controller: Jet Blue 23, use caution. A person in a jetpack reported 300 yards south of the LA final at about 3,000 feet, 10 mile final.
Jet Blue 23: Jet Blue 23, we heard and we are *definitely* looking.
Unidentified Pilot: Only in LA.

On the Professional Pilot’s Rumour Network, the conversation has shifted to differences in approach.

Airline pilots landing at LAX report “a guy in jetpack” flying alongside them WTF?!?

Gatwick had a (suspected only) drone near the airport, and was disorganised/closed for days.

LAX has someone jetpacking around the approach and … issues a caution.

It’s not quite the same thing of course and the drone was better documented than Jetpack Guy was

I guess the difference might be that a guy in a jetpack is likely to have a basic sense of self-preservation and to avoid actual collision; whereas someone with a drone could easily fly it into the path of an aircraft without danger to himself.

Which is also an interesting argument but another commenter shoots it down:

Not sure I’d put much faith in the self-preservation instincts of someone who intentionally flies a jetpack to withing a few hundred yards of the LAX approach path…

No one has come forward to admit to having been in LAX airspace in an unregistered jetpack (not that there’s any such thing as a registered jetpack). The FBI is investigating.

I couldn’t help thinking of Lawnchair Larry when I first heard about this, another “only in LA” incident. Larry Walters was a truck driver working for FilmFair Studios. He’d been rejected by the US Air Force because of his poor eyesight. He never lost the desire to fly and clung to a childhood dream of floating into the sky using weather balloons.

When he was thirty-three, he decided the time had come to try it. He purchased 45 eight-foot weather balloons and used a forged requisition from his employer to purchase helium tanks to fill them with. He tied a lawnchair to his jeep and attached 43 of the balloons to it. He sat down with a CB radio and a pellet gun in his lap (to shoot the balloons individually for his descent) and a friend cut him free.

Lawnchair Larry press photo (possibly AP Photos)

The lawnchair swiftly rose to 16,000 feet and was reported by the flight crew of two commercial airliners (TWA and Delta). Realising he was drifting into controlled airspace, he used the radio to contact an emergency CB channel and asked them to relay a message to the airport.

Operator: What information do you wish me to tell at this time as to your location and your difficulty?
Larry: Ah, the difficulty is, ah, this was an unauthorized balloon launch, and, uh, I know I’m in a federal airspace, and, uh, I’m sure my ground crew has alerted the proper authority. But, uh, just call them and tell them I’m okay.

He descended by shooting the balloons one by one, making sure to keep them balanced. It almost worked until the very end of the descent when his balloon cables got tangled into a power line and he fell to the ground, where members of the Long Beach Police Department were waiting for him.

The case was passed to the FAA who wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

In the New York Times archive: Truck Driver Takes to Skies in a Lawn Chair

“We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we decide which part it is, some type of charge will be filed,” [Regional safety inspector] Mr. Savoy said. “If he had a pilot’s license, we’d suspend that. But he doesn’t.”

In further bizarre news, a young mother returning home from holiday on Ukraine International Airlines opened the emergency exit and walked out onto the wing after the aircraft had landed in Kiev.

Wingwalking in Kyev

The video and photographs being published in the news as “Credit: Instagram” which doesn’t really count as credit, in my book. I’ve also seen it credited to “Borys Pilchany”, presumably a confused reference to Boryspil Airport where Ukraine International Airlines is based. Certainly the video was posted on Boryspil Airport’s instagram feed which may have been the original source:

A passenger said they had disembarked when they looked up to see someone on wing. The passenger said two children were also watching and one said, “This is our mum.”

Ukrainian Airlines have confirmed that the woman is now blacklisted from flying with them.

Maybe she needs to buy some weather balloons or make friends with Jetpack Man.

Category: Fun Stuff,


  • Jetpack guy: pics or it didn’t happen…

    Every time I’ve flown, something like 50% of the passengers at a window had their phone out and was recording the landing.

    You can not tell me someone didn’t get at least a photo, if such a thing happened.

    And even if they weren’t recording, the passengers had to have seen something.

    • 300 yards is 3 football fields, I doubt “jetpack guy” would show up well on smartphone footage.
      I wonder how the pilots spotted the jetpack, but I’ve noticed that a practiced eye (which I don’t have) is more able to pick out other flying objects: it’s easy when you’re on the ground and the flying object is in the sky, but spotting something flying against the landscape takes practice.

      Maybe jetpacks ought to come with powerful strobe lights….

  • I doubt that Sylvia is taking this all seriously herself.
    She has a sense of humour and is just putting up something to amuse her readers.
    Hilarious and fun.- a break from the serious and sometimes tragic.

    • Why was Lawnchair Larry concerned about keeping his helium balloons ‘balanced’ as he shot out individual ones? Whichever one he hit the remainder would reposition themselves so their collective centre of lift remained directly above his centre of gravity.

      • It’s unclear that would have worked given that the balloons look like they are on variable-but-short tethers; I’m not saying they wouldn’t rebalance — and having them all come to a single point means they’d be unlikely to spill him out of his chair — but I wouldn’t assume they would.

  • From what I’ve been reading of jetpacks (as in a story some months ago about a jetpack wearer delivering mail across a narrow strait in southern England) they have so little endurance that even with LAX’s as-close-as-possible landings a jetpack wouldn’t be up long enough to be a danger to more than 1-2 planes, where a drone can stay up quite a while. Also, a human (with or without a pack) is a lot larger than a drone, and could be seen far enough away that planes would have more of a chance (maybe not enough, but more) to avoid him. So not shutting down the airport seems less dangerous than some critics would have it. wrt catching the jetpacker on a smartphone — passengers look out the side of a plane, while pilots have forward and angle views; a jetpack (which so far isn’t nearly as fast as a commercial jet, even on final approach) might go by too quickly to be caught — although this was publicized widely enough that I bet everyone on that flight who was videoing is looking hopefully at the results.

    The wingwalker was dumb but falls under “somebody was going to do it sometime” — cf the collision of a tank truck and a taxiing plane in Toronto, where people were hurt because they were already standing and others evacuated before they were told to. Too much hurry in everyday life, too many overdramatic movies, and some sheer selfishness. cf my LAX arrival last year where the attendant asked people to stay seated so a honeymooning couple in the back could make a connection (our flight being about an hour late). Did they stay seated? Of course not. That may have been Angelenos — in the same situation on my return to BOS people sat and cheered — but too many people just don’t think these days.

    Lawnchair Larry was brought up just a couple of days ago, when somebody in central Australia (which is not exactly heavy on air traffic) hoped to ride a set of balloons as high as Everest before cutting loose and parachuting down. He took oxygen and warm clothes but ran into rough air (IIRC) over a thousand meters short; came down OK. (Read this yesterday on the BBC, complete with ground and air videos, but I can’t find it now; will post if I can turn it up.)

  • Larry allegedly had a parachute (and had jumped before).
    Loss of life “cluster ballooning” events have involved bad weather and oceans. The thing to do would be to carry
    a) a handheld aircraft radio capable of transmitting at 121.5 MHz and able to contact ATC (for legal and practical reasons),
    b) a parachute and a life jacket (flotation device)
    c) an ELT beacon.
    A GPS and aviation maps (or perhaps a tablet computer integrating both), and training in operating and reading them, would be very useful.
    Some balloons carry radar reflectors (angled “balls” of metal), that would definitely be a handy passive safety device.

    I wonder if the new regulations regarding ATC-B for general aviation mean that a cluster balloon would also have to take one of these transmitters up — and how much it takes to keep it powered.

    I wonder what kind of emergency equipment hot air balloons carry nowadays.

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