This weekend, after much doubt as to whether his latest creation was real or not, jet ski champion Franky Zapata set a new Guinness World Record for the farthest hoverboard flight. I was there when it happened, and I’m here to tell you that this thing is real, and it’s spooky how it just hangs there, mid-air, until Franky bends his knees and zooms off toward the horizon. Here’s how he did it.
Five years ago, Zapata created a jet-ski–powered flying platform in his workshop in the South of France. Until then, Zapata and his small team had been building parts for racing jet skis, but he’d been having trouble homologating the parts in the face of ever-stricter pollution regulations. He and his wife brainstormed a bit—should they make their own jet ski engines or somehow make a flying water-powered skateboard?
Out of nowhere, Franky came up with an idea to connect a Y junction and a few elbows to a flexible hose, and to connect that to a jet ski jet in order to fly.
After making a dozen prototypes, he had the first functional Flyboard—the water from the jet ski’s jet was powerful enough to lift a man, and he could fly around in the air, dragging the jet ski behind him, at up to 25 mph.
Now he’s back with the Flyboard Air. It’s a flying platform that represents four years of development and flies under its own power. The first video of it was released in early April, which—along with a lack of takeoff or landing shots—fueled speculation that the video was a hoax.
I went to a little village in Provence to watch Franky attempt to break the world record for a flying platform on his prototype. Because it is still in the prototype stage, it is not safe to fly over land; it spirals out of control if any of the four 250 horsepower engines fails, or if the gyro control system runs out of batteries.
The proposed flight path was just over two kilometers, and Franky was attempting to smash the previous hoverboard record of 275 meters, set in 2015 by Catalin Alexandru Duru.
But while Duru’s “hoverboard” is a battery-powered eight-rotor drone that crept along until eventually running out of batteries, Zapata’s Flyboard Air packs 1000 BHP—more power than nearly every Ferrari—from four turbojets drinking a backpack full of kerosene, can hit 60 mph, and can go as high as you like, as long as you’re willing to accept that it’s still a prototype and has no “Plan B” if there happens to be a problem. It looks particularly polished for a prototype, but there were some headaches perfecting the electronic control systems.
“We put on little fans to control yaw,” Zapata said. “Without them, yaw is not controllable. Your brain just can’t concentrate on stabilizing the Flyboard and controlling the yaw. So we created a special algorithm so the little fans could stabilize the yaw. We worked and worked and worked over the course of a month, without flying it for real—it was all in the workshop. We made a rotating platform to test the fans under all conditions—without flying, we tried to stabilize the yaw in all possible conditions, with wind, etc. You don’t need a lot of force; the fans are tiny.”
He added: “When we finished the stabilization algorithm, we put everything together, the forward, backwards, left, and right stabilization we’d made, the two jet fans with yaw stabilization, and we tested it. We have a testing platform on the terrace, and it flew! It was stable! It was incredible. I turned left and right. I couldn’t believe it.”
For his record-breaking flight, Franky chose a path heading west just off the coast, from a beach near Carry-le-Rouet, France, to the port of Sausset-les-Pins. The weather was good, and there was a choice to watch the beginning of the record attempt from a boat, or to wait at the port for him to arrive.
I wanted to make sure I saw the thing fly, so I chose to go on the boat and catch the start of the attempt. The initial whistle from the jets morphed into white noise, and he gently lifted off from the elevated and fenestrated takeoff platform. He rose to about ten meters, bent his knees, and started forward, accelerating until he hit 60 kph.
A half-dozen jet skis and boats tore off after him—some carried spectators, others emergency crew and Zapata Racing employees. There was a witness from the Guinness Book of World Records present, too.
Franky’s eerie, steady forward progress and constant altitude resembled that of the drone trailing him (for video footage) and was quite unlike the jet skis that crashed and bobbed their way through one wave after another far below.
Even after he’d nearly disappeared into the distance and hooked a right toward the port, I still couldn’t get over how steady he was; there was no drama whatsoever, he was as chill as Aladdin on a magic carpet. Of course, he’s likely spent more time on flying platforms than anyone on the planet.
When he got to Sausset-les-Pins, he arced gracefully through the harbor and past the sailboats before gently touching down on another platform in front of an awed crowd. He’d covered 2,252m in 3 minutes 55 seconds. Then whoosh! He pulled the trigger on the handheld controller, the jets went back to gulping enormous quantities of air, and he was off again for a victory lap around the harbor.
After he’d taken off his specially-made boots, Franky walked on stage to accept the framed certificate from Guinness World Records and to thank his sponsors.
After the flight, I asked him what other sport or movement is similarly difficult—perhaps unicycling or juggling. “In fact, it’s like walking,” he said. “It’s only really physical in case of a crash. The moment you take off, your heart races, but other than that it doesn’t take much muscular effort, it’s psychological, and does take concentration.”
What’s next? The original Flyboard spawned multiple products, including the Hoverboard and the Jetpack. Once the Zapata Racing team fully understood water propulsion, it was relatively enough to adapt it to the other formats. Their next project will be a flying jet ski/motorcycle that uses water as a propulsion system, and is even easier to control that their existing products.
“The eventual goal is to make a flying motorcycle that everyone can fly,” he said. “Grandparents, 5-year olds, as easy to use as a quad. When you realize that we use the same water propulsion system for the Flyboard, Hoverboard, Jetpack, and the motorcycle. Today, with the technology we developed with the turbojet, we can do the same thing. We’ll start with a Flyboard, then a Hoverboard, a Jetpack, a motorcycle, a car… every time you start a new project, you have new constraints. You have to adapt the basics; you don’t control each vehicle the same way. On a motorcycle, you might use your body, on a car you use the steering wheel.”
But for the moment, he’s working hard on developing the Flyboard Air’s redundant safety systems that can handle electrical or mechanical malfunctions. Once that’s sorted out, he’ll be able to fly higher and over land, and commercialize it.
“Today, we’re not ready to fly above land. We’ve spent four years getting it to fly, and now it flies. Technically, it might be able to go 3000m high, or 200 kph. The reality today is that all the systems function well, the top speed is 80 kph, the max height is 35m, and I’m able to take off and land with 3 out of 4 turbojets operable. But today I’m not ready—and the machine is not ready—to continue flying if one of the turbojets fails mid-flight.”
They’re working on it, and Franky is positive about the future.
“Sincerely, I think we’re at the door of something,” he said. “The world wants to change. When you see the success of our video, you say that humans want to go there. You see so much media attention because people want it. We’ve been rolling for 2000 years; now we want to fly, and we’re capable of doing it.”
He’s right. We do want to fly. But for the moment, the maximum flight duration is just 10 minutes. Franky has a solution for that, too, and it’s straight out of science fiction: Fly like Superman.
“On the Flyboard Air, as soon as you arrive at 80 kph, your hands and fingers sense the air, and you realize you can push against the air,” he said. “That’s when I realized that if you add a wingsuit, you could go 180 kph. I needed to feel the resistance to realize I could lean so far forward. As far as altitude, we can go up until the air isn’t dense enough, but you have to push 48 kg (the machine and fuel) in addition to what I weigh. After we break the distance record, we’re going make a video of flying in the clouds.”
Flying headfirst with a wingsuit would drastically cut down on power consumption, and so you could get away with carrying a heavier load of fuel during the short “vertical takeoff” period before transitioning into horizontal flight.
Of course, Guinness can’t measure how much fun it will be to blast through the heavens with foot-mounted jets and a wingsuit. I doubt Franky will care.
Nick Goddard will give any rideable a chance. When he’s not riding a stand-up electric scooter, the latest superbike, or an ultimate wheel, he’s contemplating how BlaBlaCar and free-floating vehicle share will change the transportation landscape. See more of his work here.