Last week, Yves Rossy became the first person to fly with body-mounted wings under jet power, not just holding level flight but climbing for a short while. This assembly celebrates man’s desire to fly like the birds

Birdman of the Alps


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Watch Yves launching himself, flying and landing – to the tune of Elton John’s Rocketman. It lasts 1 minute, 42 seconds.

Supermarine Spitfires

Painting of Daedalus and Icarus

An early Wright brothers aeroplane


Today lots of people fly in aeroplanes when they go on holiday. Some people every day because they work as pilots or as air stewards and some people even commute by air in the same way that other people take the bus or the train.

Fifty years ago it was very unusual for people to go by aeroplane when they went on holiday: it was very expensive and not many people did it. A hundred years ago… well, what do you think aeroplanes were like 100 years ago? (Take suggestions) Here’s a photograph from 1903. It would be very cold and quite dangerous but what wonderful views you’d have!

Ever since humans first had ideas and dreams, hundreds of thousands of years ago, they have looked upwards and envied the birds who glided through the air. From that moment humans have tried to think of ways to fly like birds.

Five thousand years ago the Chinese had giant kites – just big enough to carry one small, light person – but it wasn’t something you could really fly in.

Two hundred years ago, the Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon. Again, it was an amazing experience to be in one, but you could only travel in the direction of the wind. It wasn’t flying quite like a bird.

One aeroplane, the Supermarine Spitfire, was even designed to mimic the wings of a seagull. The aeroplane was designed by Reginald Mitchell and it became one of the most famous aeroplanes of the Second World War – and lovely to look at, too. One American pilot, John Magee, flew a Spitfire for the Canadian Air Force who were helping the British. He thought it was so wonderful that he wrote a poem about it after a climbing very high in the air for a test flight. (Read the final 5 lines of the poem High Flight, which can be foundhere)


The story of Icarus

There’s even a Greek myth that’s thousands of years old about an inventor called Daedalus and his son, Icarus. Imprisoned by King Midas, Daedalus had an idea about how to escape. He collected feathers from the birds that he saw and glued them together with wax to make a pair of wings for himself and another pair for his son. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun because the heat would melt the wax and the feathers would fall out – and then you can guess what happens!

Daedalus and Icarus escaped from their prison but Icarus forgot his father’s advice. He was having such a wonderful time that he flew higher and higher, closer and closer to the sun. His wax and feather wings melted and Icarus fell to the ground and was killed. (Show painting of Icarus)
That’s a sad end to that story but last week there was a happy ending to a story about a man who wanted to fly like a bird – a true story that made the news headlines.

Yves Rossy’s story

In Switzerland they call Yves Rossy the Rocketman. Why? Because he’s an inventor and a pilot who has designed a pair of 2.5 metre carbon-fibre wings, strapped them to his back, added some small jet engines– and thrown himself out of an aeroplane to fly like a bird – a very fast bird at more than 180mph! (Show footage.)

Yves doesn’t have a steering wheel like in a car. He doesn’t have a steering column like in an aeroplane. He steers by simply moving his body, just like a bird. He dived, turned, soared and even performed a 360º roll. ‘That was to impress the girls,’ he later admitted.

It’s taken six years for Yves to develop his jet powered wings – one step at a time, keeping safe at every stage. His latest exploit was the best and he did it for the world’s media, knowing that he was doing better than anyone before.

His next challenge is to fly across the 21 miles of sea from France to England.
Is there any point to what Yves has achieved? Not really. We already have aeroplanes that fly faster – and certainly more comfortably – but Yves’ invention has allowed him to fly even faster than the fastest bird. Mind you, I don’t remember seeing any peregrine falcons, the fastest bird alive, with jet engine strapped to its back. Mind you, peregrine falcons can fly up to 124mph without a set of rockets or jets.

Yves thinks that one day similar jet-powered wings will be available to experienced parachutists ready for the ultimate flying experience. What a pity he didn’t have time to enjoy the scenery: ‘I am so concentrated, I don’t really enjoy the view,’ he said.


Sometimes people invent things for the pure joy of having an idea and turning into a reality. Yves’ invention isn’t very useful but it looks like an awful lot of fun. But don’t try anything like this yourself: Yves is an experience pilot – and he’s trained with his wings for years… and don’t forget he has a parachute, too, in case of accidents.


Our Father, Thank you for giving us the power to dream and to invent. We marvel at the beauty and complexity of nature and remember that caring for the world is your gift to us. Amen.


The world is an amazing place but the capacity of people to dream, to imagine and to invent is amazing, too, and utterly limitless. To a dreamer, anything is possible.

‘Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.’ Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), former slave and abolitionist

Further information

The story of Daedalus and Icarus

Note. Yves isn’t really a rocket man. He’s actually a jet man. His engines are small turbojets, working exactly like the ones that power your holiday plane. A turbo-jet draws in its air from the atmosphere to provide oxygen for burning the fuel. A rocket carries its oxygen as part of its fuel load, often as hydrogen peroxide. Exploits like those of Yves have had to wait for the development of very small turbojet engines. Now they’re quite readily available and aeroplane modellers use them for realistic jet models. If you’re interested in model jets, there’s lots of information at here.

High Flight, by Pilot Officer John G Magee Jr can be found complete at

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr, was an American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Battle of Britain in 1941, flying Spitfires. A high altitude test flight at 30,000 feet in the Mark 5 was the inspiration for this poem.
Three months after writing it, Magee was dead. He collided mid-air on a training session.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2008

About the author: Gerald Haigh