Flying Martin Jetpack with new engine like learning to ride bike, test pilot says
Former US Air Force pilot Paco Uybarreta knows what it's like to fly, but only three months ago he came to New Zealand to learn how some Kiwis do it.
The head of Martin Jetpack's aircrew and testing unit is in a flight simulator at the company's high-security base at Wigram, Canterbury, opposite the old New Zealand airforce base.
The company is famously security-conscious, and not because the founder Glenn Martin always liked it that way. It expects to be selling manned and unmanned jetpacks by the middle of next year.
Meantime it's still testing products, at Wigram and now at a large temporary site on a North Canterbury farm near Oxford.
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The Canterbury company is installing British-made rotary engines as it moves closer to its first commercial sales of the aircraft.
The new rotary engines from Gilo Industries replace its custom-designed two-stroke, V4 engine. Another member of Martin Jetpack's test team said the Rotron was an aircraft equivalent of a Mazda RX6 or RX7; more fuel-efficient with less vibration than the current engine.
Uybarreta says the new Rotron engine should make the jetpack more versatile on a wider range of missions. At the moment the jetpack can do 30 minutes of routine flying at a time, at 74km per hour and maximum altitude of 1000 metres.
As it stands, the jetpack can operated with fingertip control. "It's almost like flying a sky-scooter and probably easier than flying a bicycle in my opinion."
Uybarreta had 14 years in the US Air Force and three years of aircraft experimentation in private industry. Three months ago he landed in Christchurch and started at Martin Aircraft the next day.
On the simulator, he replicates a real-life flight over the new Wigram village. He hovers over a cul de sac, then gently pushes the stick in his right hand, moving the virtual craft to a brisk-running pace.
He has virtually no instruments to guide him except his own sight and sense of motion. "You can get a sense of your velocity from the ground passing below, as well as elevating up. It's really just intuitive."
Flying one is not physically demanding, he says.
"There's an extremely low pilot workload. You're just flying along using pure finger inputs."
The movements allow a pilot to go forward, backward, up, down and even a combination of all those things, Uybarreta says.
Martin Jetpack has recently adapted the jetpack so that it can he send off on a recovery mission as an unmanned aircraft, but return with a person aboard.
This made it useful for injury-recovery, Uybarreta says. A landing skid and roll cage is also a fairly new feature, making the aircraft safer.
The company has also found over many years that the lower the engine is mounted, the better it flies.
The company has been pitching the product to search and rescue organisations, military and recreational groups. It also has an order from an American company, Avwatch, which specialises in surveillance.
The 17-year-old Martin Jetpack made a loss of just over $5 million last year as it developed the product but expects to sell its first jetpacks by mid 2017.
Founded by Christchurch investor Glenn Martin and now listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, Martin Jetpack is 22 per cent-owned by Chinese investor KuangChiScience.