It's a Bird! It's a Plane! No, It's Man Who Takes Flight in Jean St. Germain's Aerodium
To fly unfettered as a bird is perhaps man's oldest and most elusive dream. But Jean St. Germain's Aerodium brings people about as close to airborne bliss as they can get. The only thing missing is the sky. A flier inside the 50-foot concrete silo floats effortlessly atop a broad 90-mph jet of air churned by a DC-3 propeller. The sail-like sleeves of a sky diver's balloon suit help keep the flier afloat. "To go up," instructs St. Germain, "you step into the air flow and extend your arms and legs, moving all four limbs slightly. The most important thing is to stay relaxed." When a flier wants to come down, he simply tucks in his arms and legs and descends slowly to the silo's padded base.
These thrills don't come cheap. Visitors to the Aerodium in St. Simon-de-Bagot, 50 miles east of Montreal, pay $4 per minute aloft, plus $3 to rent the suit. But for St. Germain, 45, the real financial reward came when he sold the franchising rights for $1.5 million to former Boston Celtics owner Marvin Kratter. Kratter is opening his version of the Aerodium, called the Flyaway, in Las Vegas in October and is planning to add up to 100 franchised facilities in the next year.
A former army parachutist, St. Germain owned two parachute schools when he dreamed up the Aerodium as a way for students to practice free-falling. "I decided to do it in 1979," he says. "After 15 days I had the plans in my head." Sixteen months and $450,000 later he had his Aerodium.
St. Germain has been inventive since he was a boy, one of 12 children born to a garage worker in the Quebec village of Upton. He once attached five helium balloons to a neighbor's cat, secured in a harness, and watched it fly away. (It soon landed safely by a parachute attached to its tail.) When he was 16, baby-sitting his infant nephew, he came up with a way to feed babies formula without air: He put a condom in the bottle so it would collapse as the baby sucked. He sold the rights to his invention for $1,000. "Now the same kind of bottle is making millions," he moans. "I should have asked for more."
St. Germain has seen eviction more than once when the rent came due. (He and his wife, Adrienne, have 12 children; they wanted twins "just for fun" but gave up after a dozen tries.) Now he is a self-styled millionaire with 50 inventions to his name. Some are top-secret gadgets he invented for the Canadian armed forces after he served as a "Vandoo" parachute-commando. Among his other inspirations: a safety speed regulator for snowmobiles, a Volkswagen-powered plane called the Raz-Mut that flies at 100 mph, and a switch that turns a car motor off after a 25-mph impact (which was inspired by a fiery car crash St. Germain witnessed). "I'm an imaginator," St. Germain says over a cup of coffee in his only "office," a local restaurant. "It's very easy for me. In the night between 2 and 4 a.m. is the best time. I sleep well, but when I don't, it's because of a flash—it comes like a gift."
Now St. Germain is moving onto his next projects: a museum to display all his inventions and a 27-foot-high concrete pyramid to be used as a "high-frequency meditation chamber. In the pyramid," assures St. Germain, "it won't be the body that flies, it will be the spirit."