SHIFT: Personal flight — what we're doing wrong

Michel Fournier has been trying to fly for more than 20 years. Last week his much-publicized attempt to break several world records including those for longest and fastest free fall went awry three days in a row, first due to weather conditions and then later when the helium balloon that was supposed to lift him 130,000 feet inexplicably detached from its harness.

Fournier wanted to skydive from 25 miles up, but he's not the only one out there obsessed with soaring through the air alone, without the protection of an enclosed vehicle. Forget the need for speed: what people are really obsessed with is flying. And they don't want to be enclosed in some dumb airplane to do it. Technology today is helping people like Fournier get closer to reaching their goals, but is that a good thing? Click Continue to read about some of the crazier exploits of people who wish they were birds.

Learning to Fly When You Ain't Got Wings
Let's be clear here. Everyone wants to be able to fly. And the desire is nothing new. Remember Icarus, the mythological Greek character whose homemade wax wings melted when he flew to close to the sun? Who wouldn't want a working pair of wings? After all, they worked for Icarus's father, Daedalus. And why do you think religions have imagined that angels have wings? It's because it would be so cool to be able to fly that we've bestowed upon spiritual beings the power we'd most want. If gills were particularly important to us, then angels would be mermaids.

But enough mythology. In the past hundred years humans have come much closer to being able to fly than they ever were in the past. Flying in airplanes is now a mundane and necessary, if expensive, part of life. But airplanes are such a disappointment! You could fly to Australia and back without ever feeling like you were soaring through the air with the greatest of ease. No, the dream of flying was not solved by airplanes, helicopters, fighter jets, or even hot air balloons. None of these innovations will make you feel even remotely like Superman.

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99 Red Balloons (and Other Bad Ideas)

In April of this year a Brazilian Roman Catholic priest, Rev. Adelir Antonio de Carli, disappeared (and presumably died) during his attempt to break the world record for longest time cluster ballooning. Cluster ballooning (pictured at right) is pretty much what it sounds like: a good, old-fashioned way to put yourself in a lot of danger by attaching a lot of helium balloons to a buoyant chair and taking off. If you're really daring, you can forget the chair and attach the balloons' harness to your body and legs. People have been "flying" this way for years (there's even a romantic comedy based on the concept), some more successfully than others.

But newer technology like GPS, high-tech parachutes and satellite phones may be encouraging people like de Carli to take risks that they wouldn't have in the past. GPS is great and all, but it won't help much if your balloons take you 20,000 feet into the air and you're too cold to use it.

japan-helicopter.jpgBallooning isn't the only way daredevils have been trying to catch air time lately. For a price ($125,000) you can purchase your own rocket belt, a Rocket Man-style harness that will lift you into the air for 20 very expensive seconds. Meanwhile, a Japanese company has produced a flimsy but functional tiny, open-aired one-man helicopter (shown at left). And as if wingsuiting (skydiving in a suit with built-in wing-like flaps) weren't dangerous enough (one of the suit's inventors died in one), some have gone further and attached model plane rockets filled with kerosene to their feet while doing it.

Defying Gravity
Every method I’ve described above is extremely dangerous. While researching this column I came across more reports of lethal skydiving attempts (without rocket booties) than I care to mention. What’s more surprising about these flying attempts is how old-fashioned they are. Rocket suits in the form described above have been around since the 1960s. Helium is nothing new, even if you're planning on using it to get 25 miles away from earth, as Fournier was. In truth, flying in the controlled swooping, soaring, wing-flapping falcon way we imagine is almost as unattainable now as it was thousands of years ago. We’ve managed to fashion very serviceable SCUBA-style gills for people in addition to creating larger underwater vehicles, like submarines. But the closest we’ve come to controlled weightlessness on earth is through very expensive zero gravity flights.

Those flights, though they look amazingly fun, use an incredible amount of fuel. In this time of rocketing (ahem) fuel prices and serious helium shortages, personal flying machines start to seem less cool and more like a bizarrely self-centered luxury for ageing boomers, akin to owning an H2. And as robots become more sophisticated, flying Iron Man suits (as opposed to exoskeletons — another matter entirely) don’t even seem like they’d be useful to the military.

But perhaps that's shortsighted of me. The real problem with current personal flying machines, and the reason they look so silly, is that they're not forward-looking enough. Last year physicists announced that they had solved the mystery of levitation. They were working on a very small scale, but it was a step in the right direction. Let’s reclaim flying from crazies like Fornier and his thinly veiled suicide attempt in the name of "scientific research" and from the grip of Hollywood special effects gurus. Flying fanatics should stop spending so much time building tiny helicopters, and start working towards a higher-tech solution that would make flying tenable, safe, and green. Or they should take a dip in the ocean, which is the next best thing.