This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
Richard Browning is out to prove that, when it comes to human ingenuity, even the sky isn’t the limit. His recent invention, a jet suit called Daedalus Mark 1, sends people flying up to 30 miles per hour at altitudes of 12,000 feet. “My starting hypothesis was that the human mind and body is an amazing construct—even the simple act of walking is an extraordinary thing that requires such balance and control,” he has said. “So I started to imagine what would happen if we augmented that wonderful machine with the latest technology available to us—what could you do and where would you get to?”
When he started to pitch the idea of a jet engine–powered flying suit around 2016, most aviation experts told him it would never work. It would be too hot, they said, or the thing would just rip his arms off. But instead of quitting, Browning sought out people on the periphery of the field who believed in his vision, like the engineer Alex Wilson and the jet suit’s designer, Sam Rogers. They worked out of the small workshop behind Browning’s house in Salisbury, in the United Kingdom, and developed a 1,050-horsepower suit equipped with two mini jets attached to each arm and one built into a backpack.
Now the jet suit is ready for takeoff, and people can visit Browning’s hangar to fly or buy a suit themselves—for nearly $500,000. Watching him fly is less like watching a human flying a futuristic machine than witnessing the flight of a new cyborg-human. Browning flies with human intuition by moving his arms and shifting his weight; he’s not piloting a machine but is one with the machine itself. “It is truly, mind-blowingly free,” he told VICE. Browning says he wants to make sure there’s an insane amount of joy involved in every flight. Whenever he gets someone to fly with the jet suit they can’t stop talking about the ecstasy of flight. “I’ve shouted so loudly over the top of the engine noise,” Browning said, “because it was just so uncontainably euphoric to be able to be that free.”
Photographer Reto Sterchi visited Browning in Salisbury this past fall to witness a flight. “As he begins to elevate, it gets incredibly loud, and you can feel the pressure in your whole body,” said Sterchi. “A sort of miracle happens before your eyes.” —VICE staff