Jets of water suddenly propel a flier 40 feet over Lake Norman’s waters, and nearby boaters and onlookers at Queen’s Landing come to a standstill.
Like something out of science fiction, Flyboard riders are thrust skyward by water pressure from a fire hose attached to the rear jet nozzle of a personal watercraft.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Phil Hunt, 52, who stopped to watch a demonstration earlier this month. “It looks pretty neat. If I was about 20 years younger, I’d maybe try it.”
Weston Pruitt, 18, has tried it, and he can’t get enough.
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“Once you get up there, it’s pure freedom,” he said. “You can go whatever way you want to. You can control your elevation, move around, dive in the water.”
But those capabilities raise concerns, said Maj. Chris Huebner, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s boating safety coordinator.
N.C. Wildlife officers haven’t reported any issues on Lake Norman, Lake Wylie or other locations where the Flyboard is already available, including Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Emerald Isle and other tourist destinations across the Carolinas.
Huebner says he’s unsure whether Flyboards should be regulated as personal watercraft, boats or under their own regulations.
“They don’t necessarily fall into any of our laws,” Huebner said. “It takes a while for rules to catch up to new technology.
“Unfortunately, it takes something happening for action to be taken.”
Ernest Pruitt, Weston’s 54-year-old father, is an entrepreneur who brought the Flyboard and a similar product, the Jetovator, to Lake Norman after seeing the Flyboard on YouTube last winter.
“I like toys,” he said. “I’ve been on the lake my entire life, around boating and skiing. To me, it was a natural thing to try it.”
And even Pruitt admits the Flyboard could lead to injuries if used irresponsibly.
“It’s just like anything else,” he said. “You can get hurt water skiing, boarding, boating.”
Invented by French daredevil Franky Zapata in 2011, Flyboards allow expert riders – whose feet are strapped through their boots onto the skiboard-like device – to get up to 45 feet in the air. Users control their movement through heel-to-toe and knee movements.
The Jetovator, a crouch-down device that allows riders to travel up to 25 mph and to reach heights of 30 feet, was introduced last year.
“It’s more like a motorcycle or a dirt bike,” said Jacob Pruitt, Ernest’s 15-year-old son. “It’s a lot different than the Flyboard because you’re using your hand throttles as well as moving your weight back and forth.”
Another key difference is that riders aren’t strapped onto the Jetovator.
“You’re not tethered to anything, so people tend to like that as well,” Pruitt said.
Neither experience is cheap. Ernest Pruitt’s LKN Flyboard company rents the devices at Queen’s Landing starting at $110 for half an hour. Flyboards retail for $6,495 at Boater’s Warehouse, a store on Brawley School Road in Mooresville. The Jetovator sells for $8,975.
The devices require several safety precautions.
A motorcycle helmet is necessary to ride a Jetovator, and the Flyboard requires a wakeboard helmet. Operators on either device must wear a life vest.
Also, training is mandatory: Renters can be taught on the spot during a 30-minute session, and prospective buyers have to take a three-hour class before being allowed to make their purchases.
Customers, who Pruitt said are mostly men ranging from their late teens to early 60s, must also sign a liability release.
Pruitt said four Flyboards and two Jetovators have been sold, while 17 renters had tried out the devices heading into this weekend.
Other water toys designed to fly have caused problems. In 2006, the Wego Kite Tube, which when towed behind a boat was designed to go up to 25 feet in the air, was banned on Lake Norman after a man suffered a cracked vertebra. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission eventually recalled the kite tube after two deaths and numerous injuries across the country.
Pruitt says his instructors take precautions to make using the Flyboard and the Jetovator safe.
The biggest danger, he said, is when the devices get too close to the personal watercraft powering them, or to other boats. With instructors controlling the throttle from the watercraft, they are able to let riders down slowly to get their attention – or stop altogether – if they are in any danger.
Pruitt said that when boats get closer than 75 feet from the rentals, the instructors lower riders into the water and wave boaters off.
“We stop the show, so to speak,” he said.
Pruitt also said instructors fly beginners no more than 5 feet over the water to minimize risk until they are more experienced.
“You don’t need to be 20 feet in the air to get a huge thrill,” he said.
There is an optional $1,850 electronic management kit that gives the Flyboard operator control of the throttle, but Pruitt doesn’t recommend it.
“Everybody thinks that they want to do that,” Pruitt said. “But the beauty behind having somebody on the Jet Ski flying you is that they know where you are at all times.”
And although both devices allow fliers to dive several feet under water, Pruitt doesn’t like the idea – at least for renters – in the murky Lake Norman water.
“You have to be very, very careful with that,” he said. “If you’re in the Bahamas or somewhere like that where the water’s clear, then absolutely, have a blast.”
‘Cool as can be’
For now, there appear to be no reports of serious accidents or lawsuits involving the Flyboard or the Jetovator. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn’t have a report on either device.
The Wildlife Commission’s Huebner, who said he’s always cautious when a new product appears, is concerned that operators of nearby vessels will not know how to react.
“Operators may know what it’s capable of,” he said. “Not so much the general public.”
But Pruitt, who along with the other certified instructors, is trained in CPR and first aid, said: “I feel like it’s extremely safe as long as the person is respectful of the power underneath their feet.”
Thrill-seekers like 39-year-old Cornelius resident Nate Davis, who runs LKNfun.com, admit danger is part of the attraction.
“It’s that adrenaline, for sure,” he said after trying out the Flyboard. “It’s as unique as I’ve ever seen. Not many water sports allow you to get up and stay there. It’s cool as can be.” Researchers Marion Paynter and Maria David contributed.