Up, up and away

There is a personal flying machine so simple to put on that it’s like a rucksack: fasten the engine onto your back, launch the wing, squeeze the throttle and run. The power of the engine and wing combined take you off your feet and allow you to fly like a bird, free to go wherever you choose, weather permitting.

Gilo Cardozo, a ridiculously boyish 34 year old, thinks nothing of strapping on a paramotor and flying to a friend’s house for dinner. ‘I’ve done it countless times,’ he says. ‘I can fly so low that my feet skim the corn or so high that I’m touching the top of the clouds with my bare feet. It’s absolute heaven. I’ve flown across the English Channel and into Glastonbury Festival. Once, I took off from Hyde Park and flew across London.’

Even as a child, Mr Cardozo was fascinated by flight, particularly the moment of take-off. In 1999, when power kites and paragliders no longer satisfied him, he bought an old paramotor from the musician James Blunt’s father, a family friend. ‘It was so badly made that it needed a complete redesign, so I went about making a better one,’ he explains. ‘I was transfixed—I thought everyone should be flying a paramotor.’

Although Mr Cardozo didn’t train as an engineer, he built his first engine when he was 14 years old. ‘I was well prepared, but not trained, for the task,’ he recalls. For three years, with a team of engineers, he worked on making a high-powered, low-weight personal aircraft engine. ‘The result was a carefully engineered paramotor that was lighter, more powerful and more refined than anything the fledging industry had seen before,’ Mr Cardozo adds.

Gilo Cardozo and his flying machine

Gilo Cardozo and his flying machine

When the adventurer Bear Grylls saw one, he hatched a plan to fly over Mount Everest with Mr Cardozo. But, before it was even possible, Mr Cardozo had to build a completely different type of engine—a rotary engine as opposed to a standard piston engine—to withstand the lack of oxygen at altitude.

In 2007, Mr Grylls made it over Everest, but Mr Cardozo didn’t—his supercharger (the air compressor that supplies the engine with oxygen) failed at 28,000ft. Yet, within weeks, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was on the phone. It also needed high-powered, low-weight personal aircraft engines that worked at 30,000ft for its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones. ‘That was a game changer,’ says Mr Cardozo.

‘Up until that moment, UAVs didn’t interest me at all.’ He now has contracts with the MoD and the American government to supply rotary engines for surveillance aircraft. Recently, Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, announced that it’s testing unmanned aircraft to deliver goods to customers. Mr Cardozo wants to be part of this revolution and plans to make unmanned aircraft for the commercial market.

After all, vertical-take-off aircraft are his passion. ‘An airstrip is limiting,’ he says. ‘I find personal flight is so much more interesting than robots flying around in the sky, but I can see there’s a genuine need for them.’ Today, Parajet (www.parajet.com), Mr Cardozo’s Dorset-based paramotor business, sells 500 machines a year to customers all over the world.

A Parajet can reach a top speed of 50 miles an hour, fly up to 15,000ft and needs to be refuelled every three hours. It’s slow compared to a private plane and it’s inadvisable to fly in winds of more than 15 miles an hour, yet, for those daring enough, it’s a relatively low-cost way of taking to the sky and discovering an Elysian freedom, albeit with a noisy engine on your back. At the moment, the sport is gloriously unregulated—no licence is required nor do regulations apply.

‘They’re very safe—we build the machines to be so much stronger than they need to be,’ says Mr Cardozo, reassuringly. ‘Even if the engine fails, you can just glide and land on your feet.’

Mr Cardozo’s devil-may-care attitude combined with his ambition make him unusual. He is at once serious—in 2012, he was awarded an MBE for his services to engineering and business—and madly, wildly adventurous. In 2009, he took a flying car that he’d designed and built in his workshop at home on a journey from London to Timbuktu, flying it across the Straits of Gibraltar then driving and flying across the Sahara to prove to himself, and the world, that the concept would work.

‘This is just the beginning,’ he promises. ‘We’re looking to build a new generation of Parajet with faster wings, more powerful engines and contrarotating propellers for high-speed aerobatic flight. I’d like to think that we’re creating a whole new extreme sport.’ And all that is an aside to the business of developing serious aviation technology that may allow your parcels to be delivered in the future by a little unmanned flying robot with a retractable claw

Onwards and upwards

* Two models of Parajet are available: the Volution is strong and comfortable to fly, but doesn’t fold up very small; the Zenith is lighter and more portable, but less sturdy

* A road-legal version of Mr Cardozo’s flying car, called the SkyRunner, will be available to buy from Parajet in the UK in 2015

** This article first appeared in Country Life Magazine on July 9 2014

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