Skydiving and BASE-jumping involve plummeting to the earth at terminal velocity; only to let a parachute unfurl in the final moments as the jumper glides safely to the ground, so they can tempt fate again with another jump. Now there’s a new method for traveling through the air, and it’s about as close to flying as we’ve gotten.
A wingsuit, aka Birdman suit or Flying Squirrel suit, is basically just a piece of fabric between the legs and under the arms which creates an airfoil to increase lift while you’re plunging towards the ground. With a wingsuit on, a jumper can increase the distance they travel horizontally by a 2.5: 1 ratio. In optimal conditions, for every meter they drop, they gain 2.5 meters laterally. The aerodynamics involved in the flight can often mean the difference between a man really flying for a short distance, or becoming disoriented and forgetting to get the chute out in time. We’re not Superman just yet, but we’re getting closer.
In 1997, a French skydiver, Patrick de Gayardon, first showed reporters a wingsuit. Unfortunately, he died a year later when new rigging for his parachute failed to open properly during a jump in Hawaii. Tom Begic, a BASE jumper from Australia, used the pictures he saw of Gayardon’s suit, and developed his own. He used the wingsuit to capture video footage of fellow BASEjumpers around his native Australia.
A year after Gayardon’s death, Jari Kuosma of Finland and Robert Pecnik of Croatia teamed up and created the wingsuit incarnation we see today. Except this one was for sale. Kuosma started Bird-man International Ltd, and more importantly, an instructor program, so the blossoming wingsuit community had some cohesion.
Wingsuits aren’t for any thrill-seeker off the street. While you can jump out of a plane and skydive with little to no practice (so long as you’re strapped to an instructor), wingsuits aren’t advisable for anyone that hasn’t solo skydived 200-500 times over the 18 months preceding their first flight. For the experts, the next evolution from a plane jump is a wingsuit off a BASEjump. It’s called WiSBASE, and it doesn’t get any more intense.
When someone’s jumping from a stationary spot, like in WiSBASE, they’re only letting gravity provide the velocity for a wingsuit’s lift. Jumping from a plane or an accelerating helicopter provides enough speed for the wingsuit to be effective the moment they leave the plane. Not so with a BASE-jump. The proximity to cliffs and plateaus below the jumper intensifies the risk of hitting the ground while traveling upwards of 120 mph. A WiSBASE jumper needs to get as far away from the rocks and cliff face as possible, but some desperados aren’t trying to get far away at all.
This next level of WisBASE requires an audacity that in it’s tamest form would be considered reckless. Proximity flying is the practice of deliberately staying close to the rock face and grazing the surface, or as WiSBASER Loic Jean Albert puts it:
“At the beginning of WiSBASE jumping, we were trying to get as far away from the wall as possible, so we could basically clear the whole thing. And now it’s getting boring, so we play around.”
Typically understated. No one “plays around” during WiSBASE jumps quite like Jeb Corliss though. He’s used a wingsuit to fly through a waterfall and his treacherous path down the side of a mountain is almost like running slalom through canyons and valleys—whizzing by trees and rock faces at insane speeds. Corliss is a constant practitioner of proximity flying that’s so close it’s unreal. Just check out this video where he comes near enough to a hill’s peak, the cameraman has to jump out of the way!
There are other, slightly less mad, components you can add to WiSBASE, like this group in Norway, who had been performing Ski BASE-jumping, where they skied off a terminal cliff—one in which you achieve terminal velocity on your way down—then performed a series of flips in the air (like they’re just regular ol’ ski-jumpers), before opening their parachutes. With WiSBASE, these daredevils now ski off the terminal cliff, kick off their skies and wingsuit down farther and longer than they ever did before. It’s just another component of adventure the wingsuit provides.
Wingsuits are now a full-fledged offshoot of skydiving, and they’ve even held an annual Artistic Wingsuit Competition, which just completed its 4th year in Gap, France. There is no end to what wingsuits can do for skydivers. Hopefully flying can assuage their seemingly banal life on the ground. We do know people will keep trying new things, and pushing for the next invention or idea that takes us closer and closer to flying like the wildfowl wingsuit’s emulate.