WHITEFISH LAKE – It’s a warm summer day, one of the first to hit the 80-degree mark since school let out, and all of the children at the jam-packed City Beach are staring at the man who is flying.
TJ Andrews is perhaps 50 feet in the air, spinning in tight circles and diving into the lake from great heights. But it’s the double backflips that really get the crowd cheering, as the water-jet-propelled board on his feet sprays in quick, tight circles with each rotation.
Another dive in and Andrews is then hovering only a few dozen feet off the surface of the water. People on nearby boats, Jet Skis, paddleboards, and the beach continue to clap.
He’s only getting started.
“You ready to have some fun?” Andrews yells, before launching into a succession of tricks with ease and grace, proving his abilities as one of the top Flyboarders in the world.
Since it was created by French Jet Ski champion Frank Zapata several years ago, the Flyboard has become another essential must-try for outdoor enthusiasts who also appreciate a solid adrenaline rush.
But for Justin Heyne of Flyboard of Montana, the invention has represented the opportunity not only to start a thriving business, but also help build a champion-level athlete.
“We were definitely one of the first people anywhere to get (Flyboards) going,” Heyne said while piloting his pontoon boat on Whitefish Lake. “It’s been good so far.”
The premise of the device is simple: Strapped to the rider’s feet, the Flyboard is connected to the output of a jet ski. So instead of using the force to propel the Jet Ski forward, it is rerouted via a U-shaped pipe and into a hose that runs along the bottom of the ski. The hose connects to an eyelet on the front of the Jet Ski, and the force is directed to two nozzles underneath the rider’s feet.
Foot movements provide the rider with directional control, while the Jet Ski’s motor provides the actual umph needed to propel the rider into the air.
This is the fourth summer Heyne’s business will send locals and tourists flying in the air above the lake, and the bustling enterprise has a few new tricks up its sleeve this year.
Along with new helmets outfitted with speakers so the flyers can hear the instructors below, Flyboard of Montana now has three new employees and a brand-new Jet Ski.
The Flyboard is one option for riders, and Heyne is looking to add a couple more. Already, riders can choose the jetpack version, but soon they will be able to select the Jetovator, a bike that uses the same waterpower to fly across the lake.
Heyne is also particularly thrilled to soon be able to offer the Freedom Flyer, another invention from Jetovator that allows people with disabilities to fly in a seated position.
“It’s designed for veterans and (people with disabilities) in mind,” Heyne said.
It didn’t take long for an invention allowing humans to shoot into the air with speed and power to become the basis for competition. In 2012, 50 professionals from 21 countries competed in the first-ever Flyboard World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
Last December, Andrews and Heyne went overseas to the 2015 X Dubai Flyboard World Cup event, and Andrews emerged as the 37th best pro flyboarder in the world, according to the event’s results.
Heyne believes Andrews could have taken a better rank, but at this event and at the Hydro Fest in Las Vegas, Andrews managed to perform his tricks with such power that he rolled his Jet Ski, thus disqualifying his run.
“They call him ‘ski killer,’” Heyne said of Andrews.
In competition, Andrews doesn’t have a driver for his Jet Ski, instead controlling its power through a remote. And he operates at a higher level: a regular hose is 18 meters long, but Andrews uses one that is 23 meters long, allowing for 18 extra feet of height possibilities.
The new Jet Ski at Flyboard of Montana also adds an extra boost. The normal ski used for clients runs at 155 horsepower, while the new Sea-Doo RXT 260 clocks in at 260 horsepower, opening up new possibilities for tricks.
Heyne is also looking at new possibilities, with a potential expansion to the Caribbean in the works, as well as the success of his similar operations in Minnesota and North Dakota.
He’s a natural on the Flyboard too. Last week at Whitefish Lake, he took a turn to ward off the summer heat. While maybe 20 feet in the air, a trick started to go wrong, and Heyne turned it into an awkward dive.
Instead of being upset about a mistake, though, Heyne is all smiles and whoops and showing the “rock on” symbol with his hands as the jets propel him back into the air.
“It’s still so fun,” Heyne said from the water.
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