A new documentary will feature jetmen with strapped-on wings, flying at fixed wing speeds – but capturing the flight is just part of the story.
Words Julian Mitchell / Pictures Jetman
Yves Rossy should have been born a bird. He’s an ex-fighter pilot, an ex-Swiss Air pilot and now a self-contained human airframe attached to a jet-powered wing. In fact, to register to fly in the US and UK, Yves had to be classed as an aeroplane (but was exempt from having to wear a seat belt over his harness).
Yves originally came up with the idea of Jetman back in 1996 but has now been joined by two other jetmen, and watching them fly in formation is truly awe inspiring – reminiscent of Marvel’s Iron Man. Such a sight has encouraged commercial sponsorship and even stunts, such as two jetmen flying in formation with the Patrouille de France aerobatic team, and an invitation from Emirates to accompany one of their Airbus A380s (one of the biggest airliners in the world) in front of a spectacular Dubai backdrop. There have been country hops like crossing the English Channel – only an eight-minute flight time – and even a try at crossing the Gibraltar Straits, which unfortunately failed and ended with a dunking in the sea.
“The jetmen will pull up and begin their unmissable display at speeds of up to 160mph”
For all aspiring and existing thrill seekers, Yves’ life has now been turned into a documentary – which is still being added to. The plan was to combine the Jetman stunts with the history of flying, but for the sake of this article we’re concentrating on the three jetmen flying across various jaw-dropping locations in Norway. One of them was Trollveggen, or Troll Wall, part of a mountain range in the Romsdalen valley in the west of the country.
The Troll Wall is the tallest rock face in Europe at around 3600 feet and is therefore a favourite for BASE jumpers and climbers. But Yves has different requirements, needing the height of the wall to give him time to spool up his four jet engines while initially, basically, falling. The jetmen will then pull up and begin their unmissable display at speeds of up to 160mph, breaking the horizon by diving and then arching above the mountain. The shots are there to be captured, but flight time is short so planning is essential.
Launch is either from the side of a helicopter (the wing doesn’t actually fit inside so they have to perch on the skids before they peel off) or from a constructed platform on the apex of the Wall. Flight time for the jetmen is about ten minutes, and they display a selection of Jetman moves for the waiting crew positioned either in the helicopter, on the ground, at the top of the Wall or operating a drone – mainly for the overhead shots
The history of shooting Jetman films has mostly been about smaller, more viral projects that rely on the spectacle of the actual flying to gain traction through views. This includes the A380 shoot, Grand Canyon flying, English Channel crossing and many more. LOFT: The Jetman Story is the first time that a documentary has been attached to the subject. It may be because of these shorter videos that the planned documentary has taken a while to bear fruit, and thanks must go to director Anthony August for driving it on. The documentary is being made using many of the smaller productions that you can see on YouTube and elsewhere, and there will also be lots of archive footage and behind-the-scenes shots. Archive footage even goes back to when Yves was a jet fighter pilot and had first come up with the idea of Jetman in 1996. There’s further shooting going on in the Far East, which will be added to the pool of existing footage, and distribution of the finished show should be this year.
One of the cameraman filming the documentary, Phil Arntz, knew Anthony from when they worked in the UAE previously. The pair had shot films about extreme sport, such as BASE jumping, so shooting the jetmen was seen as an extension of that. Phil also shot some of the aerials when the Jetman project filmed with the Emirates Airbus A380, and so was familiar with the speed of the subjects. But the Norway shoot was the big one.
Coverage is the key, says Phil, for something like this kind of documentary. “Much of the shooting was concerned with the preparations for the flight as well as the actual flying.
“There is a whole back story about these preparations, since when you start involving jetpacks near mountains you are, to an extent, a slave to the weather. When you’re flying in free space, if something goes wrong there is an element of having time to rescue the situation, whereas in valleys next to mountains your choices are lessened hugely.
“In Norway, there were about five people shooting in various roles just to cover every angle,” explains Phil, “which was especially important as we had a limited flight time and it takes quite a while to get to the location. Carrying a large amount of supplies isn’t an option.”
I remember the first time flying with Jetman back in 2014. Hanging out the door of a helicopter with a camera on my shoulder, looking through the viewfinder and seeing these humans flying not more than 15 metres away. I had to see them with my own eyes, so I pulled away from the camera. Seeing them in the air flying next to me, human faces, hands, and feet dangling, with jets and a wing strapped to their back. Feeling genuinely alive, with this sense of awareness in those moments, something changed in me. Then they arched their back, slicing the air, ascending into the heavens. Transcended by what I saw, I immediately felt a desire to share this experience in a film. The remarkable thing is, every time I’ve flown with them since that day I have experienced this feeling.
I believe Jetman represents the idea of freedom – to be free from the boundaries of being human. Yves, Vince and Fred are striving to achieve autonomous human flight, which creates the feeling of freedom in a physical space, and the pursuit of doing something no one has accomplished. I think the best way to convey this story is from their perspectives: exploring who these three humans are, what their motivations are, how they have chosen to pursue life, where they came from and where they are going. The breathtaking action is what gets our attention, but it’s the private human moments before and after the flights, and throughout the rest of their lives, that will ground us, reminding the audience these are humans like all of us. They are not superheroes or gods. They are human like you or me. The only difference is they fly through the sky with a Jet-Wing, and you can't – yet.
I've always seen their world through a cinematic lens, creating a visceral experience that lets the audience fly with them, to feel their fear, adrenaline and joy as they experience the beauty life has to offer. Our team of professionals, pilots, engineers and production team make all of this possible. Currently, we are still in production and will be for at least another year. My team and I look forward to the day we get to premiere the whole story to the world.
The Jetman experience is so unusual that there weren’t many in the crew who had experienced it, including the pilot of the helicopter. Commissioning a helicopter meant they could use it as a launch platform, and a shooting platform kitted out with a Shotover F1 gimbal, RED Dragon and Canon 30-300mm lens. There was also a handheld shooter travelling as a passenger, filming with another RED Dragon fitted with Leitz (Leica) Summicron prime lenses.
“You’ve really got to know how these guys fly – they are really very quick and can come up on you incredibly fast. The biggest thing is knowing the flight characteristics of what a jet wing can do – they can fly around 140 knots.”
Unfortunately, due to the bad weather, there wasn’t that much flight time during the four weeks they were shooting, but nonetheless the team had to always be ready for a break in the clouds. Travelling light was the answer, says Phil.
“You had to move around with a backpack full of lenses because it might take you two hours to get to a mountain – so you had that physical challenge mixed in with the shoot. Sometimes we would catch a ride with the helicopter to get up to the location but other times there just wasn’t the budget to do that.”
Phil’s kit included some big zoom glass: he had Fujinon’s 75-400mm with the doubler from Duclos. “We had the doubler most of the time as we could afford to lose the stop to T4. So that was shooting at 150-800mm, which would really compress the valley and get the jet wings in frame.
“Stabilising those shots was just a matter of a big tripod. We actually went with the O’Connor 2560 head, which is lighter than the 2575 (that would have been better but heavier to haul up there). It was a trade-off between weight and stability, but we were fine except for the very windy days when we could see a little bit of movement in the tripod.”
IMAGES Coverage is essential for this unique type of documentary says Phil Arntz.
Phil initially wanted to shoot using the 8K Red, but back in 2016 they couldn’t get hold of one. He ended up with the DSMC2 Dragon-X 6K model. “These were brand new cameras at the time and looked stunning. I’ve always loved the Dragon sensor and we managed to get three of the new DSMC2 Weapons. We also had some of the older Dragon bodies, as well as a Phantom Flex4K for the slow motion. The camera in the Shotover F1 was also a Red Weapon 6K.
“We had the Fujinon 75-400mm on the ground with the Canon 30-300mm on the Shotover. There was also a Fujinon 19-90mm Cabrio zoom and a set of Leica Summicrons. The thing with them is that they are tiny, so you can sit with five or six of them in a backpack on the side of a mountain. They were a great trade-off between physical size and a T stop of T2,
so they’re fairly fast.
“The Fujinon Premier lenses are incredible for what they are,” Phil adds, “and are the perfect action sports lens – they are so sharp, with a really great range.”
This was basically split into two: there was obviously the documentary side of things – everything that goes into making the flying a reality – but the team was also tasked with making the online video that you can see on the website, jetman.com. This short ‘teaser’ online video is important for getting the word out there: “Those shots were always going to come out of the documentary; it’s basically a sizzle action cut.
“But the biggest thing was waiting for the right weather. You couldn’t shoot with a cloud base below you because you would need to see where the parachutes landed when the flying had stopped, and any rain was also a problem because of visibility. There were a lot of days when we were standing at the top of a mountain and it was absolutely beautiful, but down below we had fog and rain.
“It was always going to be safety first and whether the pilots were comfortable flying, even if we had the most incredible light and scenery.”
The helicopter would fly in very tight formation with the jet wings, sometimes just 20 feet away from them – the optimum distance for tight shots of the formation. The coverage from the jetmen was from GoPros although they did try and use a Red as a head cam. “There was a chance of flying a Red on Vince’s helmet, we did mount the camera on the helmet but felt that we didn’t have the kit to make it work – it wasn’t on the original plan. We couldn’t power it, for instance, because you couldn’t run the battery from the suit and there wasn’t an easy way of releasing the camera in case of emergencies or some type of entanglement.
“The main action cameras that are on the helmets and suits are GoPros, and it’s incredible how far these cameras have come and what you can capture on them. We also shot some of the aerials on the DJI Inspire drone shooting Raw, and I don’t think people can spot that footage intercut with the helicopter footage in scenes where the camera isn’t struggling with trees, for instance. With a two- or three-second shot you can really sell it.
“I have always been against using small drones such as these and would want to fly a Red or something like that,” admits Phil, “but this has changed my mind, because if it wasn’t for those tools we wouldn’t have got the shots. We’re getting shots from the camera inside the helicopter when it’s in formation with the jet wings and from the Shotover at 300mm, and these are shots we didn’t have in the other videos, which were more about the flying – we never really saw the people behind it.”
Further shooting is currently underway – it won’t be obtained in one go but in multiple blocks. The completed documentary should be ready to view and will be out later this year.
LOFT: THE JETMAN STORY WILL BE AVAILABLE TO WATCH LATER THIS YEAR