Even kid who has been allowed to wear a Superman costume has wondered if the cape could assist flight, but most children grow out of the idea after a few test jumps off the garden wall. Unless they grow up to be skydivers or BASE jumpers, that is. Then, they might find themselves graduating to a wingsuit (also known a bird suit or squirrel suit).
Fly for miles
Wingsuits allow much greater horizontal movement than parachutes. The Guinness World Record for the longest wingsuit flight belongs to Japan’s Shin Ito. The total horizontal flight distance was well over ten miles, from a starting altitude of around 34,000ft. Even greater distances have been unofficially reported by wingsuited skydivers in Australia and Spain and a wingsuited BASE jumper managed a distance of 3.6 miles from the top of an alpine peak in 2009.
Wingsuits and climbers
That man- Dean Potter- is best known as a rock climber and mountaineer, and a number of climbers have been at the forefront of BASE wingsuit activity over the last few years. More recently, professional climbers Leo Houlding, Sean Leary, and Carlos Suarez tackled a 6,600ft peak on Baffin Island (well above the Arctic Circle). Their goal wasn’t just to get to the top, although that’s the traditional be-all and end-all for climbers. They also wanted to make a wingsuit jump from the summit.
The resulting film, The Asgard Project, was featured at the Banff Film Festival and won major awards from Slovenia to the US to Switzerland. Others, like pioneering female climber Steph Davis, have been experimenting with combinations of solo climbing, BASE jumping, and wingsuiting. The best case scenario is that the climber gets to the top of their chosen route and then jumps. At worst, they fall, deploy the wingsuit or parachute and hope for the best.
A wingsuit timeline
Despite the recent burst of publicity, wingsuiting isn’t a new development. Here are a few key moments in wingsuit history:
– 1912 Franz Reichelt falls to his death from the top of the Eiffel Tower in an early wingsuit experiment
– 1930s First successful wingsuit flights
– 1969 Burt Lancaster’s film The Gypsy Moths featured a wingsuit sequence
– 1999 The first commercially available wingsuits arrive on the market
– 2003 Widespread wingsuit interest starts to hit the BASE jumping community
– 2005 First international wingsuit piloting contest
– 2011 Jeb Corliss becomes the first man to pilot a wingsuit through a waterfall
The next big wingsuit piloting challenge is to land without a parachute. A number of groups have plans in this direction, although many experts think it’s impossible to accomplish this without exposing the pilot to extreme danger. Well-known American BASE jumper Jeb Corliss certainly wants to have a shot at it.
Inevitably, there have been deaths and serious accidents amongst both BASE and skydiving wingsuit pilots, but the discipline continues to grow fast. There are now about a dozen wingsuit flight schools in the US alone. Exact figures for the number of active pilots are hard to come by, but there is little doubt that there are far more now than there were a decade ago. We’ll be seeing more and more wingsuits in the skies over the next few years.
Jess Spate is an Australian extreme sports enthusiast. She works for Appalachian Outdoors, a US-based outdoor sports store. They don’t stock skydiving gear but they do carry rock climbing, hiking, mountaineering, and snowsports equipment.