ATLANTERRA, Spain — A Swiss adventurer trying to soar from Morocco to Spain on jet-powered wings ditched safely into the Atlantic on Wednesday after hitting turbulence and clouds so thick he could not tell if he was flying up or down.
The bad weather – rather than a mechanical malfunction, as reported earlier by the project's sponsors – thwarted Yves Rossy's bid to become the first person to achieve such an intercontinental crossing.
Rossy waved from the cold blue sea while awaiting rescue, his red wing and striped parachute floating beside him. In time, a rescuer helicopter winched him from the wind-swept waters to safety.
"I am still here – a little bit wet but I am still here," told a news conference after undergoing a medical checkup, still wearing his red and white flying suit. "I did my best," he said.
Rossy, a 50-year-old former fighter pilot, took off from Tangiers but a few minutes into what was supposed to be a 15-minute flight he vanished from TV screens providing live footage from planes and choppers accompanying him. For a good 10 minutes, no one knew where he was.
Rossy said that about three or four minutes into the flight he hit turbulence and entered clouds that he described as beautiful but disorienting because he could not see and had no reference points.
He tried to climb over the cloud cover "but before the blue came again" his flying became unstable. Eventually he found himself wobbling and dropping at up to 300 kilometers per hour until he was just 850 meters above the water. At that rate he would have hit it in about 20 seconds.
"So the sea comes very fast," he said. "Unstable, at this height, there is no playing anymore. So I throw away my wing and opened my parachute."
Rossy said he was disappointed but will keep doing this kind of flight – he did the English Channel last year – and plans to take on the Grand Canyon next spring with an upgraded wing he is now completing.
"I love to fly and to fly like this is freedom," he said. "The emotions are so strong you become addicted."
Things started off fine. As planned, Rossy stood on the ledge of an open door on the small plane that took him into the air, and jumped, deploying the wing and plummeting about 500 meters until he upped his thrust and gained flight at a cruising speed of 220 kilometers per hour (130 miles per hour) at an altitude was 1,950 meters (6,500 feet).
The wing has no steering mechanism. Rossy guides it by shifting his weight.
He banked sharply left at first, and strong winds buffeted him. At one point he flew through clouds and was lost from sight. Below him, a ferry sailed from Morocco to Spain.
Stuart Sterzel, CEO of project sponsor Webtel.mobi, called Rossy a hero just for trying, even though he did not make it from Africa to Europe has planned.
"He is a man of courage," Sterzel said. "He will get up and dust himself off."
Rossy was flown to a hospital in the southern city of Jerez for a precautionary checkup.
Sterzel said a full rescue rehearsal with Rossy in the water had been carried out Tuesday and the team had been fully prepared.
He said Rossy would probably attempt the Atlantic crossing again in the new year.
The Spanish coast guard was expected to retrieve the wing and the parachute from the sea.
Rossy attempted the feat wearing a homemade wing spanning 2.5 meters (8 feet) and powered by four kerosene-fueled jet engines.
His endeavor had been billed as the first intercontinental crossing by man using jet-powered wings – over the North Atlantic between Africa and Europe.
Rossy provided the first public demonstration of his homemade aircraft in May 2008, doing figure eights over the Alps before touching down near the eastern shore of Lake Geneva.
He flew across the English Channel in September last year, going from Calais, France, to Dover, England.
This time the weather was of particular concern because Rossy had to fly over the spot where the Atlantic flows into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar. This makes for high winds that can suddenly change direction, or blow in two directions at once at different altitudes, organizers said.
"We are very proud of him," said Sterzel. "We are extremely satisfied with his attempt. If something is easy it's not a challenge."
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