ByEmily Haase, writer at

We’ve already been through this. Flying is a very common power for superheroes, and we’ve talked about organic flight. Now, we’re going a little more nuts and bolts-esque. We’re talking about flight that requires mechanical exertion. Essentially, mechanical suits.

Superheroes and villains who have flight also, unsurprisingly, tend to be the genius types of the universe. They tend to build their own things, or closely know the person who built it for them. They win (or lose, but regardless, they are major players) because of their superior technology.

Today, we’ll focus on two very popular ones, and you can probably already guess one without me telling you.

Iron Man and Ultron.

Arguably one of the most popular Marvel characters of all the time, Iron Man was introduced in Tales of Suspense #39 in 1963. The creation of the infamous Iron Man suit was instigated when he was taken by revolutionaries and imprisoned after a piece of shrapnel had gotten embedded near his heart. Teaming up with his cellmate, Yinsen, Tony Stark made the Iron Man suit (fitted with a magnet to keep the shrapnel from going into his heart). The suit has a wide range of capabilities. We’re focusing on the capabilities of flight, but it also has repulsor rays, energy-based attacks, pulse bolts, sonic generators, missiles, lasers, and particle beams.

In contrast, Ultron has recently gained mainstream popularity after the most recent Avengers movie. He was featured in his first comic in July 1968. In contrast to the movies, Hank Pym (as in Pym Particles, as in Ant-Man dude) created Ultron during his time as an Avenger. Ultron’s AI, however, quickly took over Pym and he fled from his creator. He was capable of upgrading himself, and each iteration has another suffix (Ultron-1, -2, -3, etc). While he is capable of flight via rocket boosters, he has a long list of other powers: superspeed, superstrength, incredible durability, and every sort of energy weapon you can imagine.

These guys fly similar to rockets, but how do rockets work? Basically, by pushing down on the ground really, really hard. Newton’s third law states that if you exert a force on an object, the object will push an equal and opposite direction back at you. So, by conducting a force in the opposite direction you want to go, you’ll move. Now, you can probably see why rockets work better in space – if you’re pushing on the ground, there’s also a little opposing force called gravity trying to keep you there. Not an issue in space. Of course, not all rockets are the space kind – they can be weaponized, too, but we’re focusing mostly on flight, here.

Now, what would a superhero mostly be concerned with in flight? Probably not safety or integrity, but speed. So, fastest rocket?

The X-15. Its first flight was in 1959, and as of 2015, it still has the fastest record for manned, rocket-powered aircraft. There were only 3 ever made, and they were retired in 1968.

Its maximum speed topped out at 4,520 miles per hour, or Mach 6.72. Mach is basically just the speed compared to the speed of sound. Mach 1 means it’s moving the speed of sound, mach 2 is twice, etc. Which means that the X-15 is going 6.72 times the speed of sound through air, which is mind-boggling to think about.

Now, what powers it?

They had different engines at different times, albeit they were all rockets. Earlier engines used ethyl alcohol and liquid oxygen (both really good at combusting). Later, they would use anhydrous ammonia and more liquid hydrogen. It had the capability of burning through 15,000 pounds in 80 seconds.

But let’s think a little smaller than a rocket. We’re not Batman in his weird Batflyerthing.

What about jetpacks?

The most impressive thing on the market at the moment is the Martin Jetpack. While not technically rocket powered (it’s gas and fans), it’s still incredibly impressive. It’s more similar to a powerful helicopter.

Right now, it’s only available to the military and emergency for $150,000 a pop. They’re planning on a public release on 2017. At the moment, it can go up to 74 km/hr (46 mph), up to 1,000 feet, for a little more than thirty minutes.

The Martin jetpack has been in development since the 1980s, and it’s only been since 2013 that the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority gave the go-ahead for manned test flights. 46 mph isn’t incredibly fast and 1,000 feet is shorter than some of the buildings in New York City. But, it’s an incredibly cool thing and the first practical jetpack in history. It’s almost surreal – jetpacks have appeared so frequently in science fiction and now, engineers and architects are actually having them built.

That’s cool – very cool – but let’s go into the actual armor of it all. Both Ultron and Iron Man have a suit of sorts (nevermind that Ultron is the suit). Where’s that?

Meet TALOS. TALOS, or Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, has only been in development since 2013. It was initially commissioned by the federal government, but they’ve brought in others (most notably, SOCOM). All in all, it’s 56 corporations, 16 agencies, 13 schools, and 10 labs.

Especially interesting, SOCOM is holding a ‘Monster Garage’ event to encourage unaffiliated people to develop more components for the suit.

Their first objective is keeping soldiers safe, but they have several very specific ideas in mind for it.

A large part of the suit’s job is to distribute weight evenly. A soldier carrying more than 100 pounds of equipment will suffer from joint and exhaustion after just a little while, but the suit would balance that more efficiently.

Another part is wound healing. There’s going to be a 360 degree camera imbedded, injury sensors that can apply a sealing foam, and a bulletproof exoskeleton.

Development is currently being done and they expect to have an actual product by August 2018, currently being in phase two. Like the rest, it’s not exactly Iron Man – but it’s absolutely amazing to see how advanced technology is getting. Science fiction is getting less and less of a foreign factor. It’s not longer ‘but how?’. It’s ‘but when?’


Mech flight is a genius superpower, the men and women who are just brainy enough to design a fully functioning flight system. Like Iron Man. Now, technically Ultron didn’t create himself, but he was sure smart enough to upgrade and improve on his abilities.

We’ve seen how this flight is reflected in the real world, from the fastest rocket since 1959, to the first commercial jetpack, to a fully functional exoskeleton/suit for the military. You’re browsing the Internet at the moment; you already know that technology is expanding fast. But sometimes it’s hard to rationalize that until you see how fast it’s expanding by what we’re building. And when you see an exoskeleton that applies a wound-sealing foam or a jetpack that can fly up 1000 feet, you get a general idea.

Further Reading

Iron Man:
Marvel History,
Visual History, Variant Comics

Marvel History,
Visual History, Variant Comics

How do Rockets Work?, scientificamerican
What’s a Mach?, UniverseToday
X-15 History, airspacemag
Technical History, aerotime

Martin Jetpack, martinjetpack
World’s First Consumer Jetpack, dailymail
Jetpack Article, theguardian

Step Closer to ‘Iron Man’ suit, defensesystems
SOCOM’s Iron Man Suit, military
Special Operations Develops ‘Iron Man’ suit, US DoD


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