★ wingsuit flying
By Phil Maranda
Photos: James Boole, Scott burns
Lara Croft and her sidekick made it look easy in the movie Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, as they leapt from
an unfinished skyscraper, then sprouted wings and glided through the air to land ever so gently on the deck of
a moving ship. But make no mistake, UMM’ers, wingsuit flying is one, if not the most, technically extreme offshoots
of skydiving around…. And although it’s the closest us earth-bound bipedals will ever get to soaring like a bird,
there’s much more to this sport than just jumping off a building or out of a perfectly good airplane.
for some time—
is, from back
in the 1930’s—although successful wingsuit
flying has only been with us
for the past few decades,
ever since the technology
reached a non-suicidal level.
Up until then, most people
who were brave enough to
strap on the primitive wings,
which were in some cases
made of funky materials
such as steel or whalebone,
didn’t live to tell the tale.
Eventually, the sport did glean a certain
amount of safety out of an innovative new
suit design. Fashioned by a French skydiver
named Patrick de Gayardon, the new suit
was lauded as the optimum in performance
and safety. The curse of the birdmen was not
stymied with Gayardon, however; he would
die in Hawaii eight years later due to a rigging
accident. But despite the continuing peril
involved with wingsuit flying, there was an
ever-increasing number of adventurers lining
up to give it the old college try.
“It’s a bit like racing down a mountain with
an open anorak on a bike or skis,” said Ueli
Gegenschatz, of the thrill of wingsuit flying.
Gegenschatz is a Swiss birdman well known
for his wingsuit-flying stunts. “Parachuters
have a similar feeling, except that you can
steer which direction you fly with the wings.”
In the later part of our last millennium,
enthusiasts of the sport began collaborating
on wingsuit designs, striving to make safer
equipment. Two such men from Europe,
Robert Pecnik and Jari Kuosma, formed
a company, BirdMan Inc., with the idea of
making wingsuit flying more functional and
more accessible for skydivers; in fact, their
design was the first wingsuit available to
the general public. They then went on to
introduce an instructor program, created
by Kuosma, with the intentions of providing
beginners with a safe way to experience
the sport. Their efforts paved the way for
future instructor programs and companies
that would elevate wingsuit flying into the
forefront of modern-day skydiving.
In more recent years, with highly efficient
suits and much safer equipment, enthusiasts
began to push the envelope of flying, even
adding small jet engines into the mix. On
October 25th, 2005, a team strapped a
couple of jets to the feet of Visa Parviainen,
and he rocketed across the sky for a full 30
seconds, without losing a lick of altitude.
The era of level-human flight began and a
number of similar experiments have since
How wingsuit flying works: similar in
design to a ram-air parachute, a wingsuit
is rigged with cross-ventilated cells with
inlets in the front portion of the wings,
which allow air into the wings, subsequently inflating them. This system forms
a rigid, aerodynamic airfoil. The wings’
surface area causes vertical drag, and this
added to the shape of the wings and the
birdman’s body positioning,
“It’s a bit like racing
down a mountain with
an open anorak on a
bike or skis,”
winter 2008 |
★ wingsuit flying
Birdmen descend towards
the ground at a much
slower rate than that of
a skydiver, reaching drop
rates of around 90-100 km/h
rather than the 180-225
km/h reached via their
allows for high-speed flights across the sky.
The high speeds produce lift and reduce fall rates, which translates into a longer glide time.
Birdmen wear both a parachute and a wingsuit in their skydiving adventures and must
learn the proper mechanics for bailing out of an aircraft that is moving at high speeds. They
must have a firm grasp on exit procedures, such as where they’ll be in relation to the aircraft
immediately upon exiting the door and at what moment and in what way they’ll spread their
ms and legs so they won’t hit the aircraft.
Launching from a cliff, as in BASE jumping, or in most other instances where the velocity of
a moving aircraft is absent, requires the use of gravity as an accelerating force that propels the
jumpers towards the earth until just enough airspeed is present to allow the deployment of the
wingsuit-producing lift. Once the glide is coming to an end, due to the proximity of the ground,
birdmen deploy their parachutes in the same fashion as any other skydiver.
Birdmen descend towards the ground at a much slower rate than that of a skydiver, reaching drop rates of around 90-100 km/h rather than the 180-225 km/h reached via their wingless
brothers. They use a combination of body dynamics and wingsuit design to manipulate their
fall rate. By adjusting the shape of their torsos and by changing the angles of the wingsuit
itself, birdmen can adjust their speed and enhance the distance of their horizontal glide.
What does it take to become a high-flyer? I’m glad you asked!
According to the United States Parachuting Association, anyone with the passion to become a
birdman should log at least 200 skydiving-type jumps and be accompanied by an instructor for
their initial wingsuit experience or have at least 500 jumps to go it alone.
With the advent of the safer, highly efficient wingsuits, the tiny jet engines, and the sheer
determination of the birdmen who are now gliding across the skies in locations around the
globe, the sky is no longer the limit of what is possible. The number of wingsuit flyers is
constantly rising, and new glide-time records are being set and then broken and then broken
again. You no longer have to have the chandeliers of Evel Knievel, and life expectancy is way
up, making the sport within the grasp of anyone who enjoys jumping out of that perfectly good
For more information on Wingsuit Flying check out:
www.phoenix-fly.com or www.sky2productions.com
Getting into it…!
Before you can fly with a wingsuit, you’ve got to learn how to skydive. The good news is that
wherever you find a good flight school—and there are dozens of skydiving schools all over North
America and Europe—that offers skydiving courses, there’s also the possibility that you may not
need to look any further for the wingsuit lessons … once you’re ready, of course.
Now for the expense news, which can be a pretty big nut, depending on how you want to go
about participating in the sport. First, you’re going to need the initial training, and that can cost
you upwards of 800 clams, no matter where you are. These courses do include everything you
need, including gear rentals, to get going.
Then, once you’ve passed your beginners’ course, you’ll need to log in roughly 200 jumps at
about $25.00 a piece, assuming you splurge on your own gear at $5000.00+ for new stuff. As
an encore, you’ll then probably want to purchase a brand spanking new wingsuit to begin your
instructions, and that will run another G-note or more. The question is: what kind of a price tag
can you place on airborne freedom…?
126 | winter 2008