“Tower, American 1997. We just passed a guy in a jet pack,” the pilot reported.
Mere minutes later another report arrived, this time from a pilot approaching LAX in a JetBlue airliner: “We just saw the guy pass us by in the jet pack.”
So began one of the most interesting flight mysteries Los Angeles has faced in years.
Those sightings took place on Aug. 30. The case took another twist Wednesday when a China Airlines pilot approaching LAX described seeing a jetpack flying at an altitude of 6,000 feet. That’s higher than a mile up.
The FBI investigates the case, as is a good part of L.A.’s aviation community, which has been buzzing about the sightings.
Though jet packs make many appearances in movies — think Sean Connery’s James Bond and Disney’s “The Rocketeer” — they are very rare.
There are only a few companies in the world that make jet packs, including a winged device designed by former Swiss air force pilot Yves Rossy, which requires him to be raised in the air by a helicopter or balloon before he can take off. There is also a type of hoverboard made by French firm Zapata and operated only by its author, Franky Zapata.
Regionally, Chatsworth-based JetPack Aviation has designed five jetpacks that are worn like backpacks. But they’re not for sale, and Chief Executive David Mayman said none of the competitors’ jets are sold to consumers, either.
Possibly, Wednesday’s sighting near LAX was indeed a person flying with a jetpack. But the described altitude makes such a flight look “highly unlikely,” according to Mike Hirschberg, executive manager of the Vertical Flight Society, a nonprofit professional organization.
According to Mayman, his company’s jet packs are technically able to soar to heights of 15,000 feet. Though because of fuel constraints, they can reach only about 1,000 or 1,500 feet off the ground safely.
Thomas Anthony, director of the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program and a past Federal Aviation Administration criminal analyst, said the most solid indication that the LAX sightings is a person with a jetpack — as opposed to a balloon or drone — came from the American Airlines pilot, who described seeing the object at 3,000 feet over Cudahy.
The pilot said he saw “a guy in a jet pack” 300 yards to his left and flying at about the plane’s height. “That is quite close,” Anthony said.
On the late August night when the mystery started, the air traffic controller expressed his feelings: “Only in L.A.”