The pilots of a passenger jet landing at LA International reckon they were approached by a mysterious flyer equipped with what was described as a "jetpack," passing within a few hundred yards of their aircraft.
The encounter occurred Sunday evening local time as American Airlines flight 1997, flying out of Philadelphia, was descending on the airport at about 3,000 feet when the pilot noticed something off the left side of the plane. The co-pilot confirmed the sighting.
In a recording of the radio channel between the passenger jet and air traffic control, shared online by TV station Fox 11, a somewhat incredulous-sounding aviator can be heard telling the tower "we just passed a guy in a jetpack" who came within roughly 300 yards of the airliner.
The controller confirmed the position of the sighting and warned an incoming Jet Blue flight to be on their guard. "Jet Blue 23, we heard and we are definitely looking," it responded.
Obviously, this is completely out of line as one false move or gust of wind could be catastrophic for the flyer and potentially the plane and its passengers. Also, 3,000 feet is a much higher altitude than most, but not all, jetpack-like devices have been shown to fly. Operating any unapproved aircraft so close to an airfield is also highly illegal, and leads to shutdowns and delays.
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It's highly unlikely the pilots concerned made the whole thing up for a giggle. Pulling a prank like this could lead to a reprimand or suspension, if confirmed. On the other hand, someone flying around on a jetpack at 3,000 feet near an airport is too good a story to believe. Who could forget those phantom drone sightings in the UK that closed Gatwick airport?
So far, nobody has stepped forward with any information about the exact nature of the craft or who might have been flying it. The FAA, it is said, has turned the matter over to the Los Angeles Police Department for investigation. The FBI is also probing.
And before people start with the conspiracy theories that this is government tech gone wrong, LAX is about 100 miles from Edwards Air Force Base, 160 miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base, and 270 miles from Area 51 – and all would likely be well outside the range any wearable flying device would be able to travel. Still, The Register has asked the Air Force if it or any of its contractors were involved, and will update should we hear anything.
There haven't been too many reported advances in jetpack technology lately. Boeing did open up a competition for inventors back in 2017. Most other jetpack demonstrations have been private inventors and/or daredevils who simply strap themselves to existing propulsion devices.
What there has been, however, is a massive ongoing campaign led by the US Air Force and a number of manufacturers who want to build single-person drone aircraft that the military could use for things like disaster relief or resupply missions.
The first of the prototypes from Uncle Sam's Agility Prime project, a single-seat craft equipped with multiple drone propellers, was demonstrated last week in Texas by a company called Lift Aircraft. ®