If you've ever dreamt of soaring through the air like a superhero, you're not alone. Dreams of flying have captivated human imagination since prehistoric times. Even with the advent of aircraft and the increasing availability of air travel, the ancient question stays with us: What if we could simply spread our arms and fly like a bird?
Human flight with wingsuits traces its history back to the 1920s and 1930s, when “bat men” tried to fly using suits made of canvas, whalebone and wood. About 90 people in the early part of the 20th century were documented as having tried to fly, more than 70 died in their attempts to be a ‘flying man’. The materials used were very archaic and didn’t fly well but with construction of the wingsuits becoming safer in the 1990s the popularity and reputation of this extreme sport has gained a momentum that will only gather pace.
Wingsuit flying is a cross between skydiving and hang gliding. Like both of these activities, wingsuit flying requires the flyer to either jump out of an aircraft or off a precipice to achieve a high enough altitude. While hang gliders can coast in for a safe landing, wingsuit flyers have to deploy their parachutes and float the rest of the way to the ground -- they simply can't reduce their speed fast enough for a safe landing without the use of a chute.
In the United States there are less than 10 wingsuit flying academies, Scott and Chris Gray operate one such academy at Skydive Orange,in Virginia. Wingsuit pilots need to have extensive parachuting experience. At The Brothers Gray, people need to have completed at least 200 skydives and hold a current skydiving license to try wingsuit flying. Scott Gray said some people with more than 500 skydives are legally allowed to don a wingsuit and jump without instruction, but it isn’t recommended because the suits require more skills to fly. After jumping out of the plane, wingsuit pilots spread their arms and legs at a certain time and immediately begin to fly. As they float around at speeds in excess of 100mph altimeters keep them aware of how close they are to the ground. The level of a wingsuit pilot’s license determines how low they can go before deploying their parachute.
Special thanks to Smatchimo for showing me this amazing wingsuit flying video!
A cautionary tale.
Since 1981, there have been at least 124 basejump and wingsuit fatalities around the world, according to the World Base Fatality List, a website maintained by a base jumper. Those risks haven’t kept about 1,500 base jumpers/wingsuit flyers around the world from making an estimated 40,000 jumps annually, said Martin Tilley, owner of Asylum Designs, an Auburn, Calif. company that makes equipment for base jumping. “Base jumping (and wingsuit flying) is never going to go away,” he said. “You’re never going to eliminate the desire for people to thrust themselves off fixed objects and float safely to earth with the aid of a parachute.”