Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


To infinity and beyond

Just when you start to think that No. 8 wire is an outdated myth, a Christchurch inventor unveils his personal jetpack at the world's biggest air show in OshKosh,Wisconsin. Unless Glenn Martin -- who coincidentally shares a name with another aviation pioneer -- is the cleverest spoof since Forgotten Silver?

We saw it on the New York Times website this morning, where science reporter John Schwartz fairly drools over it. A headline with “jetpack” in it makes for a no-brainer breakfast-table click, but it was the New Zealand accent on the accompanying video that had all of us -- most especially the almost-seven-year-old -- sitting up straight and listening with rapt attention while our paterfamilias read the story out loud.

Glenn Martin's machine is noisy, unwieldy, and driven by a four-stroke engine. It's basically an airborne lawnmower -- the flying version, perhaps, of that other dorky mower-inspired futuristic travel device, the Segway. Certainly the Martin jetpack doesn't look nearly as 21st C as this Buzz Lightyear outfit, dreamed up by a Swiss Icarus and test-flown only a few months ago.

But who cares - it flies! That’s news! TVNZ was quick off the mark, with the lucky Ian Sinclair looking pretty chuffed about being the first journalist to get a ride on the thing. Meanwhile, a teaser video has been up on YouTube for a few days, long enough to get 35,000 hits so far and presumably many more to come.

Expect the inevitable deluge of terrible puns about flying kiwis, and the usual palaver about kiwi ingenuity (viz Simon Dallow intoning the immortal words “After more than 25 years toiling away in his garden shed...” Mate, that's some garden shed). Expect it to turn up in the next series of Flight of the Conchords, maybe.

But the most appealing and, to my mind, authentically NZ thing about the whole story? The whole family helped out. Not just Martin’s teenage son, who gave it a whirl last year, but, back in the early days of the project, an even gutsier test pilot:

In June 1997, seven weeks after the birth of his second child, Mr. Martin figured his prototype was now powerful enough to lift its first flier, so long as that person weighed less than 130 pounds. So he turned to his wife. “I said, ‘Hey, Vanessa, what are you doing tonight?’ ”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. That's what you expect from the first country to give women the vote. No way the Wright Bros or les frères Montgolfier were ballsy enough to give a post-partum mother of two first go on their balsa-wood and tissue paper contraptions. Vanessa Martin, fearless aviation pioneer and kiwi heroine, we salute you!

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