I'm a huge fan of Iron Man, so when the real-life opportunity to suit up like Tony Stark presented itself, I didn't hesitate to book a flight from JFK airport to Heathrow to test-drive a flying jet suit.
The invitation to fly like a superhero came via Richard Browning, CEO of Gravity Industries and the inventor of the Gravity Jet Suit. If you haven't seen the viral videos of Browning flying through the sky in his insane invention (I had), then let me give you a little bit of background.
Browning is a former British Royal Marine and oil trader who set out on a mission in early 2016 to make human flight a reality. By October that year, he had a suit that could fly. He's constantly enhancing his invention, and today the suit is propelled by two mini jet engines strapped to each forearm and a slightly larger jet attached on your back.
Total propulsion: 1,050 horsepower. "That's more than a Bugatti Veyron. Nearly one and a half Indy cars. It's phenomenal," says Browning.
When you see Browning effortlessly zoom across the sky like a comic book hero, you'll understand why I was so excited to "work" on this assignment. The suit sells for $440,000, so unless I hit the lottery, this is my one and only chance to fly like Iron Man.
Browning asked me to meet him two-and-a-half hours northeast of London at a former U.S. Air Force airfield deep in the English countryside. When I pull up to the security gates, the Gravity team directs me by phone down an old runway toward a 1970s R.A.F. T4 jet, parked in front of a giant aircraft hangar.
The corrugated steel doors emblazoned with the letters "gravity" suddenly begin to slide open revealing Browning's fog-filled test-flight facility (the fog is generated by a smoke machine for dramatic effect). When the haze dissipates, a steel platform comes into focus. Behind it is a red crane with a 30-foot arm that extends to the rafters. On one side of the platform sits two massive decommissioned jet engines, on the other, three of Browning's suits, which have a total retail value about $1.32 million.
When I meet Browning, his excitement for his invention is palpable, "The vision, was really to go and tackle a challenge that was largely considered to be impossible: the idea that human beings could fly. Having gone and achieved it, it's opened the door into a whole new realm of human capability, really, human possibility," Browning tells me. His achievement: the first wearable jet-suit technology.
He also has dozens of jet suit stories to share, like the time he impressed Tom Cruise by landing a few feet away from the movie star on the set of a European TV show.
The CEO is on a mission to get the word out about his invention, which is why he's suiting up a few lucky journalists this week and as a senior executive producer at CNBC, I'm first on the list.
Browning sits me down on an old military crate where his team suits me up. Two men carry over the Gravity Jet Suit. It's made up of a black 3D-printed aluminum shoulder harness with lots of straps, tubes and electronics all rigged to five jet engines.
The first part of the suit is hoisted over my shoulders placing the largest of the five jets squarely at the center of my back. It feels like a bulky knapsack with a scuba diving oxygen tank attached.
When they explain the plastic tubes running from the engine go to the fuel reservoir now pressed firmly against my back, my excitement turns to anxiety. Browning assures me that the 5-gallon reservoir filled with jet fuel, is way less combustible than gasoline.
"It's probably safer than, riding a motorbike around on public roads," Browning says as he tries to convince me that what I'm about to do is less dangerous than riding a motorcycle with the tank full of gas between your legs.
Now protective sleeves are being pulled over each of my forearms so that a pair of jets, each a little bigger than a Nutribullet blender, can be strapped on. The team tightens the straps around my chest, shoulders and groin, locking it all in place with half a dozen buckles. The suit is so tight around my chest and crotch that I'm starting to feel claustrophobic.
While I've never had an anxiety attack before, this sure feels like the beginning of one. I silently consider backing out of the test drive but talk myself into staying the course.
Just as I think the suit couldn't get any tighter they tug, pull and tighten it some more. The final buckles are fastened and I'm essentially fused to the suit.
I'm warned the engines are very loud, so I'll need to push plugs firmly into my ear canals and strap on a helmet to protect my skull (the helmet's rigged with a GoPro for my story). I stand and make my way onto the test-flight platform. In just a few awkward paces it's clear the almost 100-pound suit (including fuel) is built for flying not for long strolls in the park.
For my safety, I'm tethered to a rope connected to the crane above the platform and Browning begins to explain that when the jets are ignited they'll create three distinct vectors of powerful thrust, two shooting out of the engines mounted on my left and right hand, and the third coming from the jet strapped to my back. There's enough fuel for about three minutes at full throttle. The goal, Browning says, is to balance the three forces against each other so I don't get pushed left or right or worse spin out of control on the tether.
I'm face-to-face with the inventor as he holds the jets connected to my forearms up in front of me. He's cool as a cucumber as he carefully points the engines attached to my wrists away from his body and gives his team the signal to power me up.
Instantly the engines scream.
Even with earplugs the roar coming from my suit is the most intense sound I've ever felt with my entire body. There's a heavy smell of jet exhaust in the air and the blast of energy gushing through my hands feels like a new superpower.
Over the roar of the engines, Browning gestures for me to increase the thrust on my suit with the trigger in my right hand. This is when he lets go of my arms and steps off the platform. From a safe distance he mimes as if he's wearing the suit himself. He's moving his body into the position he wants me to mimic.
He bends at the waist and holds his arms wide open in front of him as he gestures slowly to simultaneously move both my arms downward. Essentially, Browning wants me to flex like the Incredible Hulk.
When I move my arms apart like his, I can feel the force of the jets pushing my shoulders into my torso and every muscle in my core engages. I'm in awe of the power and relieved Browning had the good sense to set my suit's max output well below its 1050 horsepower potential.
If I can strike the right balance, my suit's setting is just strong enough to make my 160-pound body feel weightless on the platform. In other words, this experience will feel more like walking on the moon than flying like a rocket.
As I try to strike the perfect Hulk pose, my arms are slightly out of sync and the jets instantly thrust me to the left side of the stage. Even on the novice setting this takes concentration, muscle and a good sense of balance to nail it.
I know I'm in the zone when my heels begin to lift off the platform. Suddenly, I'm weightless.
The gravity-defying sensation lasts for just seconds, but it's wildly addictive. I instantly want more power so I can fly for real, but when I press the trigger for more juice the jets don't respond. Browning signals to release the throttle. My suit is running low on fuel and sadly my test ride is over.
The engines wind down, and I'm stripped of my superpower. As I walk off the platform, I wonder how many of my friends I can convince to split the cost of a jet suit with me.
Browning tells me I did really well for a first try (I'm not sure if he's just being kind). The truth is, it can take two or more full days of training before a newbie pilot is safe to fly with no tether.
So far, Browning says he's sold two of his $440,000 jet suits, one to a Japanese billionaire and the other to a millionaire who lives in New York. The CEO also offers a less expensive option called "The Experience." It's a full day of one-on-one jet suit pilot training for $40,000, jet fuel and lunch included.
The founder says he's currently doing research and development on an electric version of the Gravity Jet Suit and his next model may even come with wings. But what has Browning most excited is his plan to turn his jet suit technology into a competitive sport where famous athletes strap on jet-powered suits and race each other across the sky in front of thousands of adoring fans.
CNBC's Ray Parisi is the senior executive producer of special projects and the co-creator of prime-time TV series "Secret Lives of the Super Rich."
—CNBC's Erica Wright contributed to this report.
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