Have you ever wanted to fly through the air like a bird? Not in a hot air balloon or an airplane, but without anything between you and the sky? A relatively new type of BASE jumping has been created, and it involves using a special suit called a wingsuit. A wingsuit is essentially a specialized type of jumpsuit that has layers of fabric attached in such a way that a falling person gains lift, and can direct the path of their fall. Technically, it is a very extreme form of gliding. There is no way for a person to rise after they begin their descent, but the wingsuit allows them an unprecedented level of maneuverability.
The wingsuit was popularized, if not invented, by Patrick de Gayardon, a French skydiver, in the mid 1990s. In 1998, Australian BASE jumper Tom Begic developed his own wingsuit. He found that it had a number of benefits that allowed the wearer to jump off from areas that were, to that point, impossible to jump from.
BASE jumpers specialize in jumping from many stationary earth-bound objects, which is where the name comes from. BASE is an acronym that stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans, and Earth. As unlikely as it sounds, it is even more dangerous than skydiving, and requires a lot more skill to practice safely.
Wingsuit flying requires a lot of skill as well. The United States Parachute Association currently recommends that before attempting to use a wingsuit, a jumper should have experience with a minimum of 200 skydives, if receiving guidance from a wingsuit instructor. If you’d prefer to try it without an instructor, the recommendation jumps to 500 dives!
Once you have the prerequisite experience, how do you attempt a jump? There are a few options available. You can jump out of a plane or off something very high, like a cliff. Each approach has its own pros and cons. When jumping from a plane, the jumper has to align himself properly from the plane as he exits. Once he is far enough, he simply spreads his arms and legs, so that the wingsuit can begin converting momentum into lift.
A far different technique is employed when jumping from a cliff or some other stationary object. The jumper has to wait until he has enough downward velocity to maintain stability as he glides. Wingsuit flying is relatively new, having been developed within the past fifteen years. The technology continues to be refined. Some jumpers add a special type of carbon fiber wing to their suit to allow for better performance. In 2003, an Austrian BASE jumper used a carbon fiber wing and jumped from a height of 9,000 meters (5.5 miles). He managed to fly across the English Channel, a distance of 35 kilometers (21 miles), in a mere 14 minutes.
At the end of a jump, a parachute is required for landing. Many wingsuit teams are looking into ways of reducing velocity with the suit alone, in order to forgo the parachute altogether.
Mankind’s collective dream of flight like a bird has not yet arrived, but with wingsuits (and nerves of steel!) we have come pretty close.