On a sunny Friday morning, I am breakfasting al fresco in the Florida Keys, attempting to fend off the seagulls determined to snatch my tropical fruit platter. Halfway down the chain of tiny islands south of Miami, Duck Key is palm-fringed and peaceful, aside from the gulls, whose clumsy divebombing would set the tone for the day.
I have come to try flying the JetLev – a device inspired by the jetpack used by James Bond in Thunderball. Having seen the film as a child, Raymond Li, a Chinese-born Canadian, set out to develop a real version of the flying backpack. He flew his first prototype in 2008 and after an extensive testing programme, the first production models, which can soar 30ft in the air at speeds of up to 25mph, are due to be delivered later this month.
The JetLev retails for $99,500 but budding Bonds can try out the machine at the marina beside the Hawks Cay Hotel in Duck Key. George Shattuck, owner of Sundance Watersports, started offering taster sessions late last year, and to date about 200 people have flown the JetLev.
“People want to live their dreams, they want experiences they can write home about. And flying is definitely one of those,” says Shattuck as we stroll down the dock and I get my first glimpse of the odd-looking contraption in which I am about to take to the skies. The JetLev uses a floating four-stroke engine unit that looks like a streamlined jet-ski, attached to a thick 32ft stretch of hose. At the other end of the hose is a backpack into which the pilot is strapped. The device works by sucking water from the sea, passing it up the hose, then squirting it from two nozzles in the backpack with enough force to lift the wearer into the air.
I am driven out of the marina on a small launch to a shallow lagoon, past enormous pelicans perching on the dock, scanning the water’s surface and swooping gracefully to grab their prey. Shattuck, wearing the jetpack, hovers eerily beside the boat like a giant buzzard, demonstrating how it should be done. It’s hard to take tips entirely seriously from a man floating in mid-air, but I try my best to concentrate.
After kitting me out with a safety helmet containing a radio earpiece, Shattuck straps me into the jetpack, which weighs just 23lb and is less cumbersome than a scuba tank, particularly once I’m in the water. Mercifully, I’m not responsible for every aspect of flying myself – I will manage the steering, maintain my forward motion and control my uplift, apparently by moving the handles. As well as a radio, Shattuck has a remote control and is in charge of my speed.
I begin moving forward, as per the instructions in my earpiece, and gently give myself some lift until only my knees are submerged. Then, as directed, I practise slowly turning to the right and the left, using just my head to steer with. This does not come naturally at all, and I find myself jerking my head one way, flinging my legs the other, and plunging dramatically face-first into the water.
I reset the engine (Shattuck helpfully shuts it off when his customers crash) and this time, feeling a little bolder, lift myself entirely out of the water, my feet just skimming the surface, but at a pace that feels a little too fast. Shattuck is filling my left ear with calm, encouraging flattery: “You’ve got it already! You’re flying!” I, however, don’t feel quite so confident. I can’t seem to keep my legs still, flailing them around in the air, upsetting my attempts at direction. Shattuck advises me to find the foot trapeze hanging from the jetpack. In my attempts to do so, unfortunately, I lose complete control and crash hard into the water once more.
I decide I might feel more confident and in control travelling a tiny bit more slowly. Shattuck agrees, and soon I am 8ft up (though it feels much higher), flying towards the beach and the whitewashed waterfront villas, before turning towards the big bridge and, beyond, the Gulf of Mexico. I have been warned not to look down, but a pod of dolphins is following in my wake.
I am almost starting to relax and enjoy the soaring sensation, but it is surprisingly tiring work so I’m a little relieved when Shattuck tells me he’s about to guide me in to land. However, he must first direct me away from the very shallow water over which I have strayed. At this news, I freeze, inadvertently perform a backflip, and plunge 8ft towards the aforementioned too-shallow water, with a litany of profanities. I am more concerned about Shattuck’s $100,000 investment than I am about myself, but happily, we both surface relatively unscathed. And I am proud to be told that mine was the most spectacular crash landing at Duck Key yet.