Possibly coming to a mountain rescue near you — a paramedic in a jet suit

The fastest way to get to people who need help in a hilly, rocky area is to fly, and now paramedics in the northern England may be able to do just that, with the help of a jet suit.

It’s so fast that during a test flight and mock rescue mission on Sept. 15, the jet suit operator made a 700-metre ascent in just 90 seconds, said Andy Mawson, a paramedic and the director of operations at Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS). He estimates it would take between 25-30 minutes to hike a similar route on foot.

“As it goes up the hills, as we saw on the test flight, it’s incredibly graceful, really, really safe and very measured,” Mawson told As it Happens guest host Helen Mann.

The jet suit is made by Gravity Industries, based in the south of England. It has five turbines, one worn on the back and two for each arm. The dry weight of the suit (without fuel or fluids) is 27 kilograms, and the current speed record set with the jet suit is almost 137 kilometres per hour.

The company’s founder, Richard Browning, demonstrated the suit’s capabilities for the GNAAS through test flights in the hilly Lake District. 

“Essentially, you just move your arms around to vector that thrust to produce either lift or descent and then flight in any direction that you want,” explained Mawson, who says he hasn’t yet had a chance to try out the suit.

Mawson describes the Lake District as a beautiful part of the world, but also notes the terrain can be challenging to operate in.

Andy Mawson is the director of operations at the Great North Air Ambulance Service. (Submitted by Andy Mawson )

“Very often, if we send in the aircraft, the helicopter and our critical care team to an incident, they might have to land some distance from the patient,” Mawson said. 

However, he says, a paramedic in a jet suit could get closer, faster. 

“The other side of it is the less critical injuries that we see with … [hill] runners and walkers and sometimes extreme sports where somebody might break a leg or an arm, they don’t need the critical care team and the helicopter, but they do need a paramedic by their side. And this is a beautiful way of doing that,” he said.

What a jet suit rescue could look like

There is no time frame yet for when the GNAAS could use the jet suit for rescues,.

Mawson said the test flights allowed the company to learn about the sort of terrain the paramedics hope to operate in.

“They’ve got some modifications and some changes that they want to make to the suit itself. So that will take a little bit of time,” he said.

“The media interest has been pretty huge this week for both myself and Richard. So we let that die down, and then next week, maybe table a discussion about where we go from here,” he said.

However, Mawson has already thought about how much equipment paramedics could carry and how. 

He explained that a scenario in which a paramedic would have their necessary equipment spread across pouches on their chest and legs, in total between 10-15 kilograms of gear, including oxygen, a defibrillator, emergency drugs, splints and gauze.

“So we’d be looking to provide early critical interventions in those particular cases, but also as well, maybe even being able to manage the whole thing, from the medical point of view, without any further support and working with the mountain rescue team to get the patient off the hill,” Mawson said. 

Gravity Industries founder Richard Browning lands after a test flight in the Lake District of northern England. (Jim Entwhistle/GNAAS)

“As we’re drilling more and more into the data, what we’d probably find is that the jet suit itself would probably have less application in the winter than it would do through the spring, the summer and the autumn,” he said.

Because the Lake District can get quite rainy and cold in the winter, Mawson says it would be a bit of a risk to the turbines to try to use it then. He said he was less concerned about the wind, because the jet suit was quite stable.

“Because it’s so intuitive, you’re not actually … holding controls, you are just adapting your body to that thrust factoring, so we’re relatively confident that we’ll operate in quite high winds,” he said.

The other key would be to limit height and speed during flights, say to around one metre, as Browning demonstrated during the test flight.

“If we do have an engine failure or something, then it just means that, you know, we’re not going to sustain any sort of major, major injury or do anything more than really scuff our knees.”

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