But that’s just what somebody did last Sunday afternoon, in the sky over Cudahy, California, a one-square-mile town about eighteen miles (29 km) east of the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Two pilots spotted the person at an altitude of about 3000 feet (914 meters).
Flight controllers were inclined to doubt the credibility of the American Airlines pilot who first saw the flyer, but then it was confirmed by a Southwest pilot a few minutes later. One plane came within an estimated 300 yards (90 meters) of the still-unidentified jetpack pilot, whom the FBI is still looking for. I don’t know how many FAA regulations one violates by flying a jetpack into the LAX runway approach, but all it takes is one to get you in serious hot water.
This incident could have turned out much worse, as a man and a jetpack getting sucked into an intake cowling or hitting a wing could seriously cripple a jetliner, not to mention putting a premature end to the jetpack pilot’s career. And this is why justice, in the form of the FBI, is seeking him out.
About a week before the LAX incident, a couple of residents in the LA area spotted something that looked like a flying person in the sky and even got some brief cellphone videos, although the jetpack-flyer was too far away to see details. So assuming it was a man (and I don’t think most women will be offended if I assume testosterone was at least partly responsible for this situation), it looks like the guy took some test flights before doing the really foolish thing of hanging out in controlled airspace long enough for a couple of airline pilots to get a good look at him.
Let’s speculate a little and imagine profiling this person. While control systems have improved since the very early days of jetpacks in the 1960s, to the point that you can find one or two companies that sell jetpacks commercially nowadays, it’s still not something that the average citizen can just strap on his back and fly. So our suspect has to have had some kind of flight training, though it might not have been anything too out of the ordinary — he might be a general-aviation pilot, for example, or a helicopter pilot. Or he could just be somebody who’s really good at a flight-simulator video game.
Next, there’s the resources you need to get a jetpack and fuel it up. The information I could find on jetpacks indicates that the fuel used was probably high-purity hydrogen peroxide, around 85% to 90% pure.
German scientists came to the same conclusion about the fuel when they designed the first rocket-propelled interceptor plane during World War II, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. It used high-purity hydrogen peroxide too, which has got to be one of the nastiest substances to handle that there is. It wants to let go of its oxygen really bad, to the point that if it comes in contact with any organic substance — dirt, cloth, hair, skin — it catches fire. Reportedly, more people died during the testing and training phase of the Me-109 deployment than were killed in combat, and I’m sure the hydrogen peroxide was a big factor in that.
So our California jetpack enthusiast, tiring of his enforced idleness during COVID-19 days, orders a $200,000 jetpack and either manages to lie his way into a delivery of high-purity hydrogen peroxide, or gets the fuel some other way. Now there are lots of aerospace companies in the LA area, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the fuel or the jetpack or both were obtained via good-old-boy connections. But the pilot would have to be a good old boy himself, and so engaged in some sort of high-tech network that investigators shouldn’t have too much trouble identifying, assuming his friends are willing to talk.
Barring that, I’m sure UPS or whoever delivered these things kept records, because offhand I wouldn’t have the first idea how to ship such dangerous stuff without all sorts of special permits and so on, which would make it easy to trace.
The most mysterious part of this incident remains the motivation. If it was just personal curiosity, going somewhere way out in the desert by oneself would seem to be the best place to practice jetpack flying, not directly over one of the most densely-populated municipalities in the United States. Leaving all questions of personal safety aside, having a misguided jetpack fly in through your kitchen window would not be an easy thing to handle in case something went wrong, and so the choice of location seems singularly poor.
It doesn’t seem like Cudahy itself, which is comprised mostly of lower-income apartments, is exactly a likely hotbed of cutting-edge aerospace technology expertise, although in California, you never know. One thing we can be sure of is that the pilot didn’t travel very far from where he took off, because the flight times of even the longest-flight jetpacks are measured in minutes. Here it will be helpful to figure out where else he was sighted in his practice flights, which by necessity would be close to home. On your first flight in your brand-new jetpack, I don’t think you’re going to fly out of your backyard and intentionally land at the door of the neighbourhood QuikSak to pick up some beer.
But if the pilot could choose where to fly, why the LAX landing pattern, unless he was wanting to make some kind of statement? Anybody smart enough to fly a jetpack would be smart enough to know what restricted airspace is, and so it was a deliberate attempt to cause consternation, at the least.
Well, sometimes people do stupid things just for the heck of it, and that may be the case here. With all the clues we’ve enumerated, it does seem like it will just be a matter of time before the FBI identifies the pilot and comes calling, if he can be found. On the other hand, he may have wised up once the publicity appeared about his little stunt, and taken a long vacation in the Bahamas. Anybody who can afford a $200,000 jetpack can probably afford a vacation in the Bahamas too.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.