You likely didn’t know his name — but you knew what he did, who he was. For as long as man has walked upright and looked at birds in the sky, there has always been a dream to fly.
Vincent Reffet flew. And jumped. And made millions look up, gawk, gasp and share his feats on social media. Vincent Reffet was the Jetman.
He brought Hollywood and Iron Man to real life, zooming up and away. He waltzed in the clouds with a huge doubled-decker Emirates A380. And he lept from the Burj Khalifa.
The 36-year-old Frenchman died on Tuesday in the desert outside Dubai, doing what he loved, living life at the edge, defying death once too often.
He was a free-flying world champion and an avid BASE jumper from towering static objects like buildings, antennae, spans and earth. It is a sport that attracts only those with the clearest of minds and determination — an inherent belief that they won’t become one of the victims. Base jumping is statistically 43 times more dangerous than parachuting from a plane, and there have been at least 340 fatalities recorded since 1981.
But Reffet believed he could defy those odds. He did, jumping in April 2014 from the top of the Burj Khalifa. He also made a mid-air dive into a plane in December 2017, and jumped from a 13,000-foot mountain in Switzerland.
But why? What motivates a person to take such risk? What is there in Reffet’s DNA that can rationalise the sheer terror and peril of leaping into the unknown?
“It’s the sensation of freedom,” he explained in a 2015 interview. “When I am skydiving, I have like this feeling of freedom — I can like pretty much go where I want — but always going down.”
And then the jetpack changed everything. With the jetpack, he said, “I can fly like a bird.”
Jetman Dubai’s carbon-fibre wingsuit is powered by four mini jet engines, and the team’s engineers were able to create a manually controlled thrust vectoring nozzle that allows pilots “to control rotations around the yaw axis at zero speeds.” The yaw axis is perpendicular to the wings and allows the pilot to turn left and right while flying horizontally. Pilots can hover, stop, turn and maneuovre, even performing rolls and loops.
The suit has a maximum altitude of 6,100 metres according to the Jetman Dubai website, a maximum flight duration of 13 minutes and a top speed of 220 knots — roughly 400 kilometres an hour.
Whether base jumping or flying with the jetpack, there was always an element of risk of which Reffet was all too aware.
“To be completely autonomous, there is a risk, you know, to lose your life. Something goes wrong, you have to act fast,” he said in a documentary on Jetman. And the exhilaration of feats like zooming into a plane over Swiss mountains was a “mental” battle that would leave a person “sick to your stomach,” he said.
In feats over landscapes like Dubai’s skyline and Palm Jumeirah, Europe’s highest mountain Mont Blanc, or Tienmen Cave in China, Reffet defied the odds — and all on high-definition video and posted on YouTube for millions around the world.
In February, Reffet was the first pilot to demonstrate the transition to high-altitude flight from a standing start. Jetman pilots had previously launched from elevated platforms, such as a helicopter. He was the first to launch from the ground, up and away, just like Iron Man.
While travelling at an average speed of nearly 230kph, Reffet was able to reach 1,000 metres of altitude in 30 seconds — and performed a roll and loop with the wingsuit. His flight lasted approximately three minutes, and he opened his parachute at 1,500 metres before landing safely to the ground, as cool as you like, like it was in his blood. It was.
The son of two sky divers, Reffet grew up in Annecy, in eastern France. He was introduced to the world of aerial stunts at an early age, making his first solo jump in 2000, according to a biography on the site of Redbull, the energy drink that sponsored him. Yes, Redbull gave him wings.
Many of his feats were made with his friend and close collaborator Frederic Fugen, with whom he also started Soul Flyers, a team of parachutists and jumpers.
From an early age, both boys were introduced to the multidimensional aerial world, as both their parents were veterans of the sky.
In 2002, he joined the French national Freefly team, with Fred following suit in 2004. Both skydivers later headed to Empuriabrava in Spain to train at the Skydive Empuria parachute club.
During the 2004 World Championships in Brazil, Fred and Vince became the Freefly World Champions. They confirmed their supremacy in the sport by winning gold at two further World Championships in 2006 and 2008, and remained unbeaten between 2004 and 2009.
For good measure, Reffet was base jumping, practicing extreme landings, wind tunnel skydiving, wingsuit flying and speed riding. All in a day’s work.
Clearly, Reffet was a remarkable talent when it came to aerial stunts, always pushing the limits and flying the finest of lines between what is possible and that which is not.
For all of the dangers, there will be others who will follow suit, strap on a jetpack and fly free. It must be a feeling like no other, but it is one that exacts a high toll.
I am reminded of the Greek myth of Icarus who, with his father, built wings of wax and feathers to escape Crete. There were words of warning not to fly too close to the Sun — a caution that Icarus ignored to his peril. Reffet too created his own legend in just 36 years packed full of adventure and adrenalin. The Jetman flies free now.