Story by Michael Shapiro
Photo by Elyse Butler
John Pang makes it look easy. He rockets to thirty feet in the air, then orbits in tight circles. Then he plows headlong into the ocean, travels underwater and breaches like a dolphin. He rises back into the air, hovering while the jets strapped to his back pump water like fire hoses on steroids. Sunlight glints off his beaming smile, as if to rub it in.
It takes a little practice to get this good at flying, and as a licensed JetLev instructor, Pang has had more than a little. What he’s flying is every adolescent kid’s— well, boy’s anyway— dream: a bona fide jet pack, one that uses water instead of rocket fuel for thrust. Its inventor, Raymond Li, admits he dreamed of flying a jetpack ever since he saw the James Bond film Thunderball as a boy of 14. The JetLev R200, the culmination of that dream, was released for commercial use just last year, and at the time of this writing, there are only eight of the $100,000 units in the world. Several are in the hands of private Bond wannabes (e.g., the sultan of Dubai). Two are operated by Hawai‘i Kai adventure outfit SeaBreeze Watersports Hawaii.
For a not insubstantial fee, anyone who wants to release their inner Bond can give the JetLev a whirl. After a brief orientation, you’re strapped into what’s basically a backpack mounted on a bicycle seat. You step into the water and taxi along, practicing steering while half-submerged. When the instructor gives you some throttle via remote control transmitter (newbies aren’t permitted throttle control), you slowly rise out of the water on 500 pounds of roaring, liquid thrust. And yes, you feel godlike.
While you probably won’t be zipping loop-the-loops on your first go, “It’s not that hard,” says Courtney Krantz, co-owner of SeaBreeze. “I got in the jetpack, and I was up in five minutes, flying—and I’m not that coordinated.” The same can’t be said for the guy who’s now in the water, struggling to master basic steering. But by the end of his half-hour session, Courtney winks, “He’ll say the same thing as everyone: ‘Can I go again?’”