Jetpack inventor nurtured a dream of flying for decades

An earlier version of  piston-engined personal flying machine.
www.martinjetpack.com

An earlier version of piston-engined personal flying machine.

Glenn Martin, the Christchurch inventor of the jetpack flying machine, says a degree of paranoia has been an important part of his work.

He has studied the history of inventors such as the United Kingdom's Sir Frank Whittle, a pioneer of jet engines, and says such people have often lost out during the commercialisation process.

"It gave me a lot of paranoia, which has been fantastic, it's been really useful," he says.

Glenn Martin, inventor of the Martin Jetpack at his Christchurch home with his wife, Vanessa.
Dean Kozanic

Glenn Martin, inventor of the Martin Jetpack at his Christchurch home with his wife, Vanessa.

"There's an old saying, only the paranoid survive." .

That feeling of distrust of the commercial world led him from an early stage to asking those entering his workspace to sign non-disclosure agreements around the invention. Even his wife.

"The earliest safeguard is you just don't tell anybody what you're doing. I did that for 17 years."

Glenn Martin, inventor of the Martin Jetpack in front of the garage that housed the jetpack during its development.
Dean Kozanic

Glenn Martin, inventor of the Martin Jetpack in front of the garage that housed the jetpack during its development.

His direct involvement at Martin Aircraft, a company he founded, came to an abrupt end last month, though he retains shares.

Martin quit as a director, bristling at the restraints on what he could do and say now that the company was listed on the Australian sharemarket and a whole new bunch of investors as well as a new key cornerstone investor, Kuangchi Science, an entrepreneurial Chinese company, had come on board.

Many people have influenced him over the year, not least his father.

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Both parents had been through the 1930s Great Depression and took a self-sufficient careful approach to money.

His father built the family home taking gravel from a local river as a base for concrete and making bricks.

He took the attitude if you couldn't build something as well as a manufactured product it was a failure.

"I was bought up in household, if you wanted something you made it," Martin says.

"My dad is definitely my inspiration for everything. I used to go out to the garage with him and we'd make stuff, everything from the classic stuff of doing up old cars and making caravans and boats."

"My dad always used to have a saying 'gosh that's pretty good- that's almost like a bought one'." 

The University of Otago, following on from Kaikorai Valley High School, where he achieved a double degree in physiology and biochemistry with honours.

Dunedin culture helped cement "sheer bloodymindedness" in his approach.

And the 60s and 70s television shows like Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Lost in Space, provided inspiration for flight by individuals. Most things seemed possible back then, and some have proved so, with agent Maxwell Smart's shoe phone a precursor of the mobile phone, he says.

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"I suppose I've always been entrepreneurial. I had a nickname Colonel Klink when I was seven, " he recalls.

"We used to go and have holidays in a caravan ... at Temuka camping ground. I used to get up at 6am in the morning and go around and collect all the empty beer bottles ... and at the end of the holidays take them down to the local bottle store and cash them all in."

Living on a busy road he imagined being able to fly from his home, across the road to Wakari school avoiding the danger of cars in the process.

"As a five year old I thought it would be safer to fly to school in a jetpack than have to walk."

"As you grow up teachers tell you to stop dreaming and get real."

A defining moment, man landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, is embedded in his consciousness. At Wakari school the radio broadcast of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's exploits as part of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission was played into multiple classrooms via a piped sound system.

That evening there was the television broadcast. Martin later became aware of how a copy of the broadcast had to be flown by a Royal New Zealand Airforce de Havilland to New Zealand for the NZBC screening.

Frustratingly from the 1970s onwards progress towards a The Jetsons-like world seemed to slow, he says.

Human flight was sidelined following the development of the Bell Rocket Belt in the early 1960s. The rocket pack device allowed relatively small powered leaps over distances. Martin has researched the jetpack's antecedents and has a love of all aviation.

" "I mean the idea of us flying around and being free has been around for tens of thousands of years, you've probably heard of Icarus and Daedaleous." 

Another defining moment was discussion over beers on a cold winter's night at the infamous Dunedin pub The Captain Cook.

Martin and friends were bemoaning the wheels falling off  the space race.

"We were discussing: where are our bases on Mars, whatever happened?...

"Next day I went off to the science library, this is obviously pre-internet days, and decided to do some research and find why don't we have jetpacks."

 He sneaked into mathematics lectures at Otago university to bone up on the equations needed to help design a jetpack powered by a couple of ducted fans.

He was later "dragged" to the University of Canterbury. There he was mentored by Professor Keith Alexander.

Engineering graduates on a summer project helped number crunch some of the early mathematical calculations he worked on to check out if  jetpack propulsion was achievable.

Four years of work at Douglas Pharmaceuticals provided finance for early workings on a "test rig" of the jetpack backed by the propulsion fans. His Redcliffs garage was a base from 1984 to 2008 for more work. By around 1988-89 he was out at Birdling's Flat attaching fan ducts to a hang glider enabling it to be powered into the air.

A holiday to St Tropez in 1989, saw him on a beach contemplating life - and the jetpack - and choosing to fly back to the Douglas Pharmaceuticals team and find his now wife Vanessa. The pair have just celebrated 24 years of marriage.

Hard work for companies like Douglas Pharmaceuticals gave him enough money for jetpack funding for a time. But having enough capital to keep going has been a rocky road.

"If we ran out of money which we did many, many times, we'd literally put the padlock on the garage and walk away for a few months till you'd saved up some more money."

Technical problems were relatively shortlived.

"People would go 'does anything ever go wrong with a jetpack'. Of course, everything you can imagine blew up. When things blow up you go into a funk for three days."

Engineers and friends declared they would help with the funding and co-invest and Martin called their bluff in 1998.

" I officially registered as a limited liability company, sold some shares, took some money from some friends, gave up my day job."

The first time he took off it was "a matter of inches" from the ground around 1999,

"I nearly shat myself. I revved up the throttle, I got off the ground, and went holy f... and backed off the throttle and came back down immediately."

Vanessa became one of the early test pilots. That was just a matter of seven or so weeks after she gave birth to the couple's first son William.

She thinks she has probably taken the pilot role in the order of 60 times. Martin who has logged his flights numbers them at 672.

Earlier videos of the manned jetpack getting off the ground brought more funding into the company.

"In the end we realised that in some ways we are actors. An actor will get a gig and they will get paid, and then for the next six months they probably don't."

Martin reckons it was only at Christmas of 2014 that the returns from his jetpack venture matched what he would have earned if he had taken the safer option of staying in a corporate sales role and moving up the ladder.

The Martins are now looking towards the time they can sell some of their shares in Martin Aircraft in about 21 months' time.

He reckons the 2,000 or so shareholders in the company were on his side when he said to his fellow directors as he quit, "don't f... it up ".

"We've all invested in the company and we all want it to be commercially successful."

The company is now led by chief executive Peter Coker.   

Today the 12th prototype Martin jetpack has a V4, 200-horsepower internal combustion engine that drives the fans. It has flown thousands of feet upwards and can travel at up to 74km/h. The vast majority of Cantabrians have never seen one at work.

Martin says while he has promised Vanessa he will take the next six months off he has a number of projects on the boil including after dinner speaking appointments and other aviation themed inventions that remain within the garage, so to speak, at the moment.

 - Stuff

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