Since the first man was born on Earth, we have dreamed of occupying the skies. Today, we are closer than ever to making ourselves a home in the clouds. We’re not talking airships or flying islands, we’re talking wingsuits – the most effective means of human-powered flight man has yet conceived. For every meter dropped in a typical wingsuit, a wingsuit pilot can gain 2.5 meters moving forward. Unlike other non-mechanical modes of flight, wingsuits are agile. Try pulling a barrel roll in a hang glider. You can’t. Nobody can. Read below to learn about the brave aviation pioneers who made wingsuits possible.
Yuan Huangtou (559 AD)
Gao Yang, the first emperor of the Chinese dynasty Northern Qi, was a hawkish and cruel emperor. To punish prisoners captured during battle, he would force the men to the top of the Tower of the Golden Phoenix, strap them into bamboo mats and push them over the edge, where they would flutter clumsily like fallen Ginkgo biloba leaves and smash to their deaths. According to an 11th century Chinese history book, one prisoner wasn’t so cooperative. Yuan Hangtou, a prince of Eastern Wei, was tied to a paper kite shaped like an owl. Instead of plummet, he flew, as far as the Purple Way, in fact, a road 2.5 km northwest of the tower. He touched down safe and sound. Unfortunately, he was then caught and executed.
Abbas Ibn Firnas (810 – 887 AD)
During the 9th century, Muslim Andalusian genius Abbas Ibn Firnas was the coolest guy in the Emirate of Cordoba. He designed adjustable star charts, wrote poems and played music, invented corrective lenses called “reading stones,” and once covered himself in vulture feathers and threw himself off a building, flapping homemade wings as he fell several stories to the Spanish Earth. The attempt is recorded in a 9th century poem written by court poet Mu’min ibn Said, and today it is memorialized on dark side of the Moon, where a lunar impact crater is named in his honor.
Eilmer of Malmesbury (First half of the 11th century AD)
Little is known of Eilmer of Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk whose sole claim to fame is a moderately successful attempt at man-powered flight some time during the early 11th century. According to Deeds of the English Kings, a book of history written in 1125 by a monk from Eilmer’s same abbey, Eilmer was long inspired by the Greek myth of Daedalus, a skilled craftsman who fashioned wings for his son Icarus. As the myth goes, Icarus defied his father’s orders, foolishly flying the wings above their maximum recommended altitude, where they are irradiated and destroyed, sending him crashing into the sea. Eilmer’s attempt at flight was similarly reckless, though not quite as disastrous. According to the history book, Eilmer attached rudimentary wings to his hands and feet and jumped from the abbey tower, flying more than a furlong — an impressive 201 meters. The tale continues: “But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after.” Eilmer’s explanation for the crash landing? He blamed his crippled fate on failing to craft a tail.
Otto Lilienthal (1848 – 1896 AD)
We’ve called Otto Lilienthal the father of the wingsuit before, and many consider him the father of modern flight. In his time, he was known as “The Glider King,” amassing a fleet of gliders inspired by storks that he constructed of wire, wax and cloth. Lilienthal was so dedicated to his craft that he built a 49-foot-tall artificial hill outside his home in Prussia, where he would throw himself into the air and, usually, glide back down to Earth. After more than 2,000 flight attempts, his most successful glide was measured at more than 1,000 feet. In 1896, the dream came crashing down. Sailing through the sky more than 50 feet above the ground, Lilienthal’s glider hit an “eddy” and stalled. According to witness reports, Lilienthal swung his body in an attempt to point the glider’s nose to the sky, but gravity prevailed, pulling him to the Earth where he crashed down and fractured his spine. The pioneer of the sky died the next day at a Berlin hospital. Less than 10 years later, the Wright Brothers succeeded in making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. They cite Lilienthal’s inventions and efforts as their main inspiration.
Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912 AD)
Mr. Reichelt probably had the most impressive mustache of all men mentioned here. He also might be the most daring Adrenalist in the history of aviation — or at least attempted aviation. A talented tailor, Reichelt was one of a number of craftsmen attempting to invent a safe means of escaping a disabled aircraft. He was a parachute pioneer. But his invention, a suit woven of silk, rubber and rods, rarely provided his test dummies a safe landing. He attributed the failure to a lack of elevation. His fifth story apartment window, where he conducted his experiments, was too low to the ground to provide sufficient time to allow the ‘chute to open. Or so he believed. He petitioned the city for authorization to drop a dummy from the Eiffel Tower. After a year, in February 1912, he received that permission. But instead of wrapping a dummy into his cloak-chute, he surprised the authorities and crowd amassed below by wearing the death robe himself. The jump was filmed. His impact crater was measured at 5.9 inches deep.