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Jetman: Flying is even better than falling

By Richard Galant, CNN
Yves Rossy tells the TED Global conference what it's like to fly with jet-powered wings.
Yves Rossy tells the TED Global conference what it's like to fly with jet-powered wings.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yves Rossy, first person to fly with jet-powered wings, speaks at TED Global
  • The conference moved to Edinburgh this year after three conferences in Oxford
  • Conference theme is "The Stuff of Life," and it includes 70 speakers
  • Rossy: Flying without a plane is a liberating experience
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Edinburgh, Scotland (CNN) -- Jumping out of a plane and free falling is an incredible sensation, says Yves Rossy.

"You really have the feeling that you're flying," the former fighter pilot says. "Unfortunately ... it's very short." Rossy said in an interview after speaking at the opening day of the TED Global conference on Tuesday. When you fall, the only direction is down, but Rossy has found a way to change the direction -- and stay in the air much longer.

Wearing his fiberglass and carbon fiber wings, powered by kerosene-fueled engines, Rossy, aka "Jetman," has crossed the English Channel and flown over the Grand Canyon. The first man to fly with jet-powered wings, Rossy has managed to stay aloft for as long as 13 minutes.

For a pilot accustomed to maneuvering huge pieces of machinery including commercial jets, the ability to fly without a plane is liberating. "Suddenly you are almost naked and you're flying," Rossy told CNN. "Once you have tasted it, you need it. I'm addicted now."

That's not to say he takes unnecessary risks. He has a lever that can jettison the wings in case of trouble -- which he's deployed 20 times -- and he has three parachutes and a system that will activate one in case he loses consciousness in the air. The suit, including the four engines, weighs 55 kilos (121 pounds) and enables him to reach speeds of 190 mph.

Rossy was one of a series of passionate thinkers and doers who spoke on day one at TED Global, against a lushly landscaped stage set that prompted one TED staffer to joke, "Welcome to Jurassic Park."

Annie Murphy Paul, author of "Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives," described research that shows how learning begins well before birth, preparing babies in the womb for the world they will find outside. Epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson presented a raft of data showing how social ills -- including homicide, mental illness and limited social mobility -- are much higher in countries with stark levels of income inequality. "If Americans want to live the American dream," Wilkinson said, "they should move to Denmark."

Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices, focused on the role of technology companies and social networks in limiting free expression online by enforcing their terms of service, adding a new layer of restrictions on freedom beyond those that can be imposed by government.

TED.com: Rebecca MacKinnon on free expression online

TED Global is being held in Edinburgh for the first time after three conferences in the tighter confines of Oxford, England. Its theme, "The Stuff of Life," is broad enough to encompass 70 speakers, including Malcolm Gladwell, Niall Ferguson, Alain de Botton, Thandie Newton and Jeremy Gilley and guide a four-day conference with sessions bearing labels such as "Beginnings," "Everyday Rebellions," "Emerging Order," "The Dark Side," and as a finale, "Next up."

TED Global is part of the nonprofit's series of conferences that have spawned an empire of ideas, gaining steadily in impact over the past five years. There's ted.com, a site that now has more than 1,000 talks online, which the organization says have been watched a total of half a billion times. The subtitling program, done by volunteers around the world, has translated talks into 82 languages.

People pay $6,000 to attend a TED conference, which typically sells out, but TED's top official, curator Chris Anderson, says it wants to offer a free way in for rising stars. The TED Fellows program offers free admission to young comers in their fields. (TED stands for "technology, entertainment, design," the three subjects it covered when it was founded in the 1980s.)

TED's reach has grown further through TEDx, a series of independently organized events around the world that use the Ted logo and identity to feature speakers who give talks using the organization's format -- with most talks running no more than 18 minutes.

There have been 2,000 TEDx events in the 2½ years since the program started, providing an inventory of roughly 15,000 speakers who can graduate to a spot on TED.com or to a place on the TED conference stage.

In Edinburgh, five former TEDx speakers are giving talks, according to Bruno Giussani, a Swiss conference organizer, journalist and technology expert who is curating the conference. (TED has a partnership with CNN.com in which the news site puts selected talks online, along with additional features.)

Edinburgh's rich history, evident in the cobblestone streets and the many blocks of carefully preserved historic buildings, seems a fitting setting for a conference about ideas. Scottish thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith have been credited with creating the intellectual framework for capitalism and democracy in the West by writer Arthur Herman in his 2002 book, "The Scottish Enlightenment," which was subtitled "The Scots' invention of the modern world."

Of course, Oxford can also lay claim to academic achievement that helped shape the modern world, but Giussani said TED needed a more robust infrastructure to house its conference.

Edinburgh is "another city that is historically incredibly strong and academically incredibly strong," he said. "It's also a beautiful city." And it may be one that Yves Rossy will fly over someday.