Ben Kuchera

I flew the real-life version of Mario Sunshine’s water-powered jet pack, and it was awesome

I flew the real-life version of Mario Sunshine’s water-powered jet pack, and it was awesome

“These are your arms now,” the instructor told me, pointing to the controls of the jet pack. “When I tell you to raise your arms, you raise these.” The jet pack weighed around 28 pounds, I was told, and I was snapped into it with a five-point harness. I sat on a kind of bicycle seat, this is what would support me when the jets began to create lift.

My wife had gotten me some time on a Jetlev system for my birthday, as she is aware of my love for all things flying. There was a red bungee cable stretched between the two arms, and this would work as a sort of artificial horizon. If I lifted one arm and created a slope on the cable, I knew I would be turning. As long as it was level, I’d fly straight. Lift it up, and I would go up. Bring it down, and I would go down, but it would create my forward thrust.

“It’s sensitive,” I was told. “You don’t have to use your arms to steer at all, just look where you want to go.”

There is a button on the underside of the right arm, and that starts the motor. The craft that looks almost like a jet ski floats behind you and pumps water up the tube, and the jet pack shoots it out the two nozzles on either side of your body. This creates lift, and you fly. It’s not loud, much quieter than a boat, and the jets of water don’t feel very strong against your legs if you brush against them. Still, you get a sense of the hardware’s strength very quickly; it lifts you into the air with no strain. There was no give in the harness, the seat, or the jets; it felt like a part of my body, and moved with me.

Which is where things get hairy. The instructor wasn’t messing around, if you looked to the left, you fly left. If you look right, you fly right. Hang perfectly still, and the jet takes you straight. Panic and do more than twitch your muscles? You’re likely going to over correct, and this has an annoying habit of dumping you into the water, where you float face down until you can remember to relax and roll over onto your back before re-engaging the engine.

“Wiggle your fingers!” he told me through the headset in the helmet. The instructor wore a headset on the side of the lake so he could talk with me. “Take your hands off of the controls for a second. Wiggle your elbows. Relax and feel that it wants to keep you up in the air, and it wants to go straight.” This was his advice whenever I tensed up, or had trouble controlling things. Fighting just leads to wobbles or, at worse, a sudden fall. The more you let go and begin to feel the jet pack working with you, the more control you'll have, although it feels counter-intuitive once you're up in the air.

Being up five to ten feet feels like you’re on the edge of the cliff, but there’s nothing like the feeling of hanging in air. Tilt the controls down, just the tiniest bit down, and I began to zoom forward. This may be the closest to flying like a superhero I would ever get, and looking down to see the water fly beneath you and feel the air hit your face is amazing. Sure, it could cost over $100,000 to get my own, but I started to seriously consider it.

I’ve donned a few different jet packs in video games, everything from the rocket belt in the PilotWings series to the F.L.U.D.D. in Mario Sunshine, and nothing prepares you for how fiddly this mechanism for flight can feel. If you tense your legs, you’ll move in the wrong direction. If you roll your shoulders to get comfortable, you could gain or lose altitude. Learning how to relax, and to make small, deliberate movements with your body was the key. Once that sunk in, and it took until the first few minutes of my half-hour session, I could begin to do some interesting maneuvers.

“Okay, I want you to dip a bit, and you’ll be able to run on the water,” the instructor told me through the headset. I lost about a foot or two of altitude by lowering the bars, but I increased my forward motion, put my feet down on the water, and began to run across its surface.

A quick note: my session was done with Jet Pack Water Adventures, and the two guys who talked me through my session and gave me the quick training were great. I paid for my session and they had no idea I was going to write about this, but if you're in the Ohio area and want to try flying, I don't mind throwing you in their direction.