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New Wingsuit Technology Has Daredevils Flying Faster than 160 MPH

How BASE jumpers defy death to fly faster and farther than ever before.

​On mountain ranges across the world, a small group of extreme athletes have been taking to the skies in specially-designed bodysuits to test the limits of unpowered human flight. These men and women will hike to altitudes nearly a kilometer high, only to hurl themselves from steep mountain top cliffs and fly across the terrain below.

The wingsuits they wear boast a set of wings to help maintain stability and maneuver while in the air until they finally deploy a parachute. Nevertheless, the sport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world—and ​over 72 percent of flyers have personally witnessed a fellow athletes final flight.


But with the sacrifices of their colleagues always at the back of their minds, a new generation of wingsuit pilots are exploring the potential for new technologies and techniques to help them fly farther, faster and safer than ever before.

"My ultimate goal? I want to fly my wingsuit on the moon, man!" Jokke S​ommer told me only half-jokingly. Sommer, who is sponsored by Red Bull, is one of the sport's top stars—helped in no small part by his GoPro, and the videos he uploads to You​tube.

"When I made my first wingsuit jump 15 years ago, the suits were horrid"

Nowadays, athletes such as Sommer can begin controlled flight almost immediately, whereas achieving such control previously required a freefall of over 300 metres. Once in control, a wingsuiter can dive down mountain couloirs for between 2-3 minutes, at speeds in excess of 160 mph—while the inevitability of death stares up from six feet below.

The suits athletes wear started out as tiny flaps attached to skintight suits, but have since morphed into huge wings that span the entire length of a wearer's outstretched arms. Flyers now resemble Batman when in full flight.

Matt Gerdes, the owner of Squirrel, a premier wi​ngsuit manufacturer, has been at the forefront of advancing wingsuit technology. Thanks to Gerdes and others like Robert Pecnik of Phoe​nix Fly, the time and distance that it takes for these flyers to achieve flight has been dramatically reduced.


"When I made my first wingsuit jump 15 years ago, the suits were horrid," said Jason Moledzki, a veteran Canadian wingsuit pilot. "If you could jump off and stay away from the cliff, it was a miracle of flight."

"Now, you step off a cliff and you are flying instantly for minutes," Moledzki continued. "At no point do you ever fall straight downwards, you're immediately moving forward. When you nail it, you're flying straight away, moving forward and with excellent control. No one dreamed that was possible 15 years ago."

Gerdes said that's partially because suits have gotten much bigger. "As they have increased in surface area, we have made steps forward in reducing drag and increasing efficiency," he explained.

Ellen Brennan—another wingsuit athlete, and named one ​of the world's fastest women—swears by Squirrel wingsuits, and believes that re-engineering the leading edges of suits will produce even further unprecedented gains. "If we can get a stiff rigid edge, we can get a much higher glide ratio," Brennan explained.

Right now, for every three feet that a flyer moves forward down the mountain, they lose one foot of altitude, but in her opinion that will change soon.

"The tech of paragliders changed and they went from glide ratios of 4:1 to 10:1 in just a few years," Brennan said. She believes materials like ela​stomers—which are used in body armour, a type of soft rubber that becomes stiff on impact—will help get wingsuits there.


To complement these advances in wingsuit technology, Sommer took a cue from aircraft manufacturers and began practicing in wind tunnels too. He says he's actually teaching his body how to adapt to flight.

"Humans aren't made to fly, so it'll take us longer to build up that instinct," he told me. "We want to get our brains working perfectly together with our muscles so that we fly without thinking about it. I'm building muscle memory so my body is used to flying in small spaces. That's how I become very accurate."

His methodical approach to flying might disappoint some who buy into the stereotype that wingsuiters are crazy daredevils. But the opposite is in fact true. In order to compete in this sport, one needs to be an exceptional athlete possessing a similar set of skills to an F1 driver. The speeds are similar, as are the minute mental calculations and agility required to avoid crashing—except F1 drivers likely have it easier because at least they get to remain firmly planted on earth.

Moledzki even believes that wingsuits will soon come with wheels.

"When hang gliders come in they have lots of speed and reduce altitude until they get close to the ground," he explained. "Then they level off the flight, the same way an aircraft lands. They tilt up until they bleed off all the forward speed and when there's an opportune moment they pull up more aggressively until the force is reduced to a minimum. Then they drop to their wheels"—no parachute required.

"We'll need real landing strips," Moledzki continued, and "wheels and some sort of thrusters to help us pitch ourselves vertical to flare up and land. But I think it'll happen soon."

Nevertheless, no amount of training or advancements in technology will change the fact that wingsuiting is still an inherently dangerous sport—one of the most dangerous in the world. A 2012 s​tudy of the "demographic characteristics, injury rate, severity, and morbidity in BASE jumping "found that 72 percent of wingsuit flyers have witnessed a death, and 76 percent have had a "close call" themselves. All wingsuit deaths are listed on the BASE Jumping Fatality ​List for other flyers to study and learn from—a sombre but necessary reminder that wingsuit flights aren't to be taken lightly.

But if athletes and manufacturers are able to make further improvements to their bodies and their equipment, it may bring Jokke one step closer to his ultimate dream: "I want to fly like a bird," he said, laughing. "Some bird species basically play in the air all day long. You look at that, and it's just two birds having fun. They aren't flying around in a way that might kill them. They are just flying on instinct and having fun. That's what we want to do."