Ready, steady, fly
Being given the chance to fly a jetpack was one opportunity staff reporter Rhonda Markby could not pass by during a recent visit to Newport Beach in California. But as she soon realised, she should have packed a lemon along with her togs and sense of adventure.
Shit scared. Dry mouthed and dodgy tum.
And it's all self-inflicted - self-inflicted in the name of adventure.
Somehow the idea of flying the Jetlev jetpack had seemed a heck of a good one 24 hours earlier. Such a good idea that I was ready to fight my fellow journos for one of the two spots available.
Yes, I'd seen the occasional programme featuring "jetpack" flying, had been intrigued by the development of the New Zealand-made Martin jetpack, and can still remember the jetpack's entrance during the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics.
So when word came we would visit the Newport Beach Jetlev (Jet Levitation) operation, I was determined to fly - or at least try.
Then reality hit . . . about the same time as I saw the jetpack harness in the company's Newport Beach office and Jetlev Southwest company president Dean O'Malley played the "preflight" instructional video, clearly showing the power of the water jets as the pilot is propelled skyward while being followed by the jet ski-like "pod" containing the engine.
Video over, it's "dry run" time. Strapped into the harness, I get to feel the weight of the 25-kilogram jetpack unit as Dean runs through the commands.
News that one of the Jetlev team will be giving me instructions through the radio in my safety helmet provides some assurance. Dean mentions if it all goes wrong the operator can always hit the "kill" switch, dropping me into the harbour. Very reassuring. Not.
Stomach heaves. Bathroom calls. Both my breakfast and that dry mouth feeling remain.
Once into togs we walk several blocks down to the company's pontoon on the harbour's edge.
"Does everyone fly?" I ask Dean, suddenly worried I'll be a complete failure at this, possibly even drowning myself in the process. Joking about my life insurance with the boss back in Timaru the previous night no longer seemed quite so funny.
About 95 per cent "fly" - get their feet out of the water - Dean states reassuringly, adding those who don't have usually been pressured into the experience. Then there are those who go under water on their first attempt and want nothing more to do with the adventure.
"We've flown people aged from 18 to 85. We flew a 400lb [181kg] basketball player recently. Most people fly in five to 10 minutes.
"We can't take them any younger because they are minors," he explains of the insurance implications, adding a well-built teenage boy would probably find it easier to handle the weight of the jetpack than a lightly built older woman.
In the 15 months since Dean set up the operation, 2000 people have flown with the company. And it appeals to both sexes, with only 60 per cent of "pilots" being male.
It's a labour intensive operation - three staff meet us at the pontoon. One helps you into your wetsuit and harness, checks that you can hear the second - the land-based operator through the helmet radio. The third, the jet ski driver, doubles as the video operator. He will always be close by on the water Dean adds - supposedly in a reassuring way.
Fairfax videographer Marcus Wild will fly first. Watch and learn Rhonda, watch and learn.
Marcus successfully nose-dives into the brine on his first half dozen attempts, spluttering as he comes up and attempts to right the jetpack. His performance provides no reassurance for the dry-mouthed observer. He masters the various forward-leaning positions in which part of his body is still in the water. Twelve minutes later he is flying - meaning it's only 10 minutes to my takeoff time.
People gather on the beach to watch. An older woman approaches advising me to make only the smallest movements when lifting or lowering the arm pieces. And no pressure, but she makes it clear I have to do better than Marcus - for the sake of the sisterhood. It turns out she is Dean's mum. She has brought visitors down to the beach to see the operation.
Harness on, I walk out into chest-high water.
First instruction: lie facedown in the water, then flip on to your back and then face down again. It's not a pleasant experience, but a test to ensure I'm water confident. I pass.
The time of reckoning . . . Press the start switch, feel the thrust of the water going through the unit.
Then comes the voice: "Hands down, hands down".
I'm moving forward - head above water, relief. Hands down a little more, chest out of the water; hands down further still and I feel my toes skimming the surface. Heart racing, it's total concentration.
Turn to the left, turn to right.
Turn too far and it's all over. I'm under water. Fight the urge to panic. Instructions come, pull up the arms. I'm upright, head above water. Gulp the air.
The jet ski driver comes alongside, checking. Yep, all's good. Restart the engine. My body is close to upright. My toes leave the water - yell, whoop, yell again. I'm flying. There are cheers from the shore.
Give it some throttle - go faster, go higher. Wave to the camera.
The voice in my helmet gets more urgent. Damn it, I can't understand the accent . . . I drop. I'm underwater.
The voice has hit the kill switch . . . My attention was so focused on straight ahead - too sudden a movement and I could lose control - that I was far too close to the engine pod for the controller's liking. A dunking is the safest option.
It's thirsty work. Confident I'm safe and comfortable in the water, jet ski man goes ashore, coming back with a bottle of water.
Refreshed, there's more fun - more speed, more height - some walking on water for the camera. More hoots of delight as my confidence grows and I fly down the harbour.
All too soon my flying time is over. There are congratulations from the crew when I reach the shore and the jetpack comes off.
Dean reckons this is a pretty good part of the job - seeing someone who was obviously anxious about the experience emerge from the water grinning and laughing - another convert to jetpack flying.
The crew help strip off my wetsuit, but they can't strip the grin off my face.
The dry mouth has been replaced by the taste of saltwater. The churning stomach is long gone.
All I need now is a lemon to suck - to get rid of this crazy, adrenaline-rush grin. Rhonda visited Newport Beach as the guest of Air New Zealand and Visit Newport Beach. visitnewportbeach.com
Jetlev was the first water-propelled jetpack to be produced commercially. Would-be fliers can now take to the sky at 30 sites throughout the United States and Mexico. The jetpack's engine is housed in a jet ski "pod" and connected to the pilot's harness by a 10 metre hose. You can reach heights of 10m and speeds of 50kmh. Even first-time pilots can do donut turns, walk across the surface of the water, and dive to "submarine" under the water before popping back up. It took Jetlev Southwest's president, Dean O'Malley, 4 hours to fly 42 kilometres from Newport Beach to Catalina Island eight weeks ago. It is thought to be the longest Jetlev flight ever made. Flights start at $200 for an introductory session including 20 minutes flying time. Return pilots fly for half that price. Jetlev units are available for purchase, starting from $122,500. --------------------
The Timaru Herald