Franky Zapata has been driven by a single dream since he was little: being able to fly. Not in an airplane, he says, since the windows function like a screen, but like a bird.
As the French inventor and entrepreneur was born colorblind, that ruled out learning to fly helicopters. So after several years spent racing jet skis, he invented hydrojets which allowed him to at least hover above the water.
Then improvements in technology allowed him to go further, cutting the hydrojet from its tether and taking to the air.
“When you fly with your body,” says Zapata, “even your hands affect the direction you want to go in. You feel the turbulence and the air through your fingers. It’s like becoming a bird. But it’s also very hard. I have to fight against the wind with my legs so there’s pain too. It’s not as peaceful as it looks.”
Last Sunday the 40-year-old former jet-ski champion took to the skies above Paris at the Bastille day parade, capturing the world’s imagination with a board that can reach an altitude of nearly 500 feet – with the potential to go much higher – and a speed of 140 kilometers per hour.
‘The best thing is the freedom’
Back in his workshop near Marseille, Zapata says while he enjoys showing his creation off to a crowd what he really loves is flying alone.
“It’s amazing when I’m flying around the Arizona desert, through the mountains. That’s why I built this machine,” he says. “In my heart the best thing is the freedom”.
Already, the father of one has worked with the US and French militaries, with the French investing 1.4 million dollars in tests of the board.
“If the question is do I think I will sell this to special forces all over the world, the answer is yes. When? I don’t know,” says Zapata.
Zapata spent three years creating Flyboard Air, a jet-powered personal aerial vehicle. The key he says, was being able to place five turbine engines over conventional electric propellers to allow intuitive flight controls designed around the human body.
As for commercial uses, he says that regulations need to be worked out and safety issues looked at before the technology can be put to wider, recreational use.
“The problem with this machine is if you’re not calm you can break your neck,” Zapata says. “You have to be focused. It’s not a skateboard. It’s a flying machine.”
For now what thrills Zapata though is just being able to fly.
“If you want to build a flying machine you need to want to fly,” he says. “You can’t be chasing fame or money. You have to have that crazy dream to justify spending all that money on something that only you believe in”.
Zapata’s next “crazy dream” is to fly from France to England with his Flyboard Air to mark the 110th anniversary of the first crossing of the English Channel.
If he succeeds, the ride will blow away his previous record when he traveled 2,200 meters in the south of France in 2016.
The crossing would require Zapata to refuel several times but it would offer him what he craves, a real bird’s eye view of the channel.
“It’ll be the flight of my life”, he says.