NEW YORK -- "I think about death every day," says Yves Rossy. "Every single day."
He is a man. A small man, with a (mostly) bald head, thin lips and blue eyes. He looks like your accountant. Your doctor. Your local pharmacist. Soft voice, warm smile, unexceptional mannerisms. He is 53, which -- for most of us -- means closer to the end than the beginning.
People who look and sound like Yves Rossy tend to be safe and comfortable. Go to work, take a lunch break, come home, read a book, go to bed.
"That," he says, "is not me."
Rossy thinks about death because he is driven to live. That's the genesis of the man who flies through the air with a wing attached to his back. He is a man who they call Jetman. But it's not about flying, about swooping, about diving. Sure, using his kerosene-powered wing, he zips alone through the Grand Canyon, darts over Rio, powers across the English Channel. He is like a bird, but faster. Like a plane, but smaller. Like a dashing, dazzling, breathtaking ...
Stop. It's not about that.
"Speed is not the great motivator," he says. "Living is. Feeling is. Experiencing is -- and then sharing that experience with others. That's why I do this. That's the only reason why."
One recent morning in New York City, reporters, photographers and cameramen welcomed Jetman to America. Only Jetman isn't into all that. One night earlier, he appeared on Letterman. "This Ledder-men," he says, "is a big deal here, no?"
Yes, he is told.
"That is nice," he says. "That is nice."
A shrug. Though he spent his three days in Manhattan in relative (and blissful) anonymity, Rossy may well be the world's most uniquely inventive, praiseworthy ... and crazy athlete. On May 2, Jetman spent 11 minutes, 35 seconds soaring over Rio de Janeiro at an altitude of 3,937 feet. He did so powered by his trusted carbon-Kevlar jetwing (Price tag: $110,000), which is boosted by four engines that each supply a 45-pound thrust. Or, put more simply, if you happened to be in Rio last week, casually strolling the beaches, you may well have seen a dude with a wing strapped to his back flying really, really fast.
"It can catch people by surprise, because what I'm doing is unique," Rossy says. "But once people understand, I think they are moved. This is a man living his dream. I am the richest person in the world."
A confession: This is hardly the easiest story to explain. Yves Rossy is not a fullback, crossing into the end zone. He is not a designated hitter for the Cleveland Indians or a striker for Manchester United. He is a man with a wing on his back, who leaps from planes, propels through the sky at speeds close to 200 mph, then parachutes to safety. In fact, Rossy looks nothing like an athlete, what with his skinny legs and aging features.
He is, in a sense, more like you or me; just a guy with a wild imagination and a dream. That's how this all began some 40 years ago, when Henry Rossy, an employee of the Swiss Railway, loaded his wife and two sons (brother Phillipe, a carpenter, is two years older than Yves) in the car and drove from their hometown of Penthalaz, Switzerland to a nearby air show. Yves, 13 at the time, knew little of flight. He had been in a plane once and loved the experience, but that was that. "Then the thing begins, and I am taken away," he says. "I'm fascinated. Just so fascinated. At the end they had this amazing finale, with the Switzerland's version of the Blue Angels. They did this formation, where the planes swooped down so low and so fast. At that moment I knew -- I absolutely knew -- that I wanted to be the man in the machine like that."
This wasn't a case of a kid itching to become the next Derek Jeter, then settling for a career in corporate law. The vision of the airplanes stuck in Rossy's head, and when he was old enough he enlisted in the Swiss Air Force, where he flew fighter jets for six years. After leaving the military, he became a co-pilot for Swissair, then Airbus. Rossy cherished the feeling of being in the air, just a man and his thoughts and a 200-passenger jet. Yet, in the back of his mind, there was something missing. Why, he often thought, can't a man fly on his own, powered by an individual unit attached to his body? "When I was young I had an apprenticeship as an engineer," he says. "I was always pretty good at designing things."
In 2000 he first toyed with constructing a single-body wing. It was inflatable, and relatively crude, and measured eight feet from tip to tip. The following year, he attached the wing to his back, strapped on a pair of parachutes and leapt from an airplane near Lake Geneva. Seven miles later, he touched the ground. "I didn't know 100 percent what to expect," he says. "Then suddenly I arched my back an increased the angle with the wind. It was like there was a big hand on my back ... as if God were taking me and I was gliding like crazy. It was the first time I ever felt such a way, and it was absolutely fantastic. Not only because it felt free, but because I knew it could work."
Although Rossy fancied gliding, there was more to be done. In the ensuing years he went from aviator to marketer, spanning the world for corporations willing to sponsor ... mmm, eh, uh ... a guy aspiring to fly. "It was hard to explain," he says. "Many strange looks." Finally, Rossy found a taker in German model engine manufacturer, Jet-Cat, which was accustomed to making minuscule devices for toy airplanes. "I was the guinea pig," he says. "Their engines had never flown as high as I was going, so we didn't know." In 2003, fueled by the newfound power, Rossy boarded an aircraft above the Allalin glacier in Saas Fee, powered his engines and leapt into the sky. "Great experience," he says, "but a big problem." Namely, the inflatable wing wasn't strong enough for the engines.
One year later, Rossy developed the rigid deployable carbon-Kevlar wing, a version of which he uses today (there have been 15 prototypes through the years, and each one takes between three and four months to make). Over the course of the decade, Rossy (who is married without children) has taken dozens of treks. Some, like Rio, were magnificent. Others were not. Three years ago, Rossy attempted to become the first person to journey between two continents using a jetpack. Yet while flying over the Stait of Gibraltar, strong winds and cloud banks forced him to ditch into the sea. He was picked up 10 minutes later, neither shaken nor harmed not deterred. "My next goal," he says, "is to fly vertical ... to reach 30,000 feet. When you're in a fighter jet and there's a dark layer of clouds with just one blue hole with the sun going through it, you shoot for that hole. You go vertical into the light, and suddenly, instead of gray and dark, it's light and blue. You are totally connected with the elements. You are in another world. I want to live that again.
"But this time, with just a little wing on my back."