Flying into the Future: It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's ... Batman?
A single-man flying wing, originally intended as a sports gimmick, may soon allow elite soldiers to fly into action like Batman. International military experts are excited -- and worried about what the enemy might get up to with the new device.
The man with the dull black wing on his back is being lashed at by the wind. The rear hatch of the airplane is wide open. The engines are screaming in a duet with the storm. Four thousand meters (2.5 miles) below, lush grass covers gently rolling hills. Then the man jumps off the edge and the force of the wind hits him like a giant fist. He tumbles about a few times before settling into a stable position. Seconds later, he's disappeared from sight -- with the help of his wing, he soars away at a speed of about 200 kilometers an hour (124 mph).
The flying wing had its first moment of fame three years ago: In the summer of 2003, the adventure sports enthusiast Felix Baumgartner used such a device to fly across the British Channel and into England. Back then, the flying wing was still called "Skyray" and had been conceived of as an adventure sports gimmick by its inventor, Alban Geissler. Now that Geissler has put more work into the device, it's ready for use in adventures of the non-leisurely variety: The flying wing is now called "Gryphon" and is being perfected for use by elite military units. The fun gimmick has become a weapons system.
"The military version has greater chances of success at the moment," says 35-year-old Geissler as he crouches in the sun at the small airstrip in the German town of Eisenach-Kindel and prepares two "Gryphons" for their test flights. He sounds wistful.
"You have to look paramilitary"
Accompanied by his two military companions, former paratroopers Erich Jelitko and Frank Carreras, Geissler looks a bit like a boy who got lost in the cellar while playing only to suddenly find himself standing in front of his father's gun wrack. That's true despite the martial outfit worn by the trio -- black hoods, black jackets and fatigues. "When you're talking to elite soldiers in Yemen, you can't present yourself like a flower courier," Jelitko says with his Bavarian accent. "You have to look like a paramilitary."
Jeltiko would know: For years he was the Munich trainer for the German army's paratroopers -- an elite unit with a pronounced and sometimes controversial sense of tradition. Now the 44-year-old works for a Munich-based electronics and logistics company, Elektroniksystem- und Logistik-GmbH (ESG), where he's responsible for developing equipment for paratroopers. His old contacts still come in useful. "Paratroopers know one another," Jelitko says. That helps -- especially if you're developing a unique device like the "Gryphon" in order later to sell it at a profit, as ESG hopes to do.
The futurist aviation device, known in Germany as "Greif" ("gryphon"), is a kind of personal wing. "Compared to a regular parachute, it feels like trading a moped with a race motorcycle," Jelitko says. The pilot races towards the ground headfirst at 220 kilometers an hour (137 mph), arms by his side, his hand clutching rotary handles that control the rudder. Although the Gryphon pilot moves through the air much faster than someone using a regular parachute, he can stay in the air much longer if need be, because there is no period of free fall.
"It's a total rush"
To land, all the pilot has to do is separate the wing from the backpack and open the parachute contained inside. The wing remains attached to the pilot by a cord and tumbles to the ground a few meters below him, complete with the baggage stored inside -- the current capacity is 20 kilograms (44 lbs.). "You can fly this device like an airplane," Jelitko gushes. "It's a total rush."
As long as the device doesn't cause trouble, that is. Controlling the flying wing is still a challenge, even for specialists like Jelitko and Carreras. That became clear during the trial run at Eisenach too. "The wing is unsteady when it's in the air," Jelitko grumbled as soon as he was back on the ground. The 38-year-old Carreras complained -- and even performed a crash landing. The "Gryphon" broke during its rough touchdown on the meadow.
"We have to perfect it to the point where normal people can handle it, not just specialists" says Geissler, the engineer. That's why the finished version of the flying wing will contain an electronic system that will take care of some of the steering for the pilot, just like a modern airplane, Geissler says.
The prototypes Jelitko is currently testing with Carreras already promise unheard of possibilities for the military. A paratrooper operation normally looks something like this: An airplane drops the troops off under cover of darkness and as close to their target area as possible -- but without coming so close as to be discovered by enemy radar. The higher the altitude at which the parachutists exit the airplane, the further into their target area they can drift.
A special system developed by ESG and already in use by the German military comes complete with an oxygen supply and allows the parachutists to jump from the plane at an altitude of up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). "In theory, that allows for a reach of 40 kilometers" (25 miles), Jelitko says. But where you touch down in the end depends on the high altitude winds, which can hardly be known in advance in crisis areas -- either because there is no modern meteorological technology or because of other factors.
The Gryphon pilot doesn't have to worry about that. "The wing doesn't care whether it's getting tailwind, crosswind or headwind," Geissler says. True, its reach increases when it has tailwind, but the reach is always at least 40 kilometers (25 miles), due to the wing's favorable lift to drag ratio. After all, the "Gryphon" pilot can jump from an altitude of 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) too, just like a regular parachutist, since the "Gryphon" can be equipped with the oxygen-supply system that has already been developed. The difference is that the "Gryphon" pilot takes only 15 minutes to reach the ground -- not 45 like the parachutist.
Too scary for James Bond?
If Geissler's plans come true, such a high jump height will eventually no longer be necessary: Geissler wants the wing to be equipped with its own engines -- small jet valves that won't allow for breakneck speeds, "but which will ensure that altitude can be maintained." What that version of the wing will look like is no secret: A "Gryphon" with mock jet valves was specially constructed for the James Bond movie "Die Another Day", although it wasn't used during the shoot -- lead actor Pierce Brosnan injured his knee and is said then to have called off the stunt.
Real jet valves, complete with fuel, would weigh about 15 kilograms (33 lbs.), according to Geissler, but they would also involve a reduction in weight, since they would render the oxygen-supply system superfluous. The wing's reach will be extended to as much as 200 kilometers thanks to the jet valves. Such promises sparked lively interest among the world's military officers at the international aerospace fair, the Internationale Luft- und Raumfahrtausstellung (ILA), held in Berlin in May. Besides the German army and the armed forces of several other countries, the USA also displayed an interest in the new device, according to ESG. The USA has no weapons system comparable to the "Gryphon" at present.
"Some generals were also concerned about what might happen if the wing falls into the wrong hands," Jelitko says. A winged special combat force would be invisible even on modern radar, according to the flying wing's developers. "Every radar device has a filter; nothing gets through that hasn't been defined as a threat in advance," Geissler says. "The wing has the speed of a fast sports airplane and the radar echo of a model airplane." As such, it doesn't fit any of the current categories.
In the meantime, Geissler hasn't yet given up his hope that the wing will one day serve its original purpose and become a piece of sports equipment -- a toy you can use to make a quick trip across the British Channel. But there is still an image problem for traditional paratroopers. "They're not happy at all when we squeeze into the airplane with the wing and take away other people's seats," Geissler says. If the new sport should assert itself, its enthusiasts would probably soon have to pay higher flight fares.
The wing's coolness factor is considerably higher among soldiers, on the other hand -- and that's a sales argument that shouldn't be underestimated. The military, Geissler says, "loves to put on a show with their equipment."
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