Be a Hero or Die Trying

This wingsuit pilot flew past death once for himself. Then he did it three more times for the sick GoPro footy.

by Andrew Bisharat
Jul 7 2015, 4:20pm

All photos courtesy Uli Emanuele

In the last 10 or so years of its existence, wingsuit BASE jumping has garnered a reputation for being the deadliest, most dangerous sport in the world. You're 50 times more likely to die BASE jumping than skydiving, according to one 2007 report that looked at one BASE jumping location in Norway.

The only exposure most of us have to BASE jumping is through YouTube videos of GoPro footage. The latest spectacle, published last week, features a next-level stunt by Uli Emanuele, a 29-year-old Italian dishwasher, who has spent the past four years living in the Lauterbrunnen valley of Switzerland, considered a mecca for BASE jumping and wingsuit proximity flying. Wingsuit proximity flying is essentially buzzing towers, threading needles, or getting dangerously close to anything while flying a wingsuit. Flying closer to terrain heightens the sensation of speed; hence, proximity flying is like crack for the speed junkie.

READ MORE: BASE Jumper and Counter Culture Icon Dies During Flight Attempt

In the video, Emanuele jumps from a cliff, and almost immediately the baffled chambers of his wingsuit, a costume that simulates the webbed membrane of a flying squirrel, fill with air and transfigure into rigid wings, allowing him to glide forward approximately three feet for every foot of descent. As he descends from the valley rim at upward of 100 miles per hour, Emanuele banks a slight corner to reveal, through his helmet-mounted GoPro, an improbable hole, tall and spindle-shaped like the eye of needle, in a freestanding tower of rock.

The video's set-up tells us that the opening in the rock is, at its widest, about 2 meters 70 centimeters—roughly 9 feet. With a typical adult-male wingspan of more than 6 feet, you can do the math: There's little room for error. If he botches his approach or pass by more than a foot in any direction, Emanuele joins a list of dozens of wingsuit BASE jumpers—many of whom were considered to be the best and most experienced in the world—to have died in recent years. Two died this weekend, including world record-holder Jhonathan Florez.

Emanuele, of course, threads the needle flawlessly. Soon the Lauterbrunnen Valley opens up and drops away as the video's "hero"—GoPro's tagline is "Be a Hero"—enjoys another minute or so of flight before deploying a parachute and landing in an idyllic goat pasture.

The final scene of Emanuele—now stripped of his squirrel suit—whistling and snapping at a few goats, is the unexpected kicker. This guy, this aloof dude who literally just grazed death's outstretched arm with his fingertips, is now using those same fingers to snap at a bunch of goats.

The "fly-through," as it's called in the wingsuit world, has precedent. The most well known example is probably Jeb Corliss's 2011 wingsuit fly-through of a 360-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide archway called "Heaven's Gate" in Tianmen Mountain, China. The Red Bull-sponsored, multimillion-dollar stunt had a live audience and a television broadcast. At that point, nothing like it had ever happened in the wingsuit world, both in terms the stunt's publicity or the technical challenges of the stunt.

To that, Emanuele's jump reflects the extent that the sport has matured over the past decade. The pilots are far more skilled after 10 years of developing their sport, and the wingsuits perform to a much higher level. Compared to Corliss's 2011 flight through a much larger hole, Emanuele planned and executed his jump without a technical support team or the funding of a television network.

Jeb Corliss sang praises for Emanuele on Facebook: "Well this is without a doubt the most hard core wing-suit proximity flight of all time," he wrote. "The smallest most committing hole punch of solid rock ever. It is amazing to see how wing-suit flying is progressing."

Others in the wingsuit community are less complimentary.

"I don't see Uli's flight as being anything new or ground-breaking, even though it is impressive," says Matt Gerdes, author of The Great Book of BASE and owner of Squirrel, one of the eight or so wingsuit manufacturing companies in the world. "People have been flying through holes and hitting targets with wingsuits for years."

"It is possible to control wingsuits with an accuracy that is measured in inches, not meters," Gerdes continued. "The question is, how much margin do you want to leave for yourself?"

To the YouTube-surfing layperson, those margins are simply incomprehensible. The extent of our assessment is, more or less, These people are nuts! Whether you think Emanuele is a badass or a dumbass, nearly everyone has some kind of reaction.

Emanuele about to jump in Iran in 2014.

Emanuele, 29, is originally from Bolanzo, South Tyrol, Italy. On paper, he's one of the most experienced aerialists around. He started skydiving at 16 and has completed over 700 skydives. At age 20, he started BASE jumping and has now logged over 1,900 jumps. In the past five years, Emanuele has flown wingsuits exclusively. He moved to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, four years ago, landed a restaurant job washing dishes, and spent all of his free time hiking around the mountains in search of new "exits," the points from which you jump, and proximity fly through dramatic Swiss landscapes.

Emanuele discovered this 2-meter hole three years ago, but back then the idea of flying through it was laughable even to him.

"I joked about the hole with my friend," Emanuele said. "It is impossible."

Still, the hole stuck with him, and he started training and preparing for the fly-through. He measured the rock, the dimensions of the hole. He spent a cumulative total of 45 hours hiking to find the exit point that would set him up with the best trajectory to make it through the asymmetrical feature. He also logged many hours flying through trees and other tight spaces as part of his training.

"I hope people understand that I did this project not with balls but with my head!" Emanuele says. "I trained every day for three years. I was sure that I had 100 percent of the skills for this technical jump."

Emanuele first flew through the hole in September. "The first time I flew through the hole, [it was] just for myself," says Emanuele. "Without saying anything to anyone or any sponsor."

After that initial success, Emanuele decided to make the video, which required that he fly through the hole again. In order to capture enough footage, he actually flew through the hole three more times—a detail that seems as lucky and unbelievable as a golfer hitting four consecutive holes-in-one with a gun to his head.

"I flew through the hole all those times, because I was able to do it," Emanuele says. "I don't use luck in jumping. We need enough luck in our normal life."

And yet, after the string of high-profile deaths of the likes of Dean Potter, Mario Richard, Sean "Stanley" Leary, and others, all of whom were considered to be the most experienced, cautious, and skilled wingsuit pilots in the world, no one would have been surprised if Emanuele didn't make it through the hole. Because the only way to not die wingsuit BASE jumping, as the saying goes, is to not wingsuit BASE jump.

"BASE jumping doesn't get any safer with experience," wrote Chris McNamara, a former wingsuit BASE jumper from California, in a foreword to The Great Book of BASE. In a recent blog post updating his foreword, McNamara affirmed his decision to give up the sport before it killed him, writing, "There might not be anything out there quite like wingsuit BASE, but there is a lot out there. ...It was a little scary to stop BASE jumping and trust that there would be worthwhile things to take its place, but I can report back that there are. I'm having more varied, meaningful and enduring experiences. And having more fun."

At the end of the day, how we choose to spend our lives, and the degree of risk that we are willing to accept in the name of sport, resides within the individual—not the chorus of commentary on YouTube and Facebook.

"Jumping is the only thing I can do and what I want to do," says Emmanuele. "It is my way of living. I think all people who do extreme sports they have to know that you can die every day. If you accept that and it makes sense to you, then it's worth it. If you have just one doubt, then stop."