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Jetpacks offer futurist thrill rides

Dan Burley

HILTON HEAD, S.C. -- Taylor Whitehead can walk on water.

He can fly over it, too.

He proved it as he soared above Hilton Head Island's Broad Creek, a 30-pound jetpack attached to his back.

Water -- as much as 2,000 gallons a minute -- blasts downward from the dual exhaust, pushing him up. The gas-powered jetpack is attached to a 30-foot hose connected to a tiny, boat-like device that pumps water into it. Think of it as a personal watercraft, such as a Jet Ski or Sea-Doo, that can fly.

It can propel its rider as high as 30 feet at speeds of up to 30 mph.

The once far-flung daydream of science-fiction writers will soon be available to the public for rides on Hilton Head, says the 23-year-old Whitehead, who hopes this futuristic-looking device will be his future.

In April, he plans to open HHI Jetpack, a service that will give customers the chance to fly over Hilton Head waters. Flights won't be cheap. Other jetpack firms in Florida and California charge between $140 and $190 for an hour in the sky. Whitehead says his prices will be similar, but with packages for multiple or longer flights available.

The experience is worth it, he says.

"There's nothing like it," he said after his demonstration. "You feel like you're floating. The sensation is just incredible."

It's also safe, he said. The rider wears a helmet and life vest and is strapped into an over-the-shoulders harness similar to a roller coaster's. Whitehead's business partner, John Sentivany, will circle the jetpack rider in a personal watercraft to keep boat traffic away, staying close in case of an emergency. The device will float if the rider lands in the water.

And for a flier's first few rides, Whitehead will control the jetpack's throttle from a remote device.

"The first flight we want to start easy," he said. "We'll just have them walking on water."

Shannon Neal, who owns JetPack Destin in Destin, Fla., said controlling the throttle for amateur fliers is industry standard.

"It's for safety reasons," he said. "It's a lot to do your first time."

Like Neal, Whitehead requires riders to wear a helmet with a microphone attached so they can talk to the controller.

"We're talking to them the entire time," Neal said. "If they get a little crazy, we can reduce the throttle."

Whitehead purchased his jetpack from a company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after being wowed by the device when he flew it on vacation last summer in Sanibel Island, Fla.

The company's website prices the jetpack at nearly $70,000. Whitehead didn't reveal the cost of his but said it was "not cheap."

The device is approved for no-wake zones, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Rocky Whitehead, Taylor's father, acknowledged the jetpack might give pause to those who have never seen or heard it.

"There was a fisherman who told us this would ruin fishing, scare fish away," he said. "We invited him out. He saw the jetpack and realized it wasn't a big deal.

"We invite anyone to check it out."


By DAN BURLEY
Hilton Head Island Packet