Flying a Jetpack near LAX


 

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 saw the flyer first, 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, who 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 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 mostly 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 back yard and
intentionally land at the door of the neighborhood 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. 

 

Sources:  NBC News reported
the location of the incident as determined by the FBI at
https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/fbi-narrows-down-sighting-location-of-man-flying-in-jet-pack-near-lax/2423858/.  I referred to a Manchester Guardian
report on the history of jetpacks at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/15/jetpacks-jet-propulsion-flying-to-work,
and the Wikipedia article “Messerschmitt Bf 109.”



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