In the not too distant future…the offshore patrol vessel, HMNZS Otago, slips silently across the moonlit Pacific, her destination, a small island nation experiencing unrest. Her mission, the recovery of an family of expatriate Kiwis being held for ransom…
In her hangar, RNZAF and special operations support personnel are assembling a dozen unusual-looking devices, scarcely worth of the title ‘aircraft’. This is the first operational deployment of the Martin ‘jet’ pack – which is not actually a jet at all but two ducted fans able to carry soldier in combat equipment over 100 kilometres – after a period of evaluation and experimentation by the New Zealand Defence Force.
Otago had sailed four days previously, as an option should other alternatives to recover the family fail. Although she could deploy with a RNZAF SH-2(G)I Super Seasprite helicopter, the ‘Sprite was unable to carry a full recovery team and was considered too noisy for the level of stealth and deniability needed for this mission. The reef around the objective rendered it difficult to deploy and recovery a force using small boats. Enter the jetpack…
Although New Zealand had introduced a fleet of all-new military helicopter in the early mid-2010s (twenty-tens? twenty-teens?), the problem it faces is not so much that it does not not have enough of them but that it does not have enough or big enough flight decks to operate them from in the vastness of its South Pacific area of responsibility. One solution to this problem comes from classic Kiwi ingenuity: since 2004, a small company in New Zealand’s South Island has been working on development of a jet pack that would fulfil the promises of 1960s engineers for a personal aviation capability.
After a two year period of evaluation, experimentation and innovation, the partnership between the Martin Aircraft Company and the Defence Force has evolved the Jetpack into a stealthy reliable vehicle that not only meets all expectations for operational and technical airworthiness but which is also able to be operated by soldiers after a short but intense four week training course. The heart of the Jetpack that enables it to be operated by relatively inexperienced (from an aviation perspective) personnel is the New Zealand-designed flight control system. Although the operator can take control of the jetpack when necessary, especially to avoid potential obstacles and other hazards on landing, for the most part of their journey, they are passengers as the Jetpack flies its preprogrammed course under the control of an external remote control station. Full military operator certification is awarded after a three month course conducted at the Central Flying School at RNZAF Ohakea.
Late the previous day, Otago had surveyed the operations landing zone with one of its two RQ-84K UAS and conducted a final daylight reconnaissance over the objective. The data from this mission has been processing into a high resolution 3D dataset that updates the recovery force’s mission planning and rehearsal system – a simulation on some seriously bad steroids; and also allows flight planners to identify and avoid any potential hazards along the ingress and egress routes. As the mission preparation progresses, the two RQ-84s maintain a tag team watch over the landing zone and objective, monitoring any changes that may affect the mission. Powered by a lightweight hydrogen fuel cell, each RQ-84 has an endurance of six hours which provides an on-station period of four hours, with the remaining time for handover between aircraft and the transit from Otago’s over the horizon location.
At 0300, twelve jetpacks stood ready on Otago’s flight deck: one for each of the ten person recovery team and two to carry additional stores. Each soldier completed a final check of their own and their comrades’ equipment…it was time and the ground support crew assisted each to strap into his jetpack, their personal weapons across their chests for ease of access, just in case…at 0320, the hand signal was given for engine start and each soldier, slipped their jetpacks master arm switch to the ‘on’ position, signifying that each was ready for launch. The control station operators authorised the launch and each jetpack first hovered above the deck and on completion of flight systems checks, lifted off into the darkness, the only sound a deep hum that quickly faded into the darkness – reducing the lawnmower-like sound signature of the original Martin jet packs had been on of the major challenges and successes of the Defence Force programme.
The dozen jetpacks hummed through the night a hundred feet over the swell, almost invisible as they flew towards the moon and the island. The ingress route stayed over water for as long as possible before cutting across the reef and the shoreline to the landing zone. Though their night vision goggles, the soldiers could see massive trees, all mapped to within centimetres by the UAS imagery, slipping by to their left and right as the jetpacks dropped to twenty feet and autonomously navigated along an overgrown logging track at 30 knots. Overheard the circling RQ-84 tracked their thermal signatures, confirming the the operators saw on their screen. Approaching the landing zone, the jetpacks slowed to a hover and gently touched down in the clearing selected as the landing zone.
Hitting their quick release connections, each member dismounted their steed and set the flight control to ‘return to base’, sending each jetpack back to Otago; the two cargo jetpacks were unloaded and also RTB’d. as the recovery force moved to its objective, the jetbacks would be refueled on Otago and readied for the extraction phase of the operation.
The recovery force moved swiftly through the low vegetation, the direct thermal feed from the RQ-84 confirming the absence of any people along their – it wasn’t considered likely that they would encounter any thermally-stealthed adversaries on this job. At the perimeter of their objective, each team members took up positions where they could observe the low bungalow and its approaches – they would maintain this observation for the hour before sunrise. Through thermal imagers they could identify one large group that was the two adults and two children that were the object of the recovery, and the individual signatures, two sleeping, two moving around the building, of the criminal elements holding them.
Just before dawn’s first light, advancing in the ‘special ops duck walk’, two teams approached the building, entering it from two directions. The thuds of 40mm less-lethal rounds put down two criminals to be quickly bound and secured; another signified the less-lethal neutralisation of one of the sleepers. The last sat up, pistol in hand, to be greeted by the spitting muzzle of a suppressed carbine – lights out. Secured, the hostages are checked for injuries and escorted from the house to the beachfront extraction area, still tracked by the unmanned aircraft overhead.
A kilometre away, a car roars into life and starts to move towards the extraction area – innocuous or not, this is a threat to the recovery phase: the RQ-84 locks onto the thermal signature of its engine and releases a Smart Dart from under its wingroot. Tracking the engine’s heat and boosted to terminal velocity by a small rocket, the Smart Dart brings the vehicle to a grinding halt as it plunges through the engine block. The driver sits surprised but unhurt behind the wheel.
As the assault had commenced, Otago had relaunched the jetpacks and now their hum could be heard as they skimmed above the waves on a direct course for the extraction area, landing on the beach. The hostages were strapped into jet packs, the two children flying with soldiers, and launched back to Otago, which was ‘steaming’ at full speed towards the coast to reduce the flight time. The hostages on their way, and with no sign of a response to the raid, the remaining members of the recovery team ‘saddled up’ and launched themselves back to the waiting naval vessel…
All fiction, of course, and all totally implausible, of course, everybody knows that there’s no military application for things like the jetpack or RQ-84, of course…
But these are the types of devices that modern militaries need to start coming to grips with, either for introduction into their own forces or countering them when their adversaries start to employ them…individual air transport is coming – how are you going to deal with it? There only room in the sand for so many heads, you know…small UAS with extended endurance combined with state of the art ISR and kinetic payloads are coming...”Whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you..?”
Please note that these images show the early versions of the jetpack with the shoulder mounted ducted fans. The latest iteration of the design, known as P.12 for Prototype 12, has shifted the fans to a waist position that can be seen in this test flight: