It was an otherwise quiet Saturday night at the control tower of Los Angeles International Airport on August 29 when an American Airlines pilot stepped on the radio with an incredible report.
Tower, American 1997. We just passed a guy in a pack of planes, the pilot said.
Minutes later, another pilot approaching the LAX on a Jet Blue plane confirmed the sight: We just saw the guy who passed us on the plane.
Thus began one of the most intriguing aviation mysteries that Los Angeles has faced over the years.
And the issue took another turn Wednesday when a China Airlines pilot approaching LAX reported seeing a jet pack flying 6,000 feet above the ground.
The FBI is dealing with the issue, as is a good part of the LA aviation community, which has been buzzing about footage.
Although jet packs make frequent appearances in movies and other popular cultures, they are actually very rare.
There are only a handful of companies worldwide that produce jet packages, including a wing device created by the former Swiss Air Force pilot Yves Rossy, which requires him to take off into the air from a helicopter or balloon before he can take off. There is also a type of hoverboard made by the French firm Zapata and flown only by its inventor, Franky zapata.
Locally, Chatsworth-based JetPack Aviation has created five jet packs that dress like backpacks. But they are not for sale and Chief Executive David Mayman said none of his competitors’ products are sold to consumers.
It is possible that watching Wednesdays near LAX was really a person flying a plane pack. But the altitude at which the person was reported to be flying makes it seem very unlikely, said Mike Hirschberg, executive director of Vertical Flight Society, a professional nonprofit organization.
Mayman said his aircraft packages are technically capable of reaching altitudes of 15,000 meters. But due to fuel constraints, they can actually only reach about 1,000 or 1,500 feet away from the ground safely.
To fly up to 6,000 meters from the ground, to fly around enough to be seen by China Airlines and then get off again, would be to run out of fuel, he said.
Mayman said he knows it was not any of his aircraft packages because he knows exactly where they are plus, they are disabled when not in use, so getting a package out of storage would not be possible.
Instead, he thinks the observation may have been of an electric drone possibly with a mannequin attached.
Thomas Anthony, director of the USC Aviation Safety and Security Program and a former criminal investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration, said the strongest evidence from LAX observations is a person with an airplane package as opposed to a balloon or drone came from American Airlines pilot, who reported seeing the facility at 3,000 feet above Cudahy.
The pilot stated that he saw a boy in a 300-yard jet pack to his left and was flying around the height of the planes.
That’s pretty close, Anthony said.
He said federal investigators would immediately look into the limited number of aircraft packages that exist in the U.S. and abroad.
People in that community will know who bought these packages, he said. If someone is doing this, they will have to leave and sit somewhere, and there will be noise.
Anthony said he suspects the culprit is using an airport to take off and said investigators should look for industrial sites to find clues. The FBI suggested the jet package was flying to a part of Los Angeles County southeast near Cudahy and Vernon that is packed with commercial and manufacturing businesses.
The flying range of aircraft packages is quite limited, Anthony added, so it is unlikely to have traveled any great distances.
After China Airlines pilots reported on Wednesday, the LAX control tower summoned a law enforcement aircraft to investigate.
The plane was flying about seven miles from where the pilot said he had seen the jetpack, according to radio communications.
But when the craft came, no sign of the plane package remained.
A jet package can be operated as an ultralight which means it would not be registered and its operator would not need a pilot license if it meets the requirements of fuel capacity, weight and speed, according to the FAA. Ultralight aircraft are only allowed to fly during the day and are prohibited from flying over densely populated areas or in controlled airspace without FAA approval.
Anthony and others say it is imperative that the FBI investigate the surveillance for security reasons.
This represents a very significant airspace compromise, he said.
If a rogue pilot was flying at 6,000 feet without a transponder or radio, Anthony said that would put him in the way of commercial airlines maneuvering over Los Angeles.
Aircraft are designed to withstand the impact of small objects. But if a metal object, especially one with fuel in it, such as a jet pack, is sucked into an aircraft engine, it could lead to an explosion.
Engines are not designed to consume something large and metal, or something with fuel that will burn or explode, Hirschberg said. This can be potentially catastrophic for an airplane. You can have an engine that explodes and crashes the plane and potentially hundreds of people could die.
So is what is reported near LAX really a jet pack?
Some experts say it is possible.
Jetman pilot Vince Reffet kicked off 1,800 meters in Dubai on Friday, February 14th.
In February, a pilot in Dubai reached an altitude of 5,900 meters flying with a Jetman jet package powered by four carbon-fiber mini-aircraft engines. Package builders say it can reach speeds of around 250 mph. After a number of diving maneuvers, the Dubai pilot landed on the ground using a parachute.
Others, however, are more skeptical. Hirschberg said the first camera near the LAX may have been a balloon, especially since the China Airlines pilot noted that the flying object was shiny.
Or it could have been a drone, he said. In recent years, some airports have had to suspend flights following drone surveillance. In 2018, Londons Gatwick Airport was closed for more than a day after repeated drone sightings.
In the US, recreational users are not allowed to fly their drones higher than 400 meters, can not fly over moving people or vehicles, and are not allowed to intervene with crew aircraft.
The FBI has so far been frivolous in its investigation.
But late in the night on August when the mystery began, the air traffic controller summed up the feelings of many: Only in LA
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