Richard Browning demonstrating the Jet Suit. Image: Edwin Van Keulen
Personal flying suits, like those worn by Boba Fett or Iron Man, are one of those iconic symbols of a dreamy future that seems perpetually on the horizon. But real-life working “Jet Suits,” developed by the British company Gravity Industries, are actually in use right now in trial rescue operations, military training exercises, and competitive races.
Surreal videos of the suit in action show first responders ascending up mountain slopes, soldiers gliding across ocean water to board ships, and the Jet Suit’s inventor, Richard Browning, demonstrating its flight capabilities in a variety of settings.
Browning, the founder and chief test pilot of Gravity Industries, is a lifelong tinkerer from a family steeped in aviation. The Jet Suit is a culmination of the eclectic skills collected across his career, including an entrepreneurial streak from his work as an oil trader for British Petroleum and a deep respect for human physical capabilities instilled by his time as a Royal Marine reservist.
“If you put that all together, I just hatched this idea in 2016 as the latest in a succession of side projects and unusual ideas,” Browning said in a call. “Could you reimagine human flight, but start at the smallest end? Start with a balanced human physicality, and add a missing component, which I thought probably was just horsepower.”
To date, the Jet Suit has been featured at over 200 events in 36 nations; when we spoke, Browning was about to head from his home in Salisbury, United Kingdom, to California for a demonstration at the Sonoma Raceway. Browning also used his invention to snatch the world speed record for a body-controlled, jet-engine-powered suit, which he set at 85 miles per hour in 2019. Gravity Industries has now developed about six suits, each powered by five gas turbines that generate 300 pounds of thrust with 1,050 brake horsepower.
Meanwhile, more than 500 people have been trained to fly the suit, including paramedics at the Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS), an emergency response charity based in northern England. For the moment, the Jet Suit is still only being tested as a potential emergency vehicle, and it will need to be fine-tuned over many more iterations before it could be deployed in a medical context.
Jamie Walsh, a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) paramedic at GNAAS who has conducted trial flights of the Jet Suit over the nation’s scenic Lake District, said there were many variables that will determine its efficacy in medical emergencies, but that he thinks the technology certainly has potential.
“I feel quite lucky to have the opportunity to be in a position to trial this type of innovation, and this kit, to see if we can help people,” Walsh said in a call. “I feel like I have to pinch myself from time to time—how did I end up flying a Jet Suit around one of the most beautiful parts of the country?”
“I was probably one of the biggest skeptics initially,” Walsh added, noting that the suit seemed “gimmicky” to him when he first heard about it. “But actually, now we're doing these trials and I'm seeing what it's capable of,” he continued, “this could genuinely save lives, if we operationalize it in an appropriate way.”
The Gravity Industries’ Jet Suit is not the only personal jet-powered flying vehicle in the world; some of the most prominent alternate designs include a jetpack developed by the California-based company JetPack Aviation or the jet-powered “flyboard” flown by French pilot Franky Zapata. But Browning’s version differs in part due to the turbines attached to the hands, which enables pilots to maneuver with a posture similar to leaning on a desk.
“It's quite a visceral feeling, because you're well aware that you've got five jet engines strapped to your body, producing about 1,000 horsepower,” Walsh said of the suit’s handling. “When you're watching someone flying it, it's really loud. It sounds really raw and almost untamed. But actually, when you're in the suit and you're in that bubble—you've got your earplugs in and your helmet on—it's quite calm and graceful almost, when it is done well.”
For his part, Browning is still floored by all the applications that are blossoming from what he called “a ludicrous idea” he had years ago. Though he is excited to oversee the possible military, industrial, entertainment, and medical uses for the Jet Suit—and the many other roles it might play in other spheres—he never imagined his side hobby would experience such a meteoric rise.
“It was one of those rare opportunities in life where I was just doing it purely and genuinely for the joy of the challenge of whether it would work,” Browning said of the Jet Suit’s origins. “It all sounds mad still.”