For the first time since late August, another pilot of another airliner flying into Los Angeles International Airport has spotted what he told the controller was a guy in a jetpack. This time the pilot said the jetpack guy was at 6,000 feet. There’s no telling if it was the same guy in the same jetpack, if it was a guy or a jetpack at all.

But was it really a guy flying a jetpack?

To start with, let’s assume that eyewitness reports are not to be taken as gospel. More and more the justice system is coming to terms with the fallibility of eyewitness accounts. In that setting, bad eyewitness testimony, even when given in good faith, can lead to false arrests and false convictions, or worse. This isn’t that bad, and there’s no reason to suspect that the pilots reporting the jetpack flyer were acting in anything but good faith.

Pilots know that it’s really hard to spot other traffic, that is, another airplane sharing the sky with us, when that other plane is much more than a couple of miles away from us. And even a small plane is many, many times larger than a person. So it stands to reason that, in order to spot a person flying nearby under jetpack power, that airspace intruder needs to be pretty darned close. Now, imagine that you’re looking at a person standing still three football fields away, that is, around 1,000 feet from you, give or take. Is it person or a mannequin? Is it a man or a woman? Is it something else entirely? You can make a best guess on all of the above questions, but how sure are you? If you say “100%,” than you have an overinflated sense of how good people are at interpreting what they see.

In the case of the jetpack, the best we can say is that the pilots really thought they saw a guy in a jetpack. Could it have been a woman in a jetpack? A guy in a wingsuit? A drone disguised to look like a guy in a jetpack?

The latter theory is, in fact, getting some traction here, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the FBI were looking for—and they are reported beating the bushes on this one—a drone flyer instead of a jetpack flyer.

The jetpack theory is problematic in a few ways, especially since this last sighting was at 6,000 feet. First, there are only so many jetpacks out there, and the company that makes them, JetPack Aviation, knows where each and every one of them is, and when they were asked about it after the late August sightings, they said it wasn’t one of theirs. And if you think that somebody rigged up their own home-brewed jetpack, which is possibly but hugely complicated and risky, we’d say it’s highly unlikely.

Then there’s the question of the endurance of a jetpack, which is around 10 minutes. These things climb like rockets, but still, just like an airplane they need lots of fuel to get to altitude, which cuts endurance even more. And then, if they do run out of fuel, well, suffice it to say their glide ratio is about the same as that of a grand piano, perhaps not quite as good. So, could it have been a jetpack? It could have been. Was it likely? We’d say, not very.

So what was it? Our best guess is that it was a drone made to look like a guy flying a jetpack, essentially a model airplane mannequin. Can this be done.? Oh yes. A person-shaped aircraft is like a lifting body, a shape that NASA experimented with a lot in the ’50s and ’60. Do they fly well? Really well. In this video, of people flying these kinds of models, the impressive part is how realistic they look! And we are in no way implying that these modelers are in any way involved. They’re just a good example of how such a thing could be done convincingly. 

Radio-controlled Superman
Click the screenshot to watch the video of radio-controlled Superman.

It being a flying model would also explain why the jetpack guy has been hard to hunt down so far. Instead of a really loud jet-powered flying suit, a drone would be relatively quiet, easy to tote around, quick to set up and break down. Are we 100% sure on this one? Not even. But it’s the explanation that makes the most sense by far.