KATHRYN KNIGHT has a blast as she meets Britain’s rocket man
My date with Britain’s rocket man: KATHRYN KNIGHT has a blast as she meets the man with the soaring ambition streaking across the sky at 80mph with five jet engines strapped to his body
- Richard Browning, 40, tears through the sky in his flying suit with five jet engines
- Browning has made it his life’s mission to put man in the air (human rocket-style)
- He meets Kathryn Knight to showcase his specially made flying suit in action
The first thing that strikes you is the noise, which is thunderous enough to rumble through the ear defenders clamped firmly on the heads of everyone watching.
It’s the same kind of decibel level as a large airliner just before take-off — and indeed, the violent throbbing a few yards away does emanate from five small turbine jet engines.
These jets, however, are not attached to an aeroplane but strapped to the arms and back of Richard Browning, a 40-year-old former Royal Marine reservist who has just achieved ‘lift-off’ in front of my eyes, rising through the air and whizzing, bird-like, over a lake until he disappears from view.
Richard Browning’s flying suit, which has earned him the nickname ‘Iron Man’, has generated wonderment around the world. It has an electronic display in its visor, turbo jets mounted on the pilot’s arms, leg wings which inflate in flight and aerodynamic ridges on the side
It is an extraordinary mode of travel — and one which, if Browning has his way, will one day be something we all experience.
He has made it his life’s mission to put man in the air — not in the pressurised comfort of a Boeing 747 but human rocket-style, courtesy of a specially made flying suit.
This week, he revealed how far this mission has taken him — both physically and metaphorically — when it emerged that in July, powered by his invention, he had travelled just under a mile through the air in 75 seconds.
He flew across the Solent, from Lymington to Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, delivering a letter when he got there.
It was the furthest he had travelled in his suit, flying at 60mph against gusts of 25mph, as he reprised for a BBC documentary a challenge last undertaken 85 years ago by a German, Gerhard Zucker, whose mail-delivery rocket crashed shortly after take-off.
Aviation is in Browning’s blood: his paternal grandfather was a military and civilian pilot, while his maternal grandfather was Sir Basil Blackwell, former chief executive of the Westland helicopter company. Jet spindles on his suit rotate 110,000 times a minute
Browning’s flying suit, which has earned him the nickname ‘Iron Man’, has generated wonderment around the world. But it turns out his Solent hop is only the start of it.
Not one to rest on his jet engines, Browning has already moved on to his next project, deploying a specially constructed ‘wingsuit’ to help him travel horizontally through the air better.
He has already made a few successful ‘wing’ flights and today he is undertaking another test, flying over a large lake on the splendid Fonthill estate in Wiltshire.
‘It’s safer flying over water in case I do fall,’ he says.
Safest not to do it at all, of course — but Browning, like all innovators, has that unique mixture of one part eccentricity to three parts determination, grit and enthusiasm.
‘I suppose you could call me an obsessive,’ he says with a grin.
When he’s not zipping through the air, Browning lives with his wife Debbie and their children Oliver, 12, and Thomas, 11, in Salisbury. What do they all make of Dad’s flying obsession?
‘The kids are pretty cool with it, particularly after I flew it at their school,’ he says.
‘Debbie is very supportive, though she did wonder what I was doing in the early days when I spent hours in a farmyard falling over.’
Aviation is in Browning’s blood: his paternal grandfather was a military and civilian pilot, while his maternal grandfather was Sir Basil Blackwell, former chief executive of the Westland helicopter company.
His late father, Michael, was an aeronautical engineer as well an inventor who, among other things, came up with a pioneering mountain bike front suspension and a prototype for a folding bicycle.
When he’s not zipping through the air, Richard Browning lives with his wife Debbie and their children Oliver, 12, and Thomas, 11, in Salisbury. What do they all make of Dad’s flying obsession?
Richard admits he has inherited both his father’s passion for flight and his unorthodox streak, although it turns out that his quest to put man in the sky is rooted in something altogether more poignant: his father took his own life when Richard was 15.
‘He left a lot of unfulfilled ambition, so this is also a very personal journey for me,’ he says.
‘My father was a wonderful inventor and a maverick — and I’d like to think that if it was possible, he’d certainly be smiling at some of the things we’ve done here. It’s really a tribute to him, I think.’
After his father’s death, Browning channelled his grief into mastering new challenges, becoming one of life’s high achievers.
After graduating from Cardiff University with a degree in exploration geology, he joined BP as an oil product trader, travelling the world while simultaneously training as a Royal Marine commando reservist, spending weekends on punishing exercises.
Today, he still runs ultra-marathons and has the lean, muscled physique of the fiendishly fit.
Along the way, his fascination with flight morphed into a conviction that our mortal frame could, with sufficient horsepower, achieve the previously unachievable.
‘My starting hypothesis was that the human mind and body is an amazing construct — even the simple act of walking is an extraordinary thing that requires such balance and control — but we just don’t think about it.
‘So I started to imagine what would happen if we augmented that wonderful machine with the latest technology available to us — what could you do and where would you get to?’
Richard Brown flies over the Royal Victoria Docks waterway in London earlier this year. It is an extraordinary mode of travel — and one which, if Browning has his way, will one day be something we all experience
To help him answer the first question, he bought a micro gas turbine — what Browning calls the ‘ground zero’ of flying kit — and by March 2016 he was ‘messing around’ with it, helped by a small team and funded by savings amassed from his years in the City.
‘It was pretty rudimentary stuff,’ he admits.
It is hard to disagree when you see footage of Browning with two turbines on his arm, jumping up and down in a field near his home while, in the background, an old lady attends her allotment, apparently oblivious.
Nonetheless, the trial demonstrated the power of the engines.
‘That was around 50 kilos of thrust — enough to mean I couldn’t hold my hands horizontally,’ he recalls. ‘There was only one way to go from there: get four turbines.’
Next came the idea to ‘spread the load’ of the engines.
‘The idea was to attach engines to my legs,’ he recalls. ‘We were starting to make quite convincing progress — just enough to make you believe that maybe, just maybe, I could get somewhere.’
In November 2016, powered by two engines on his arms and two on his legs, Browning undertook a six-second flight.
‘That was the point when this endeavour went from, “I’m really not sure this is going to work” to, “My God, it does work”, he recalls.
‘From then on, it was a case of refining it — although we carried on falling over a lot too.’
There has, indeed, been much trial and error along the way, from strapping 70 kilos on one arm and promptly falling over to using a hopeless experimental wing that caught in the wind, flapping like a bin-bag out of a car window and dragging Browning’s arms down.
At one point, the engine electronics — they are fired up by an electric motor — were contained in a Tupperware box on the back of the jet-pack.
‘This whole journey was very much about trying things and learning by failing at them most of the time,’ he says. ‘I’ve been lucky I’ve had no injuries, although I have fallen over a lot.
‘We have an ethos of not being afraid to fail, but the failure has to be recoverable.’
Of course, Browning is far from the first man to try to launch himself into the sky. Only last month, French inventor Franky Zapata launched the jet-powered hoverboard on an unsuspecting world, flying from Sangatte, near Calais, to Dover in 22 minutes.
Browning, though, is arguably one of the few who are managing to make a successful business out of it.
In 2017, not long after that first six-second lift-off, he founded the aeronautical innovation company Gravity Industries, promptly securing £500,000 of investment after his first public demonstration flight in San Francisco in the car park of the venture capital company Boost VC.
Two years on, he employs a team who oversee a portfolio of patented technology and appears at events worldwide to help fund their continuing research work.
Today, several people are on hand to help zip Browning into his ‘wingsuit’ — a specially constructed affair made of heavy cotton, with air pockets that inflate while he’s airborne — and strap on the jet-pack, which consists of two jet engines on each arm and one on his back.
Browning is already working with the British military on a potential partnership, and one of his suits is for sale in Selfridges department store in London for £340,000. Could we be approaching an age when people can pop on a flying suit and whiz themselves to the shops at the push of a button? Not quite
It looks a bit like a rucksack with gas canisters stuck to the side — which in a way it is — and weighs 35kg including fuel. When it is fired up, the jets’ inner spindles rotate 110,000 times a minute, generating the thrust required to get Browning off the ground and propel him forward.
Once he is airborne, the suit is controlled by small movements of the arm. This art takes surprisingly little time to learn, according to Browning, but hours of practice to master.
Watching him for the first time, I find it truly mind-blowing.
‘It takes some getting used to when you see it right in front of you,’ he grins after his return flight across the lake, a ‘hairy’ affair in which he travelled nearly a mile and back at what he later tells me his helmet speedometer recorded as 80mph.
The fastest recorded speed in front of adjudicators, two years ago, was 32mph, though Browning says advances in the technology since then have helped the jet suit routinely exceed that.
Meanwhile, Browning is already working with the British military on a potential partnership, and one of his suits is for sale in Selfridges department store in London for £340,000.
Could we be approaching an age when people can pop on a flying suit and whiz themselves to the shops at the push of a button? Not quite.
‘I don’t think anyone will be going to the supermarket or taking the kids to school in one of these any time soon,’ Browning says. ‘The noise and fuel economy, combined with the potential risks, mean they are nowhere near ready for day-to-day use.
‘But I think we are entering a new era of human mobility and the team at Gravity are doing some pretty awesome stuff which is going to make this look like child’s play.
‘Let’s not forget that usually the first foray of a major new invention isn’t great — the first motor cars were criticised for being noisy and smelly and inefficient. So this could be the stepping stone.
‘Either way, what started as a crazy idea has ended up growing into something huge.’
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