Have you ever wanted to fly? For me the urge comes whenever I see a bird hovering directly over a hedge, flying into the wind so it can maintain a position and spot prey. It’s not the prey I’m interested in, just the sensation. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to defeat gravity?
Like many of us, Richard Browning had that same urge. Unlike the rest of us, he did something about it. Starting in 2016, he experimented with small jet turbines strapped to his arms and legs, pointing downwards so their thrust would lift him off the ground. His ‘flying suit’ took a long time (and a lot of money) to refine. The turbines on his legs, for instance, had to be moved to his back, not least because they were burning his feet (at one point his wife had to stick a running hosepipe down his boots to cool them). And a reliable fuel system had to be developed – the engines cutting out when you’re 30 feet in the air isn’t ideal.
But eventually Browning’s jet suit became a reality. The finished product is a very hi-tech backpack supporting an engine and fuel tank, linked to two arm guards supporting the other engines. Together they produce more power than a Formula One car. You control the turbines with a finger trigger – pull it slightly, and (assuming you’ve got your arms pointing downwards) you instantly feel the force hit the ground and begin to push you upwards.
An actual suit will cost you $440,000. (Even if you’ve got the money, you first need to satisfy Browning that you’ll be able to fly it safely.) But for a lesser sum (still in four figures) you can attend a ‘flight experience’ day at Browning’s facility on the Goodwood estate in Sussex. Here you get to try the suit yourself, safe in the knowledge that a harness (attached to a gantry over the platform you’re standing on) will support you should things go wrong.
Which, believe me, they will. Watch the videos of Browning flying effortlessly into the air, manoeuvring himself at will before landing again safely, and you’ll assume it’s as easy as he makes it look. But his Superman routine is the result of huge amounts of practice. At the beginning, you’ll be just as Browning was in those early days. Accidentally pointing one arm slightly further out than the other, for instance, which sends you spinning off in the opposite direction. Before you can move, you have to learn how to stay still.
But when your feet do first leave the ground – only for a few inches, only for a few seconds – you get that magical feeling which was Browning’s inspiration all the way through. The lightness in your body grows and grows until it becomes almost total, and then the slightest bounce from your feet pushes you away from the platform. The theory is that you then carry on rising by keeping your arms straight down. As soon as you begin to lift them towards the horizontal, the power stops pushing you up, and gravity takes over, returning you to the platform.
As I say, that’s the theory. Keeping your balance is tricky, and on your first few attempts you’ll no sooner start to defeat gravity than it’ll reassert itself with a vengeance. But gradually you get the hang of things, and that wonderful feeling of freedom (however brief) is yours to enjoy.
Plus you get to see Browning demonstrate what the suit can really do. He rises into the air, turns through 360 degrees, then flies off into the mid-distance and hovers there, before returning to the platform. You can see why the suits are in huge demand all over the world, with interest from organisations such as the police, military and mountain rescue services.
Browning himself is an engaging and patient teacher, and he is assisted throughout the day by a couple of his ‘co-pilots’, the fellow flyers – often recruited from gymnastic schools – who might (when the world re-starts) compete in the series of races Browning is planning in countries across the globe.
So if you feel like treating yourself, and you’ve always wanted to fly, now could be the time to feel the wind beneath your heavily-turbined arms.