When Jetpacks Fail: Is This Really the Future of Human Flight?

Without a failsafe, life can reach a sudden end.
Brad Bergan

One of the renowned "jetman" pilots died in a crash last November when their emergency parachute didn't deploy from the winged rear engines, according to an initial report from TechXplore.

However, this raises the question: when life hangs in the balance of a few strings and a parachute, are jet packs really the future of human flight?

Parachute of 'jetman' deployed only after the crash

No explanation was forthcoming from the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates as to why the 36-year-old Vincent Reffet of France didn't use his parachute while falling mid-training flight in the desert of the sheikdom.

Investigators described Reffet as an "experienced professional skydiver" and jetwing pilot, and said the video from his Nov. 17 crash depicted the pilot losing control, entering a backflip while hovering roughly 800 ft (240 m) above the ground. These backflips aren't the end of the line when wearing the wings — so long as the pilot thrusts forward through the flip maneuver, according to the report. Reffet himself had recovered from these flips before — but only at higher altitudes.

"The risks of the 800-feet hover [were] discussed during the pre-flight briefing and, as a risk mitigation, it was decided to abort the flight and to deploy the pyro-rocket emergency parachute should the jetwing become uncontrollable," read the report. "the investigation could not determine why the pilot did not choose this mitigating action."

Footage from a camera hooked up to his helmet showed the parachute deploying — after he'd hit the ground. Before this, his hands moved like he was attempting to enter a hover again. The investigators also added that the jetwing displayed no signs of mechanical problems before or during flight.

A sudden solemn end for an extreme athlete

The training flight aimed to simulate takeoff from the ground, with a triangular flight pattern followed by a jet-powered landing on a platform just 800 feet high. While a helicopter was involved in the test — flying at that altitude to represent the platform, there were zero signs its presence was linked to the crash. The extreme sports venture XDubai that sponsored the flight is linked to the crown prince of Dubai: Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, but no links have been drawn to this association, either.

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The crash came as a sudden solemn end to an impressive series of accomplishments for Reffet — who BASE-jumped off of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,716 ft (828 m) high, and setting a new world record. BASE stands for building, antenna, span, and Earth. Reffet also nabbed gold medals as a competitive free-flying skydiver on a team.

In October 2015, Reffet flew over Dubai parallel to an Emirates Airbus A380 airplane — the world's largest passenger aircraft — maintaining an altitude of 4,000 ft (1,219 m). While his Nov. 17 crash of 2020 is truly tragic, it also serves as a morbid reminder that, unlike other forms of transportation, the only failsafe to the jetpack is a parachute — which is typically reserved for emergencies. And when your life literally hangs by a few strings, if something goes wrong, you die.

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