From afar, Richard Browning — dressed in snug, all-black attire and with smoke billowing near his feet — resembled a mime standing over a smoldering fire.
Then the scream of four miniature jet engines tore across the courtyard in front of the Museum of Science and Industry, Browning’s 5-foot-9 frame lifted off the ground and he — along with his 55-pound “jet suit” — hurtled toward 100 or so awestruck spectators Thursday morning.
“It’s OK. You can take off the headphones now,” Browning said a few moments later, the air rippling behind him as he cut the engines, which resembled four black telescopic camera lenses jutting out from his wrists.
Billed as the city’s first-ever jet suit flight, Browning was the show-stopping curtain-raiser for MSI’s new exhibit “Wired to Wear,” which opened this week and runs through May 2020. The show features a host of cutting-edge, innovate technologies designed to be worn, including Browning’s suit.
His face hidden behind a mirrored visor and his arms encased in black metal, he looked a little like an alien invader — or perhaps a real-life version of the Marvel superhero Iron Man — Thursday as he hovered above the crowd.
Underneath it all, Browning, a 40-year-old married father of two, has the bearded, slightly weathered face of an adventurer from a bygone era. Until recently, he worked as an oil trader for British Petroleum in London. About four years ago, he decided to “scratch an itch,” he said, as he peeled off his aluminum-encased jet pack beneath the museum’s Greek columns.
“My late father was an aeronautics engineer and a maverick inventor/designer,” said Browning, who talks only slightly slower than one of his 120,000 rpm engines. “In some ways, I’m scratching an itch he had. [He] unfortunately died prematurely and didn’t deliver.”
Browning developed the engines in his spare time in a garage in rural England, about 90 miles southwest of London, he said.
“I just experimented with one engine, then two, then four and dismissed all these conventional-wisdom thought processes like: It’s too hot, it’s going to rip your arm off, you can’t carry the fuel,” Browning said.
It took, he said, “500 or 600 iterations to get to this point.” The suit has a top speed of 32 mph, with an average flight duration of five to 10 minutes.
Browning said he can fit his entire apparatus — minus the fuel — in two suitcases, which is handy because he’s done some 70 events in 21 countries.
His company, Gravity Industries, has generated about $2 million, which is put back into research and development, he said.
Jet suits can be custom built for “discerning customers,” he said. But the company first makes sure a potential buyer is “competent and capable.”
“You could, a bit like a super high-end motorbike, go and cause yourself a mischief very quickly,” he said.
Browning doesn’t envision his jet suits replacing cars and buses anytime soon.
“Imagine if everyone did that. Imagine the noise,” he said. “I do say, though, that the first motor cars were considered inefficient, noisy and a bit of a joke.”
To learn more about the new exhibit at MSI go to www.msichicago.org/wired.