Officials Disclose a ‘Working Theory’ About Jetpack Mystery Over Los Angeles

Though the F.B.I. said it was still investigating several pilot reports of seeing someone using a jetpack, it said this week “that pilots might have seen balloons.”

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The first pilot report of a person flying a jetpack high over Los Angeles was enough to start a federal investigation. The second caused a stir on airport channels, with an air traffic controller remarking, “Only in L.A.” Months after that, a controller warned, “The jetpack guy is back.”

The authorities now say the jetpack guy may in fact be more of a balloon guy.

“One working theory is that pilots might have seen balloons,” Rick Breitenfeldt, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, said on Wednesday.

The F.A.A. made its statement after NBC 4 News in Los Angeles on Monday published police video and photos showing what appeared to be an inflatable, life-size or larger-than-life-size balloon in the shape of a person floating above the Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills areas. The station observed that it looked like Jack Skellington, the spindly looking and sharply dressed main character from Tim Burton’s 1993 film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

The images were captured by a Los Angeles Police helicopter crew in November 2020, about two weeks after a second jetpack sighting, and around Halloween, the station said.

“The F.A.A. has worked closely with the F.B.I. to investigate every reported jetpack sighting,” Mr. Breitenfeldt said. “So far, none of these sightings have been verified.”

The Los Angeles Police Department declined to comment, saying that the investigation was being run by the F.A.A. and the F.B.I.

The F.B.I. said in a statement that it was investigating the reported sightings but had not been able to verify them. Like the F.A.A., the bureau said, “one working theory is that pilots might have seen balloons.”

Retailers sell a variety of decorations and toys modeled after Jack Skellington, or at least resembling the character, including a 6-foot hanging model and an 18-foot inflatable model.

Seth Young, a professor of aviation at Ohio State University, said that large party balloons, including those six feet in diameter, do not usually pose a threat or cause alarm for pilots. “If they get ingested into an engine they would do far less damage than a goose would,” he said.

But large groups of loose balloons can be dangerous for flights, he said.

And Mr. Young said that the number of objects and potential hazards in the air — drones, balloons, laser pointers directed at the skies — was increasing year to year. Many of these get reported each day by small airplanes or commercial flights, he said, but the size of the reported jetpack user made it a “pretty rare” safety risk.

Pilots first reported a suspicious sighting in August 2020, describing a man flying a jetpack at about 3,000 feet near Los Angeles International Airport. “Tower, American 1997 — we just passed a guy in a jetpack,” the pilot of American Airlines Flight 1997 from Philadelphia told air traffic control at the time, saying it looked like there was a person about 300 yards to the plane’s left.

The sighting started an investigation by the F.B.I. and the F.A.A. The authorities then heard of a second sighting about six weeks later, as crew members on a commercial airliner flying near the airport reported seeing what looked like a person at an estimated 6,000 feet. This July, a third sighting, at 5,000 feet, was reported by a pilot flying a Boeing 747 over Los Angeles.

“Possible jetpack man in sight,” the pilot said at the time. After air traffic controllers and pilots discussed the sighting, a pilot simply said, “We’re looking for the Iron Man.”

A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. at the time of the third sighting said that the bureau was working with the F.A.A. to investigate, but that it had not been able to validate any of the previous sightings.

While the jetpack sightings have drawn widespread attention, they’ve also drawn skepticism from companies that make jetpacks.

Most jetpacks lack the fuel efficiency to fly for more than a few minutes, which makes it difficult for them to get very high. And flying in a crowded airspace, like around a major airport, could be extremely dangerous for a jetpack user, who would risk collision with a jet or being drawn into a plane’s engine.

The F.A.A. has tried to reduce the risk of accidents with aerial vehicles like drones in recent years, enacting new rules and restrictions. The agency requires authorization to fly drones in controlled airspace.

Despite the hazards of handling jetpacks, some companies, inventors and stunt-takers have pursued them. In 2020, a pilot from Jetman Dubai, a team of pilots who say they are “pushing the boundaries of aviation,” flew nearly 6,000 feet up using a jetpack, in a flight that lasted three minutes. The landing was aided by a parachute. Last year, the team said that one of its pilots, Vincent Reffet, died “during training in Dubai.”

Some tourism companies also offer the opportunity to fly jetpacks, usually for just a few minutes at a time and over areas of water.

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