Justin Parrish ’07April 28, 2014
Flies High in the Florida Keys
It’s a bird. It’s a plane…Nope. It’s another customer of Tiki Jet, the company owned by Justin Parrish ’07 that offers a cutting edge kind of airborne adventure. Based in Islamorada, a small town in the Florida Keys about halfway between Miami and Key West, Parrish and Tiki Jet send people into the air in water-powered jetpacks. Hovering above the Atlantic Ocean like a superhero might sound like science fiction, but Parrish is indeed one of only 18 worldwide operations offering the activity that is growing in popularity. Parrish talked to Engage about jetpack technology and what it’s like learning to fly.
Engage: How did you get from Hampden-Sydney to offering jet pack adventures in the Florida Keys?
JP: I graduated in 2007 and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I worked for a local community bank in Virginia, as well as Merrill Lynch, but soon realized that financial services was not for me. One night I was sitting around with a friend and saw a clip on TV of this water-powered jetpack that was just being unveiled. The company that makes them, JetLev, is in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and I just happened to be going down there a week later. One thing led to another and I was eventually given the opportunity to buy one and set up the business on a great property. I have about 30 suits in a closet back home, and I traded them in for a bathing suit and a t-shirt.
Engage: How long does it take to learn how to fly a jet pack above water?
JP: The machines have only been out for about two years. Very few people have done this before, so we teach first timers every day. We take people out on a 30-foot boat, and once we’re in the water we can get people flying the jet pack in about five minutes. Our customers wear helmets with waterproof speakers, so we can talk to them the whole time. We can also control the power output of the jetpack with a remote control. Most first timers get about 15 to 20 feet up in the air, and everyone that tries it has a lot of fun.
Engage: Can you explain how a jetpack works?
JP: There’s a modified pump system that’s sort of like the bottom half of a jet ski. Water is pushed up a 33-foot hose that’s connected to a 28-pound carbon fiber and fiberglass jetpack. The person flying is sitting on a little seat and strapped to a five-point safety harness. It also has control arms used to redirect the direction of the water as it exits the jet pack after it comes through the hose. What actually lifts you up is 1,200 gallons of water a minute coming out of the nozzles. The pump weighs about 1,000 pounds, so it’s not possible to lift it out of the water. That’s basically the anchor—the drag creates roll stability.
You get total range of movement. As long as you’ve got water under you, the jet pack keeps going. The fuel capacity can keep you up for three to four hours. About a year and a half ago, a guy in California flew 26 miles.
Engage: I heard some celebrities have taken notice.
JP: About a year ago Zac Brown and his band came down to the hotel where I operate for about a week. I was hired to help them coordinate some shots for the music video for the song “Jump Right In.” I spent time during the week hanging out with the guys and teaching them how to fly the jetpacks. There are a couple of scenes in the video where the guys are flying and you can see my boat.
About a month ago I got to fly with the actress Charlize Theron, and we’ve also done a couple things with the Travel Channel. Sitting in an office in the banks I knew I was going to see the same six faces every day, but doing this I meet different people every day.
Engage: How does your time at Hampden-Sydney still influence you today?
JP: It’s the sense of how important hard work is when it comes to starting anything. There’s a lot of legwork that goes into starting a business, and my strong work ethic was instilled at Hampden-Sydney. That’s made a really big difference.