The famous Greek mythology of Icarus and his father flying out of Crete has been a figment of fantasy for many children as they were growing up. While flying like a bird has been man’s dream for centuries now, wingsuit flying also known as proximity flying, is the closest anyone can get to the bird-like experience of flying.
A Century Of Trial And Errors
It has taken us approximately a century to perfect this extreme sport, which is still known to involve fatalities. The earliest attempt in wingsuit flying was made by Franz Reichelt, who was a 33 year old tailor. On February 4, 1912, Franz lost his life as he jumped off the Eiffel Tower to test his invention.
Eighteen years later, in 1930 a successful use of wingsuit was recorded by Rex Finney in Los-Angeles. Materials like canvas, wood, silk, steel and whalebone constituted the early wingsuits which were considered rather risky and did not gain much popularity.
In mid 1990’s innovators started modernizing the wingsuit with the availability of new materials. Patrick de Gayardon of France adapted a wingsuit model from the model used by BASE jumping pioneer, John Carta. The suit continued to evolve as creative inventors tried to achieve a fully functional wingsuit however, commercialization of the wingsuit did not happen until 1999.
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Jari Kuosma of Finland and Robert Pecnik of Slovenia created the first commercial wingsuit making the sport accessible for adventure seekers. BirdMan International Ltd. established by Kuosma was the first company to offer wingsuits to skydivers and covered the safety of proximity flying through an instructor program.
Coming back to today’s world, all wingsuit manufacturing companies have instituted coach training programs, however, the risks of the sport are clearly outlined and fatal accidents are yet to be eradicated completely. BASE jumpers have adopted wingsuit flying to add to the adventure of their sport which led the sport being commonly known as WiSBASE jumping.
Image credit: “Dubai Wingsuit Flying Trip (7623583596)” by Richard Schneider
Wingsuit fliers utilize a wingsuit and a parachute to enjoy proximity flying. Those who choose to jump out of fixed objects like a building or a cliff fall in the category of BASE jumpers, while wing-suit jumpers who exit out of aircrafts are skydiving jumpers.
Similar to the rudder of the ship, a wingsuit allows the jumper to glide through the air and move in the direction they choose. Different types of wingsuits have different capabilities when it comes to the fall rate and the forward speed for fliers. Wingsuit fliers can reduce their vertical fall rate to 60 to 120 seconds as opposed to 8 to 15 seconds of free fall without a wingsuit.
Innovations To The Wingsuit
With the extreme sport gaining substantial popularity, developments to the wingsuit continue to bring more adventure into the sport. Wingpack is a hybrid of a hang-glider and a wingsuit where the glide ratio is higher when compared to wing suits.
Jet-powered wingsuits are also being considered by inventors and although it has been used successfully by people, commercialization of the product is yet to happen.
Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is the world governing Airsports body and it has established judging criteria for wingsuit formations in February 2015. A 61 person formation of wingsuit fliers holds the record of formation wingsuit flying since October 17, 2015 as they flew over Perris Valley Airport near Perris, California.
Russian WiSBASE jumper Valery Rozov achieved the record of highest WiSBASE jump when he jumped from a height of 7220 meters from Mount Everest’s North Col on May 5, 2013.
The longest WiSBASE jump of 7.5 kilometers is held by Dean Potter as of November 2, 2011.
The fastest speed reached in wingsuit flying was 363 km/h by Shin Ito on May 28, 2011. He also holds the record for the greatest horizontal distance covered in a wingsuit which was 26.9 km.
Colombian skydiver Jhonathan Florez set the record for the highest altitude – 11,358 m and the longest duration – 9 minutes and 6 seconds – spent in wingsuit flying when he jumped from La Guajira, Colombia.
Risks Of The Sport
Extreme sport lovers may enjoy the thrill of WiSBASE jumping, but the adrenaline rush created by this sport can hardly veil the dangers of wingsuit flying. Fatalities have reduced over the years, but there is hardly much statistics to support the safety of the sport. Wingsuit coaching is highly advised for all aspiring wingsuit fliers. Licensed skydivers who have completed 200 skydives in the last 18 months qualify for wingsuit flying.
While extreme sports are named rightly after the extreme risk involved in them, proximity flying is an adventure that can hardly be ignored by the extreme sports lovers. A thorough training and the right choice of wingsuit can ensure safety of the fliers without losing the sense of exhilaration they crave for.
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Header photo credit: “Ocean Wingsuit Formation (6366966219)” by Richard Schneider
Background photo credit: “Wingsuit” by Thomas Kremshuber