I think most people have a recurring dream or two. One of mine is that I’m able to fly by simply extending my arms and summoning some sort of mysterious force to levitate myself into flight. In my dreamy state, I always seem to conclude that mankind has always had this ability, it just took a half million years of evolution to put it into practice. Thrust, drag and lift don’t intrude into dreams so acknowledging the need for potential energy to get to altitude doesn’t ruin the whole thing.
Yet, there’s some truth here. During the past decade, a subset of skydiving called wingsuiting has grown in popularity. Subset may be generous for wingsuiting is a niche within a niche. But it’s as close as humans have gotten to how birds fly yet and the skill set for the very top practitioners astonishes even those of us in the skydiving world. The video we’re linking this week shows why. The flying skill displayed here is otherworldly compared to what went on even a decade ago.
This is also a memoriam. The Dutch skydiver who shot and produced this video, Jarno Cordia, died this week on a wingsuit base jump in the Swiss Alps. And here a word about relative risk and the utter inability to calculate it on a rate basis. Wingsuiters launch from both airplanes and from fixed high-elevation cliffs and mountains—BASE wingsuiting, if you will. The latter can be off-scale high risk wise, depending on the terrain, the former not so much different from routine skydives. The video depicts both. Personally, I’m not a BASE jumper but I make no judgments of people who accept that risk. If you want a sense of that risk, see this flight by Dan Darby. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Pilots stuck on the perfectly good airplane response usually don’t stop to think that the human body has an L/D ratio. It yields a best-case glide ratio of about 1 to 1 in a body position called a flat track—arms extended backward, palms down, legs extended and slightly spread. A wingsuit triples that to as much as 3 to 1. That’s a lot. Skydives with wingsuits typically offer two to three minutes of pre-canopy deployment time compared to just 50 to 70 seconds from standard skydives from 13,500 feet, depending on the discipline.
A few years ago, this caused a minor panic when the question of whether wingsuits are aircraft gained brief currency. And if they are, did the FAA need to step in and regulate them? ADS-B was discussed. Evidently, no one in the FAA wanted to untangle that hairball so it never went anywhere. But the relevance is not so outlandish as you might imagine. My home dropzone is right on the edge of the Tampa Class B airspace. A wingsuiter could easily penetrate well into that airspace and the freakout would be epic, justifiably.
With new construction methods and materials, wingsuit performance has improved but is still sharply limited by one thing: aspect ratio. It’s determined by the skydiver’s arm length; think about the aspect ratio on high-performance sailplanes. Wingsuits are never gonna get there unless someone develops six-foot arm extensions.
But as this video shows, skill development is something else. When I first saw this video, I couldn’t shake the idea that it must have been CGI or some other sort of image trickery. It’s not. The skills shown off here are, in my view, human flight as pure as it gets. At 0:53, for example, the echelon rolls are both perfectly spaced and executed and they stop without even a hint of an overshoot, like watching Michael Goulian do an 8-point at Oshkosh.
With no available thrust, wingsuiters can’t climb. Except they can. Just as a glider can, they can exchange speed for altitude as at 1:52 in a zoom flyby at speed. With less drag than a skydiver without the suit, wingsuiters have flown as fast as nearly 250 MPH in what would be their version of indicated speed. Look closely at that flyby. There’s a nice roll at the top of the arc.
At 5:08 in the clip (also at 0:16) is some incredible formation flying with a skydiver under canopy. Now that’s a small, highly loaded parachute, so it’s faster than what many of us fly, but the wingsuit flyer does incredible fly arounds that would do justice to the Blue Angels.
While aircraft wingsuit flights are long by skydiving standards, BASE jumps tend not to be. This flight in the Italian Dolomites is the entire jump posted by Dan Darby. It’s a little over two minutes and gives a nice view of the parachute opening and a unique thing about wingsuiting: You have to get out of the suit pretty quickly because you can’t run out a landing with the suit zipped up.
No one really knows where wingsuit flying is going. I’m sure we’ll eventually see someone land one without benefit of the parachute. Gives me the willies to think about it, but that’s the nature of progress. And no, I haven’t done a wingsuit jump yet. It’s on my list of things to do. I have a long list.
That is some outstanding footage.
It is fascinating too how techniques from kite surfing kite making, which went from zero to a multibillion Euro olympic sport in next to no time, have been used to improve the suits, with experiments still going on.
It is risky, especially when done from mountain sides. One French mayor banned them after too many “incidents” in a summer — think it was 2018. Most “incidents” involved helicopters to pick up the pieces.
But Red Bull has put lots of money in, created pros, and it is away.
Who knows it could even go the way of hang-gliding turning into ultralights, with motors doing away with gravity — jet man already exists, even if he does land stinking of paraffin and smoking alarmingly.
I am not certain on whether a wingsuit meets the FAR Part 1 definition of an aircraft, however, it arguably meets the FAR Part 103 definition of an “ultralight vehicle”, just as do hang gliders and paragliders.
Meeting the stall speed not to exceed 24 kts might be challenging!
Ken- if you note the condition in FAR 103.1(e), the preamble attached to conditions 1 through 4, including “has a power-off stall speed which does not exceed 24 knots calibrated airspeed” is (e) “if powered.” The only conditions for the applicability of unpowered ultralight vehicles (I argue that a wingsuit is an unpowered), are (a) through (d), namely single occupant, sport or recreational use only, no U.S. or foreign airworthiness certificate, and the unpowered craft weighs less than 155 pounds.
The early “standards” rogallo wing hang gliders, of which I had several and flew, were as I recall (been quite a while) a 3 to 1 glide, so I can relate a bit. Their sink rate seems to be a bit higher though. The video and flying was amazing, but of course it leaves out all the tedium of getting up to the launch site, or the drop plane climbs, the not fun part, not to mention the arranging to have someone pick you up once you land, that’s what got old about hang gliding, with an engine you can fly totally autonomously. I did not know a suited skydiver had less drag and can go faster, wow!
Sadly, one of the two wingsuit/cameramen pilots mentioned at the end passed away in a wing suit accident, just a few days ago (Jan 6th).
He left an amazing video though.
sorry, published Fri 6th, accident Wed 4th.
I long aspired to do wingsuit jumps and specifically proximity flying (BASE off mountains and fly in close proximity to them), but never go to do it.
With just over a thousand skydives and several BASE jumps off bridges, wingsuiting was my next goal. Alas, my skydiving/BASE jumping came to an abrupt end some time ago.
I spend a lot of time watching YouTube vids of wingsuit jumps. The skills displayed by these flyers is nothing short of breathtaking as you say Paul. It is indeed flight as pure as it gets, but there is practically no room for error, especially in proximity flying.
I have time in or at least experienced flight in many aircraft types ultralight, fixed wing, glider and paraglider (balloon, never landed). I also have a few thousand skydives with 1100 wingsuit flights and I can say that NOTHING holds a candle to flying wingsuits for “Flight as Pure as it Gets”! You don’t make control inputs so much as just imagine yourself in a new direction. There is NO latency, hysteresis, control slop or any other tiniest interface BETWEEN you and the flight surfaces, you just become a flying entity. When I took my first wingsuit flight I realized that was what I had been looking for over the last 20 years of skydiving. Now, skydiving in a straight jacket adds some very real complications, proximity flying adds more with not much time to solve them. Paul, if you decide to dive in, you are in the right place for world class training. You might also like the challenge of suddenly realizing you are an absolute novice in this thing we call flying. I think you would love the sensation of flight as pure as it gets! Last, RIP Jarno, he was a true innovator & contributor in the sport and will be sorely missed.
As is the case with many human pursuits, technologies evolve in tandem. I wonder if wingsuiting would be as popular as it is without Gopro cameras. Certainly Gopro cameras bring the thrill of windsuiting to life.
Is that flight or just a reduction in drop?
To quote Woody: that’s just falling with style!
Great video and good article.
They have landed a wingsuit without a parachute:
I disagree Paul (as per usual). I think Paragliders without motors are the purest form of flight. Just like when you dreamt of flying as a kid it starts with running then before you know it your feet aren’t on the ground anymore Imagine going “UP” in a parachute ! These wingsuit guys are just guided meat-bombs !
Made my last two skydives on 12/31/99 after 23 years when the wingsuit concept was really getting started. Everytime I watch what has been developed to the present wish I were still jumping just to try one of these suits. One can argue about pure flight or not but it’ll be fun to see where wingsuits all go in the future. By the way, those shots of large groups flying together is called flocking as in birds of a feather.
“Is that flight or just a reduction in drop?”
Whilst the whole wingsuit craze rages on, same as skydiving, using the word flying in comparing what is nothing but a more or less controlled fall with nature‘s offering, is typical of humans audacity. Generally speaking, a bird, same as most powered airplanes, is able fly level and climb, and seldom falls 😉
If lift is involved, which it is, it’s flying. It might be gliding flight, but it is flight nonetheless.
Paul, as a young man I had recurring dreams where I freely flew with arms extended. They were wonderful and mysterious dreams as I would wake up feeling satisfied but unable to remember landings or tach times.