Hitting the Books: How Richard Browning Gone Like Iron Man


The 21st century has promised us flying cars, but if we get personal rocket packs, who are we to complain? In Dealing with gravity, Aviator Richard Browning discusses the development of his unique jet suit, from a fantastic notion to an actual invention. In the excerpt below, Browning recalls the record-breaking 2017 theft that inscribed his name in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Penguin Random House UK

Tackling Gravity: A Guide to Inventing the Impossible from the Man Who Learned to Fly from Richard Browning (£ 20.00) is available now.


In November 2017, Guinness wanted me to appear and set a record as the main event of their World Records Day, an annual event showcasing all kinds of wonderful feats of revolutionary dexterity, speed and effort. Their plan was to have me set a world record for “fastest speed in a body-controlled jet engine suit”. But Guinness also shines a light on some of the more eccentric elements of world records. In 2015, a skateboarding dog took center stage. A year later, the headlines had been dominated by a cookie-dipped bungee jumper who threw himself from a great height and dipped a cookie in a teacup as his rope flexed. Given my concern about being portrayed as a type Doc Emmett Brown (the hyperactive inventor of Back to the future), I was not too enthusiastic at first. After the Red Bull and Wired commercials, I had pedaled hard to avoid association with terms like “wacky” and “eccentric”.

“It’s not us,” I explained to the Guinness rep. “Think of Tony Stark, Elon Musk and the US Navy SEALs. We’re not the next skateboard dog. I like Guinness Book of World Records, but it must be sincere and bold.

I was assured that Guinness intended to present the attempt with a serious air and that their desire to have the jet suit at the event was extremely sincere. Apparently, they had already featured high-end performance with brands such as Mercedes. Finally, I gave in. “Oh shit,” I say. ‘Let’s do this. Find a body of water so I can fly safely and I’ll try to set a time.

My world record attempt was all about the siege of pants; it has become a real exercise in research and development. I had no real idea of ​​the speeds the suit could achieve and hadn’t thought about how best to push the suit limits as doing it over land would have been rather dangerous. When the day finally arrived, it suddenly seemed like a big deal. Considering my busy schedule during the preparation, I had hardly done any preparation and was not sure that I could execute a suitable flight time. When I arrived at the designated lake in Reading called Lagoona Park, I was suddenly under the watchful gaze of dozens of cameras, drones, and smartphones belonging to various members of the Guinness team.

So no pressure.

A type of the Guinness Book of World Records indicated the route I had to take. The plan was to fly from the shore over the lake and around a large buoy at the other end, banking as I approached the turn, returning to my home position at the fastest speed. possible over a defined distance of 100 meters. Since no one had attempted this stunt before, I had to have my holy name alongside the tallest man in the world, even though I wasn’t flying particularly fast. That didn’t stop me from having a keen interest in details, however.

I put on the suit and walked over to the water’s edge for a few practice flights. The weather was far from ideal. Cold and drizzly, it was a typical British November day. And as I rose from the ground, another elementary factor kicked in. A strong crosswind rocked my arms as soon as I picked up speed, making me feel a large and bewildering yaw. Drifting through the water, I reached the turn with good speed but still managed, the chances of a catastrophic failure now being significantly reduced. Fortunately, my suit was fitted with a life jacket designed to inflate on first contact with water. Not so fortunately, I had not found the time to test its reliability. If I had to make a shattering mess of this world record attempt, I would have to hope that the safety equipment was working under pressure.

There had been another, more terrifying problem to deal with. During that first test flight, I had taken off with way too much fuel for a race based on speed rather than distance. I had been deliberately conservative to avoid the possibility of the engines running out halfway, dropping me into the water like a rock. But with so much weight strapped to my body, I was never going to set a fast time. With the reduction in the fuel load on the second pass, maintaining a constant altitude had become a real problem. As I circled around the buoy, burning fuel and losing weight per second, I found myself climbing higher, much higher, and drifting skyward at over 60 feet, my speed. also increasing.

My brain did some quick calculations. Okay, I have two problems here, I thought. “I’m too high and need to lose speed to land safely, but I can only solve one problem at a time.”

In a split second, and with landfall looming, I reduced my speed, standing above the beach at one end of the lake as my head spun. I have never climbed this altitude in a wetsuit before! Falling now would cause serious injury. Cautiously, I released the trigger slightly and headed for dry land. My adrenaline went up; I moved up and down in a jerky fashion, a life of unbridled curiosity passing before my eyes as I luckily started to descend and nervously reached the ground. The stressful landing had probably only lasted a few seconds, but had lasted for hours.

A member of the Guinness team rushed over and enthusiastically told me that I had recorded a speed of 32 mph. I was happy but felt faster, and knew I might have a chance to improve it in the next round – but maybe after a cup of tea.

About twenty minutes later I was riding again, this time with the power of the suit adjusted to reduce any unwanted lift. I launched aggressively and took off at what felt like a real knot rate, skimming the water. The beacon buoy stood up and I headed to the side to execute a quick turn, barely noticing that I had fallen dangerously close to the surface of the lake. I was only a few feet from the water and my height was shrinking. Then I felt the uncomfortable sensation of wet feet.

“I’m going in,” I thought. ‘Oh god damn it … I go in.

My body and my costume submerged. The engines choked and stalled instantly when they sank. I stayed in the water for about a second. Well, this is new, I thought. “How do I get out of this?” ”

With a bang, the life jacket deployed, pulling me up until, somewhat embarrassingly, I realized I had landed in just 4 feet of water and I was was perfectly able to stand without the aid of a self-inflating buoyancy vest or the jet. ski spinning towards me. I stood by the water’s edge, dripping, posing with my thumbs up for the book’s official photographer, delighted to have set a world record and at the same time thinking.

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