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Wingsuit flying is the sport of flying the human body through the air using a special jumpsuit, called a wingsuit, which adds surface area to the human body to enable a significant increase in lift. Modern wingsuits, first developed in the late 1990s, create the surface area with fabric between the legs and under the arms. Wingsuits are sometimes referred to as a birdman suit (after the makers of the first commercially available wingsuit), flying squirrel suit (due to their resemblance to the animal. Squirrel is now the name of a commercial wingsuit manufacturer), or bat suit (due to their vague resemblance to the animal or perhaps the superhero).
A wingsuit flight normally ends with a parachute opening. So a wingsuit can safely be flown from any point that provides sufficient altitude for flight and parachute deployment (normally a skydiving drop aircraft or BASE jump exit point).
The wingsuit flier wears parachute equipment designed for skydiving or BASE jumping. The parachute flight is normal but for the extra step of the canopy pilot unzipping their arm wings to allow full arm mobility necessary for safe canopy flight.
Wings were first used by 19 year old Rex G. Finney of Los Angeles, CA in 1930 as an attempt to increase horizontal movement and maneuverability. These early wingsuits were made of materials such as canvas, wood, silk, steel, and even whale bone. They were not very reliable. Some "birdmen", notably Clem Sohn and Leo Valentin, claimed to have glided for miles. The wingsuit was showcased in the 1969 movie The Gypsy Moths starring Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman.
On 31 October 1997, French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon showed reporters a wingsuit with allegedly unparalleled safety and performance. De Gayardon died on 13 April 1998 while testing a new modification to his parachute container in Hawaii; his death is attributed to a rigging error that was part of the new modification rather than a flaw in the suit's design.
In 1999, Jari Kuosma of Finland and Robert Pečnik of Croatia teamed up to create a wingsuit that was safe and accessible for all skydivers. Kuosma established Bird-Man International Ltd. the same year. BirdMan's "Classic", designed by Pečnik, was the first wingsuit offered to the general skydiving public. BirdMan was the first manufacturer to advocate the safe use of wingsuits by creating an instructor program. Created by Kuosma, the instructor program's aim was to remove the stigma that wingsuits were dangerous and to provide wingsuit beginners (generally, skydivers with a minimum of 200 jumps) with a way to safely enjoy what was once considered the most dangerous feat in the skydiving world. With the help of Birdman instructors Scott Campos, Chuck Blue and Kim Griffin, a standardized program of instruction was developed that prepared instructors. Phoenix-Fly, Fly Your Body, and Nitro Rigging have also instituted an instructor training program.
The wingsuit flier enters freefall wearing both a wingsuit and parachute equipment. Exiting an aircraft in a wingsuit requires skilled techniques that differ depending on the location and size of the aircraft door. These techniques include the orientation relative to the aircraft and the airflow while exiting, and the way in which the flier will spread his legs and arms at the proper time so as not to hit the aircraft or become unstable in the relative wind. The wingsuit will immediately start to fly upon exiting the aircraft in the relative wind generated by the forward speed of the aircraft. Exiting from a BASE jumping site, such as a cliff, or exiting from a helicopter, a paraglider, or a hot air balloon, is fundamentally different from exiting a moving aircraft, as the initial airspeed upon exit is absent. In these situations, a vertical drop using the forces of gravity to accelerate is required to generate the airspeed that the wingsuit can then convert to lift.
At a planned altitude above the ground in which a skydiver or BASE jumper would typically deploy his parachute, a wingsuit flier will deploy his parachute. The parachute will be flown to a controlled landing at the desired landing spot using typical skydiving or BASE jumping techniques.
A wingsuit modifies the body area exposed to wind to increase the desired amount of lift with respect to drag generated by the body. An attainable glide ratio of some wingsuits is 2.5 or more. This means that for every meter dropped, two and a half meters are gained moving forward. This ratio can be referred to as flight efficiency. With body shape manipulation and by choosing the design characteristics of the wingsuit, a flier can alter both his forward speed and fall rate. The pilot manipulates these flight characteristics by changing the shape of his torso, de-arching and/or rolling of the shoulders and moving hips and knees, and by changing the angle of attack in which the wingsuit flies in the relative wind, and by the amount of tension applied to the fabric wings of the suit. The absence of a vertical stabilizing surface results in little damping around the yaw axis, so poor flying technique can result in a spin that requires active effort on the part of the skydiver to stop.
Wingsuit fliers can measure their performance relative to their goals with the use of freefall computers that record the amount of time they were in flight, the altitude they deployed their parachute, and the altitude they entered freefall. The fall rate speed can be calculated from this data and compared to previous flights. GPS receivers can also be used to plot and record the flight path of the suit, and when analyzed can indicate the amount of distance flown during the flight. BASE jumpers can use landmarks on exit points, along with recorded video of their flight by ground crews, to determine their performance relative to previous flights and the flights of other BASE jumpers at the same site.
A typical skydiver's terminal velocity in belly to earth orientation ranges from 110 to 140 mph (180–225 km/h). A wingsuit can reduce these speeds dramatically. A vertical instantaneous velocity of −25 mph (−40 km/h) has been recorded. However the speed at which the body advances forward through the air is still much higher.
The tri-wing wingsuit has three individual ram-air wings attached under the arms and between the legs. The mono-wing wingsuit design incorporates the whole suit into one large wing.
Another variation on which studies are being focused is the so-called wingpack, which consists of a strap-on rigid wing in carbon fibre. It is a mix between a hang-glider and a wingsuit. The wingpack can reach a glide ratio of 6 and permits transportation of oxygen bottles and other material.
Since 2003 many BASE jumpers have started using wingsuits, giving birth to WiSBASE.
One technique is proximity flying, which is flying close to the faces and ridges of mountains. Ten people died WiSBASE jumping in 2011. On 1 July 2011 near Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, Jeb Corliss became the first man to fly through a waterfall wearing a wingsuit Apache. In 1999, Corliss had a near-fatal BASE jump into a waterfall where the chute opening went asymmetric and he could not avoid flying into Howick Falls, South Africa. On 16 January 2012, he was severely injured when he hit a ledge with his legs on Table Mountain, Cape Town.
In November 2012, Alexander Polli became the first WiSBASE jumper to successfully strike a wingsuit target. This target was made of foam and around 10 ft tall.
As of 2010, there have been experimental powered wingsuits, often using small jet engines strapped to the feet or a wingpack setup to allow for even greater horizontal speeds and even vertical ascent.
On 25 October 2005 in Lahti in Finland, Visa Parviainen jumped from a hot air balloon in a wingsuit with two small turbojet engines attached to his feet. The engines provided approximately 16 kgf (160 N, 35 lbf) of thrust each and ran on (JET A-1) fuel. Parviainen achieved approximately 30 seconds of horizontal flight with no noticeable loss of altitude. On August 2011 Parviainen performed a flight in Finland, jumping from a hot air balloon.
Christian Stadler (Birdman Chief Instructor) from Germany organized the first international wingsuit competition to feature a monetary prize in 2005, called "SkyJester's Wings over Marl". His "VegaV3 wingsuit system" uses an electronic adjustable hydrogen peroxide rocket. The rocket provides 100 kgf of thrust, and produces no flames or poisonous fumes. His first successful powered wingsuit jump was in 2007, when he reached horizontal speeds of over 160 mph.
Using a powered wingpack, Yves Rossy became the first person to attain the maneuverability of an aircraft, moving only his body for steering; his experimental wingpack, however, is not commercially viable because the materials required in construction are cost-prohibitive. He took an eight-minute flight over the Swiss Alps.
Flying a wingsuit adds considerable complexity to a skydive. The United States Parachute Association (USPA) requires in the Skydivers Information Manual that any jumper flying a wingsuit for the first time have a minimum of 200 freefall skydives, made within the past 18 months, and receive one-on-one instruction from an experienced wing suit jumper, or 500 jumps experience to go without an instructor. Requirements in other nations are similar. Wingsuit manufacturers offer training courses and certify instructors, and also impose minimum jump number requirements in order to purchase a wingsuit.
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale has not established judging criteria for official world record wingsuit formations. However, several national organizations have established record categories and have established criteria for judging whether or not a wingsuit formation is complete.
The largest wingsuit formation officially recognized as meeting the criteria for a national record consisted of 68 jumpers in an arrowhead formation which set a US National Record at Lake Elsinore, California, on 12 November 2009.
The largest unofficial record was a diamond formation involving 100 jumpers at Perris, California, on September 22, 2012.
The longest verified WiSBASE jump is 7.5 km (4.6 mi) by Dean Potter on 2 November 2011. Potter jumped from Eiger and had spent 3 minutes and 20 seconds in flight, covering 9,200 ft (2.8 km) of altitude.
The longest (duration) wingsuit flight – 9 minutes 6 seconds
The highest altitude wingsuit jump – 11,358 m (37,265 ft)
On 26 May 2012, Japanese wingsuit pilot Shin Ito achieved two new world records: "greatest horizontal distance flown in a wing suit" [26.9 km (16.7 mi)] and "greatest absolute distance flown in a wing suit" [28.707 km (17.838 mi)], both of which were above Yolo County, California, USA.
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