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 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 such as a tall cliff or a safe mountain top. 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.
An early attempt at wingsuit flying was made on February 4, 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 was killed when he hit the ground head first, opening a measurable hole in the frozen ground.
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 186 miles per hour (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 Croatia 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. Wingsuit manufacturers Squirrel Wingsuits, TonySuits Wingsuits, Phoenix-Fly, Fly Your Body, and Nitro Rigging have also instituted coach training programs.
Despite the training and regulation, wingsuit BASE jumping remains a precarious pastime. A 2012 University of Colorado study found that for Wingsuit BASE jumping there was approximately one severe injury for every 500 jumps undertaken.
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 fliers spread their 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. With training, wingsuit pilots can achieve sustained glide ratio of 2.5:1 or more. This means that for every meter dropped, two and a half meters are gained moving forward. 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 pilots often use tools including portable GPS receivers to record their flight path. This data can be analyzed later to evaluate flight performance in terms of fall rate, speed, and glide ratio. When jumping for the first time at a new location, BASE jumpers will often evaluate terrain using maps and laser range finders. By comparing a known terrain profile with previously recorded flight data, jumpers can objectively evaluate whether a particular jump is possible. BASE jumpers also use landmarks, along with recorded video of their flight, 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 (up to 62 mph (100 km/h).
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. Modern wingsuits use a combination of materials in order to create an airfoil shape. The main surface is typically made from ripstop nylon, with various materials used to reinforce the leading edge, and reduce drag.
As compared to skydiving from an airplane, BASE jumping involves jumping from a “fixed object” such as a cliff. BASE jumping in its modern form has existed since at least 1978, but it was not until 1997 that Patrick de Gayardon made some of the first ever wingsuit BASE jumps combining the two disciplines. Compared to normal BASE jumping, wingsuit BASE jumping allows pilots to fly far away from the cliffs they jumped from, and drastically increase their freefall time before deploying a parachute. Since 2003, many BASE jumpers have started using wingsuits, giving birth to wingsuit BASE.
As suit technology and pilot skill have improved, wingsuit BASE jumpers have learned to control their flight so well that they can fly just meters away from terrain. The practice of flying a wingsuit close to the faces and ridges of mountains is called proximity flying. By flying near terrain, wingsuit pilots feel a greater sense of speed due to having a close visual reference. Loic Jean-Albert of France is one of the first proximity flyers, and his pioneering flying brought many BASE jumpers into the sport. In November 2012, Alexander Polli became the first wingsuit BASE jumper to successfully strike a wingsuit target
Wingsuit BASE jumping carries additional risk beyond a wingsuit skydive. Jumping from a fixed object means starting with low airspeed which requires different flying positions and skills. During the flight, hazards exists such as trees, rocks and the ground which must be avoided. While skydivers typically carry two parachutes, a main and a reserve, wingsuit BASE jumpers typically only carry one BASE-specific parachute.
Another variation on which studies are being focused is the wingpack, which consists of a strap-on rigid wing made of carbon fiber. 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 July 31, 2003, the Austrian x Baumgartner, jumping from 30,000 feet (9 kilometers), successfully crossed the English Channel in 14 minutes using a wingpack, having covered over 22 miles (35 km).
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 invented the “VegaV3 wingsuit system” that 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 can add considerable complexity to a skydive. So, according to the Skydivers’ Information Manual, the United States Parachute Association requires that any jumper have a minimum of 200 freefall skydives before completing a wingsuit first jump course and making a wingsuit jump. 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. Typically wingsuit pilots will start on a smaller wingsuit with less surface area. With practice, pilots can learn to fly larger suits with more surface area, which allow for increased glide and airtime.
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the world governing airsports body, established judging criteria for official world record wingsuit formations in February 2015. The rules are available on the FAI website.
Prior to this, the largest wingsuit formation recognized as meeting the criteria for a national record consisted of 68 wingsuit pilots, which set a U.S. national record at Lake Elsinore, California, on November 12, 2009. The largest global record was a diamond formation involving 100 wingsuit pilots at Perris, California, on September 22, 2012. These records have since been retired as they do not meet the current rules.
Two World Records have been set since the rules update. A 42-person formation over Moorsele, Belgium, set an FAI record on 18 June 2015. This was broken on 17 October 2015, when 61 wingsuit pilots set the current FAI world record over Perris Valley Airport near Perris, California.
The current U.S. national record includes 32 wingsuit pilots. It was set on October 23, 2016, in Rosharon, Texas at Skydive Spaceland-Houston.
The sport of Wingsuit flying is dangerous, and the pursuit of it has contributed to a number of notable fatalities since its inception. Some fail-safe concepts and developments, using technology from airbags or Aeronautics engineering, may reduce the death rate or prevent serious injury, but it would still be one of the most dangerous sports on earth. The most well-known example of injury is Jeb Corliss’ January 16, 2012, accident in South Africa.
Michel #4018 was released by CTT Correios de Portugal SA, on April 17, 2015, as part of a set of five stamps on the topic of Extreme Sports. It denominated at 2 Euro cents and was printed in sheets of 100 by Imprensa Nacional Casa da Moeda using offset lithography, perforated 11¾.