Richard Browning has boldly gone where others only venture in their dreams. His mission to make humanflight a reality, now has the potential to save lives. Simon Heptinstall meets with Salisbury’s very own super-hero.
Wiltshire's real life superhero Richard Browning had just caused yet another internet sensation… by flying up had just caused yet another internet sensation… by flying up the slopes of a Cumbrian mountain in his jet suit for a simulated rescue of an injured child.
As the spectacular video of his flight went viral around the world, Wiltshire Life managed to jump a queue of global media outlets to catch up with the Salisbury father of-two they are now calling ‘the real-life Iron Man’.
Richard and his flying suit, developed in Salisbury, have made headlines everywhere and amid his hectic schedule of international demonstrations and promotional appearances the quietly spoken dad explained how his career has taken off, literally, in just four years.
In 2016 Richard was working in an office every day. But at weekends he transformed into an unfulfilled inventor, albeit one with an eccentric aeronautical gene in his family. He was experimenting with building flying machines in his spare time “for no reason initially other than just the sheer joy of the challenge,” he says. One day, in the unlikely setting of a narrow country lane just outside Salisbury, he made a breakthrough.
Richard describes it as “playing around” or experimenting with the capabilities of a compact gas turbine engine he had bought “The starting point was standing there with an engine strapped to my arm with the fuel in a mop bucket,” he recalls.
He wanted to see if he could control the turbine’s roaring blast of air, which is like a mini jet engine. He fired up the turbine and, like a cartoon superhero, was able to point the 1,000mph thrust into the verge opposite, splaying the long grass in all directions.
“Some people thought that all that power would rip your arm off,” says Richard cheerfully. “I found out that it doesn’t. It’s more like holding a spongy hosepipe. It’s easy to point and control it.”
So all you have to do, he deduced, is add a turbine to the other arm, point them downwards and you could fly. At the time Richard’s experiments must have seemed crazy and dangerous. It’s no wonder his wife tried to persuade him to give up. Of course he continued. His years in the Royal Marine Reserve and as an extreme athlete made sure that he’s not the sort to give up easily. He says his experiences with the Marines taught him “about the potentials of human capability”.
Soon there was another noisy faltering experiment in a grassy field near his Salisbury home, which was captured on video, and includes the alarm of a woman quietly tending her allotment in the background. Another day and another video saw Richard tumbling across a local farmyard trying in vain to control the powerful jets attached to his arms.
“At first I didn’t really tell many people about it,” he confesses. But after many tumbles and failures, his tiny bouncy jumps were gradually becoming a snatched few seconds hovering in mid-air. He was refining the technology and the physical skills of controlling it. “Within eight months I was thinking ‘gosh this really has the potential to go a bit further than a Wiltshire farmyard’.”
In 2018 he gave a limited flying demonstration around Salisbury Cathedral Close in the rain to a crowd of wide-eyed local schoolchildren. “This is just the beginning,” he told them.
Since then his ideas have evolved quickly. He now wears a superhero-style black padded flying suit, with two motors on each arm, one on his back, and a space-age helmet with information readings projected onto its visor.
“In the end the manoeuvrability comes down to your own human balance and coordination,” he says. “If you point the jets increasingly down you go up and if you flare them out you go down again. The way they blow so much air downwards allows you to lift off the ground.”
The recent mountain rescue demonstration in which he reached the summit of Helvellyn in just eight minutes, was just the latest in a spectacular series of Richard’s online flying videos that now, have millions of viewers.
YouTube features films of Richard breaking the Guinness World Record by flying along Brighton beach at 85mph, racing against a fast car, flying from an aircraft carrier and a fast patrol boat, and even flying right into a conference hall full of technology experts in Vancouver, he landed on the stage and proceeded to give a long talk about his invention.
You can see him flying into packed sports arenas, landing in front of crowds on Far Eastern waterfronts, opening the Goodwood Festival from above and racing round an aerial circuit above a lake with other trained jet-suit fliers. Another highlight shows him flying to the Isle of Wight from the mainland… to deliver a letter.
They may all look like terrifying experiences but Richard says: “You have to take risks to innovate but it’s actually surprisingly calm and not very violent. It’s very passive and gentle when you’re flying. The moment the ground leaves your feet it’s a pleasure and a joy.
“It’s like that dream you sometimes have of flying: complete three-dimensional freedom. It’s hard to describe in words but it is phenomenal.”
As soon as the potential of his flying suit became obvious Richard stopped commuting from Salisbury on the train every day to his job as an oil trader for BP in London. He set up the Salisbury-based Gravity Industries, began a busy campaign of showing off his technology to as many as he can while also spending time promoting the benefits of science and engineering to schoolchildren worldwide.
“We started with the ethos of just having some fun but it’s a bit of a surprise to me that we’ve built a really successful business.”
Richard now trains other pilots, demonstrates the technology, researches the technology and sells the suits. At another well publicised event recently, he flew across London’s West End to promote the launch of his £340,000 flying suits on the Selfridges website, where the product page is able to make the bold claim: “This suit makes human flight a reality.”
He is certainly an energetic self-promoter. In the last three years Richard has flown in 100 events across 31 countries demonstrating those strap-on engines that he first tested in a Wiltshire lane. He has become so well known on the internet that his gravity.co website sells a range of branded hoodies, T-shirts and caps to his fans.
At first Richard may seem like an extraordinary one-off Wiltshire eccentric – an imaginative inventor in the tradition of James Dyson and an aeronautical pioneer following 1,000 years after Malmesbury’s Eilmer the flying monk. But there’s a longer family story behind his successes.
Richard reveals that one grandfather was a wartime flier and test pilot, the other was the Chairman of Westland Helicopters. His father Michael Browning worked for Westland too and was also an unfulfilled maverick inventor. “I used to spend a fair bit of time with my father flying model gliders. That left a deep impression on me.”
Tragically though his father took his own life when Richard was 15. “He left an awful lot of unfulfilled ambition” says Richard. “If he is looking down he’d certainly be smiling at some of the things I’ve done here. In some ways it’s all a tribute to him.”