Wingsuit flying (or wingsuiting) is the sport of flying through the air using a wingsuit, which adds surface area to the human body to enable a significant increase in lift. The modern wingsuit, first developed in the late 1990s, creates a surface area with fabric between the legs and under the arms. Wingsuits are sometimes referred to as "birdman suits" (after the makers of the first commercially available wingsuit), "flying squirrel suits" (due to their resemblance to the animal), and "bat suits" (due to their vague resemblance to the animal or perhaps the superhero).
A wingsuit flight normally ends by deploying a parachute, and so a wingsuit can be safely 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 specially designed for skydiving or BASE jumping. While the parachute flight is normal, the canopy pilot typically unzips arm wings (after deployment) to be able to reach the steering parachute toggles and control the descent path.
- 1 History
- 2 Commercial era
- 3 Technical mechanics
- 4 Further developments
- 5 Training
- 6 Records
- 7 Deaths and serious injuries
- 8 In popular culture
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
An early attempt at wingsuit flying was made on 4 February 1912 by a 33-year-old tailor, Franz Reichelt, who jumped from the Eiffel Tower to test his invention of a combination of parachute and wing, which was similar to modern wingsuits. He misled the guards by saying that the experiment was going to be conducted with a dummy. He hesitated quite a long time before he jumped, and hit the ground head first, opening a measurable hole in the frozen ground, but an autopsy showed that he died of a heart attack before hitting the pavement. A film of his attempt exists.
A wingsuit was first used in 1930 by a 19-year-old American, Rex Finney, of Los Angeles, California, as an attempt to increase horizontal movement and maneuverability during a parachute jump. These early wingsuits were made of materials such as canvas, wood, silk, steel, and whalebone. They were not very reliable, although some "birdmen", notably Clem Sohn and Leo Valentin, claimed to have glided for miles.
In the mid-1990s, the modern wingsuit was developed by Patrick de Gayardon of France, adapted from the model used by John Carta. In 1997, the Bulgarian Sammy Popov designed and built a wingsuit which had a larger wing between the legs and longer wings on the arms. His prototype was developed at Boulder City, Nevada. Testing was conducted in a vertical wind tunnel in Las Vegas at Flyaway Las Vegas. Popov's wingsuit first flew in October 1998 over Jean, Nevada, but it never went into commercial production. Popov's design was a great improvement in creating lift; it was able to slow the vertical speed to 30 km/h while gliding horizontally at speeds over 300 km/h. In 1998, Chuck "Da Kine" Raggs built a version which incorporated hard ribs inside the wing airfoils. Although these more rigid wings were better able to keep their shape in flight, this made the wingsuit heavier and more difficult to fly. Raggs' design also never went into commercial production. Flying together for the first time, Popov and Raggs showcased their designs side-by-side at the World Free-fall Convention at Quincy, Illinois, in August 1999. Both designs performed well. At the same event, multiple-formation wingsuit skydives were made which included de Gayardon's, Popov's, and Raggs' suits.
In 1999, Jari Kuosma of Finland and Robert Pečnik of Slovenia teamed up to create a wingsuit that was safe and accessible to 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.
Despite the training and regulation, wingsuit BASE jumping remains a precarious pastime. A 2012 University of Colorado study found that for Wingsuit BASE jumping (WiSBASE) there were approximately 2 severe injuries per 1000 jumps, or with jumpers having an average of 1 severe injury for every 500 jumps they undertake.
The wingsuit flier enters free fall 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 spreads his legs and arms at the proper time so as not to hit the aircraft or become unstable. The wingsuit immediately starts 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 then converts to lift.
At a planned altitude above the ground in which a skydiver or BASE jumper typically deploys the parachute, wingsuit fliers will also deploy their parachutes. The parachute is 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 2.5:1 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, fliers can alter both their forward speed and fall rate. The pilot manipulates these flight characteristics by changing the shape of the torso, de-arching and rolling 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 free fall computers that record the amount of time they were in flight, the altitude they deployed their parachute, and the altitude they entered free fall. 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 180–225 km/h (110 to 140 mph). A wingsuit can reduce these speeds dramatically. A vertical instantaneous velocity of 40 km/h (25 mph) has been recorded. However the speed at which the body advances forward through the air is still much higher (up to 100 km/h [60 mph]).
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 wingpack, which consists of a strap-on rigid wing made of 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.
On 31 July 2003 the Austrian Felix Baumgartner, jumping from 9 kilometres (30,000 ft), successfully crossed the English Channel in 14 minutes using a wingpack, having covered over 35 kilometres (22 mi).
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. Loic Jean-Albert of France is generally considered one of the first proximity flyers; his pioneering flying brought many BASE jumpers into the sport. In November 2012, Alexander Polli became the first WiSBASE jumper to successfully strike a wingsuit target. This target was made of foam and around 3 m (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, 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 160 N (16 kgf, 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. Parviainen continued jumping from hot air balloons and helicopters, including one for the Stunt Junkies program on Discovery Channel.
Christian Stadler 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 1000 Newtons (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 255 km/h (160 mph).
Using a powered wingpack, Yves Rossy became the first person to attain the maneuverability and flight distances of an aircraft, moving only his body for steering; his experimental wingpack, however, is not commercially viable because the required construction materials are prohibitively expensive. He took an eight-minute flight over the Swiss Alps.
Flying a wingsuit adds considerable complexity to a skydive. According to the Skydivers' Information Manual, the United States Parachute Association (USPA) requires that any jumper flying a wingsuit for the first time have either a minimum of 200 free fall skydives made within the past 18 months and receive one-on-one instruction from an experienced wingsuit jumper, or have 500 jumps experience to attempt to fly a wingsuit without an instructor. Requirements in other nations are similar. Wingsuit manufacturers offer training courses and certify instructors, and also impose the minimum jump numbers required before purchasing a wingsuit.
Wingsuit formation records
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale has not established judging criteria for official world record wingsuit formations. However, several national organizations have established record categories and criteria for judging whether or not a wingsuit formation is complete.
- Officially recognized
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 global record was a diamond formation involving 100 jumpers at Perris, California, on 22 September 2012. While not meeting the criteria for a US National Record, it was certified as a Guinness World Record.
Wingsuit BASE jump records
On 8 June 2006, the Australian couple Heather Swan and Glenn Singleman jumped from 6,640 metres (21,780 ft) off Meru Peak in India, setting a world record for highest Wisbase jump. This record was broken on 5 May 2013, by the Russian Valery Rozov, who jumped from 7,220 metres (23,690 ft) on Mount Everest's North Col.
The longest verified WiSBASE jump is 7.5 kilometres (4.7 mi) by the American Dean Potter on 2 November 2011. Potter jumped from the Eiger mountain and spent 3 minutes and 20 seconds in flight, descending 2,800 metres (9,200 ft) of altitude.
Wingsuit flight records
- Longest time and highest altitude
- Longest time: The longest (duration) wingsuit flight was nine minutes, six seconds
- Highest: The highest altitude wingsuit jump was 11,358 m (37,265 ft)
A month later, on 23 May 2012, British stuntman Gary Connery safely landed a wingsuit without deploying his parachute, landing on a crushable "runway" (landing zone) built with thousands of cardboard boxes.
Three days later, on 26 May 2012, the 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 flights taking place above Yolo County, California, USA.
Deaths and serious injuries
- On 16 September 1963, Stunt parachutist Gerard Masselin jumped from a biplane showing his wingsuit to the camera and was killed after his parachute failed to open.
- On 31 October 1997, French skydiver Gayardon held a press conference showing off a wingsuit with allegedly unparalleled record of safety and performance. He died on 13 April 1998 while testing a new modification to his parachute container in Hawaii; his death was attributed to a rigging error that was part of the new modification, rather than to a flaw in the suit's design.
- On 5 October 2003, Dwain Weston, an Australian skydiver and holder of the 2002 BASE-jumping world title, died after hitting a railing on the Royal Gorge Bridge near Cañon City, Colorado.
- In April 2010 Geoffrey Robson died during a wingsuit BASE jump from Stellenbosch, South Africa. He was a PhD candidate at ETH Zürich working on the mathematical modelling of the aerodynamic characteristics of wingsuits. He was described by a former professor as "very careful [, taking] the sport seriously".
- In 2011 ten people died in WiSBASE accidents.
- On 16 January 2012, Jeb Corliss was severely injured when his legs hit a ledge on Table Mountain, Cape Town.
- On 23 June 2012 Hervé le Gallou, who was joint-first person (along with Dave McDonnell) to jump from the Burj Khalifa, died wingsuiting in Grande Tête de l'Obiou in the French Alps.
- On 14 August 2013, Mark Sutton, a British stuntman who had parachuted into the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony as a James Bond character, was killed when he hit a ridge while wingsuit BASE-jumping near Martigny, Switzerland. He was participating in an event sponsored by Epic TV, and a wingsuit expert stated that he appeared to have miscalculated the gradient of the ground he was flying over.
- On 23 August 2013, Álvaro Bultó, a Spanish wingsuiter, died after a wingsuit BASE-jump in Switzerland. 
- On 8 October 2013, Hungarian Viktor Kováts died in rural China during a trial flight for the world BASE-jump championships.
- On 29 March 2014, three experienced wingsuit flyers: New Zealander Dan Vicary (33), Frenchman Ludovic Woerth (34), and American Brian Drake (33), jumped from a helicopter over the Lütschental area near Bern, Switzerland. They had planned to land in the valley, but took a wrong turn, flew over the wrong ridge, and crashed into an Alpine pasture. Vicary and Woerth were found dead; Drake died four days later in a hospital.
- On 6 June 2014, Darío Barrio, a famous Spanish TV Chef, owner of the Madrid restaurant Dassa Bassa and an experienced wingsuiter, died in an accident while participating in the International Air Festival at Segura de la Sierra in Jaén, a province in southern Spain. Darío, aged 42, was supposed to fly over an old castle but, for unknown reasons, crashed into the cliff where the castle is located.
- On 2 September 2014, Alex Duncan, a 26-year-old Australian from Manly, Sydney, died by crashing into a mountain during a jump in the Swiss Alps. He was new to the international wingsuit scene but had been involved with extreme sports since he was a teenager.
- On 14 January 2015, Josh Sheppard, a 31-year-old experienced wingsuiter and skydiver with more than 3,000 jumps, died after jumping from a Michigan TV tower after his parachute failed to open.
- On 16 May 2015 Dean Potter, 43, and Graham Hunt, 29, died from impact during a wingsuit flight from Taft Point, in Yosemite National Park. 
- On July 3, 2015, Jhonathan "The Birdman" Florez, a 2013 wingsuiting world champion, died after falling from the exit point in Engelberg, Switzerland.
- On 10 July 2015, Damian Hrdlicka died while wingsuit flying in Switzerland, it is believed he struck a tree while flying off Gitschen Peak. He was a highly experienced skydiver and competed internationally in sky surfing competitions. He had 155 BASE jumps 120 of which were wingsuit.
In popular culture
Wingsuits were showcased in the 1969 movie, The Gypsy Moths, starring Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman. In Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, a 2003 movie, the character, Lara Croft, evades a group of henchmen by BASE jumping off of a partially finished skyscraper. The stunt was performed by the two men who developed the suits. No CGI, wires, nets, or other special effects were used. In William Gibson's book Spook Country one of the characters is injured when BASE jumping of Burj Kalifa tower in Dubai while wearing a wing suit.
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