Richard Browning is a remarkably balanced individual. Whether discussing his background, his ambitions or his considerable achievements, he has a rare mixture of realism and romanticism which explains so much about his career to date.
He’s also extremely well balanced when he’s hovering above the ground in a 1000 horsepower jetsuit, carefully drinking a cup of tea.
Richard Browning is the man behind Gravity Industries, the company who build the flying suits that turn ordinary humans into superhero-like figures who can propel themselves through the air with precision.
Beginning as a pet project, becoming a professional performance, and expanding into the territory of life-saving technology, Richard’s invention continues to capture imaginations the world over.
One of his most recent bookings, for example, has taken him to Iceland to fly around for Bear Grylls as part of a soon-to-be-broadcast project.
So how did it begin? “I came from a family of engineers”, explains Richard. “My late father, he was an aeronautical engineer, a maverick inventor and designer.
“I grew up building stuff in his workshop. His father was a wartime pilot and civil pilot, and my other grandfather on my mother’s side was Sir Basil Blackwell who used to run Westland Helicopters, probably Britain’s biggest helicopter manufacturer.”
Going into a job with BP via an exploration geology degree, Richard has also been involved with the military in one way or another since his youth, joining the Royal Marines reserve alongside his oil industry day job.
But none of this was quite fulfilling his need to explore. “I’m one of those people who enjoys being on the edge of a crowd wondering why we can’t do all the things the crowd thinks is impossible.
As soon as a load of people are doing something I’m not so interested, I’m more interested in stuff that hasn’t been done before.”
This inclination towards doing the seemingly impossible might not have been quite enough to motivate such an astounding career, were it not for the legacy of Richard’s father, who died when Richard was 15. “He took his own life unfortunately because of a failed business venture, and I can’t deny that a large part of the subconscious motivation must be taking on audacious challenges like I saw him do.
“He gave up his day job and threw everything at this business that just didn’t work out, so undeniably I lived that and never saw that get over the line, so I think part of what drives me, without thinking about it, is this desire to keep taking on unusual challenges and get them over the line as a sort of way of making up for what I saw not work when I was a kid.”
Richard’s self-set unusual challenge was the creation of a functional way to fly, without the need to be inside a helicopter or plane. With his familial predisposition towards aeronautics, and a knack for pushing himself to his own physical limits through triathlons and calisthenics, tackling this problem came naturally to Richard. “I had this idea that, wouldn’t it be cool, no real business reason at all, if you could add to the human mind and body just enough technology to be able to fly.”
A natural engineer, Richard began work on this problem in true DIY fashion. “I started in February / March 2016 and I just got hold of the first small jet engine, tiny little one, and started experimenting with them, and realised that yes they’re quite terrifying little things but once you get your head around them they’re ok. “I built this little arm belt where I could stick one on my arm, and you can see me standing in a country lane with this engine on my arm and just kind of trying it gingerly and wondering does it rip my arm off or not and actually it was fine.
“Then I got two and I started jumping around a field with them, for so many months alongside my day job. And it escalated until I had six, two on each arm and one on the back of each leg, and then I learned to fly that. All without telling anybody, I didn’t put this online, it can all get very embarrassing if you’re not careful.
“I did the first flight in November 2016 and the small number of people who came to see it kind of lost their minds. Me and the guy who did some of the electronics for me were very bemused by this. My mother-in-law, she’s lovely but she’s the last person in the world to get excited over noisy horsepowery flying things and she did, she just walked up to me teary-eyed and just gave me a hug after seeing this for the first time, and the effect on people has not really diminished from there.”
In 2017, Gravity Industries launched as a company. A TedX invitation followed, along with an invitation to demonstrate the suit in a parking lot in front of some San Francisco-based VCs. “Two of them turned out to be two of the most famous VCs in the Valley, I didn’t even know who they were, wrote me a $640,00 deal on a banknote I’ve still got stuck in my lab, and that was my only real VC investment.”
The last three years have seen Gravity demonstrate the flying suit at 105 events in 31 countries. Small enough to pack into a couple of suitcases, the jetsuit is nevertheless impressive enough to captivate stadiums full of people anywhere in the world. After each event at which they appear, the photos and video shared on social media are enough to generate enough publicity to power even more bookings.
It’s a spectacle that sells itself. “There’s something innate in the human psyche that has been passed on through generations and I guess everybody when they’re a kid has looked up and seen the birds and thought wouldn’t it be cool to be that free. There seems to be something tremendously exciting to people when they see a human moving and it’s the most minimalist equipment you can get away with in order to move in this way. It does seem to tap into this exuberant, dreamlike kind of spirit that people have about flight over and above technology.”
So much so, that others inevitably want to try it, which is why Gravity now have several training grounds. “We just started training people, we’ve got a training site in LA, we used to have one in the UK and now we’ve got two, and we train people to come and fly these as well, so you can just have a great experience or you can learn to fly them for events. “The lighter and fitter and stronger you are, like with any sport, the quicker you’ll learn it and the easier it’ll be.
Generally if you’re less than 100 kilos or so then anybody can come along and do it. Most of the people we have are men and women, almost 50/50 actually, who are typically pilots or more extreme sports enthusiasts. We’ve had old guys who were stunt plane people or retired helicopter pilots, or rock climbers or canoists or skiers or men and women who like racing cars, people who get excited over speed and horsepower and pushing their own boundaries in sport, we’ve had quite a wide variety of people here and in LA.”
One thing the jetsuit isn’t, insists Richard, is the future of transport. “We never set out to revolutionise human transport, I’ve stood on lots of stages around the world and had lots of audiences very enthusiastically claim that this is the first step in a whole revolution in how human beings can travel around, and no.
“Each one of those suits is louder than a 747 taking off, each one is 1000 horsepower. You’re not going to take the kids to school in one of these things, you’re not going to pop down the postbox in one of these things.
“Now maybe with the electric version we’ve built as energy storage gets better then maybe, conceivably, as that advances then that could be an interesting form of transport but we’re not going to get hung up on that.
“it’s more like a Formula 1 car in that it’s a highly impractical device that is only any good for impressing people, entertaining people, I suppose it’s an advertising platform.”
That said, search and rescue teams in the UK’s Lake District have just begun trialling the suits to find stranded hikers. Shared by news outlets on social media worldwide, the experiments in September were a huge success, showing rescuers wearing the suits reaching staged casualties within just 90 seconds, versus 25 minutes on foot or the deployment of expensive and often difficult helicopter rescues.
The suits could, therefore, save lives. Richard does have another use in his sights too; turning jetsuit racing into a sport. Citing Formula 1 and the Red Bull air races as examples, Richard sees much potential for a new sport in the same vein, with perceived but managed risk, a lot of noise and excitement, but ultimately a safe and skilled form of entertainment.
In his visions, superhero-like figures, drawn from all areas of sport, fly waterfront obstacle courses all over the world in a bid to beat each other’s times. “The near term goal is building a race series, at least seeing how that works out. It’s very hard to build a new sport but when you think about Red Bull with the planes flying around, because our pilots look a little bit like Marvel superheroes in some way – which is no bad thing for us from a marketing point of view – when you think about the glossy excitement of overtaking that used to happen with Formula 1, we could have all of that. We think racing is a really quite nice natural direction.”
The racing was about to begin when covid hit, and the equipment is currently sitting in a shipping container in Bermuda waiting for an event that has yet to be rescheduled (“We were three weeks away from the team getting on a plane. There was nothing left to do apart from go there”).
Meanwhile, Richard has been using lockdown to tinker and further perfect the jetsuit, now looking to add wings for even greater speed and lift. “I’m really fascinated by reverse engineering wings and it’s a fascinating journey because not many people have been flying and then added wings as a nice to have. It’s a bizarre way of approaching the challenge.” Bizarre perhaps by anyone else’s standards, but in Richard Browning’s world it seems to make gloriously perfect sense.
Find out more about Gravity Industries at Gravity.co.