Wingsuit flying is the art of flying the human body through the air using a special jumpsuit, called a wingsuit, that shapes the human body into an airfoil which can create lift. The wingsuit creates the airfoil shape with fabric sewn between the legs and under the arms. It is also called a birdman suit or squirrel suit.
The wingsuit flier wears parachute equipment designed for skydiving or BASE jumping. The flier will deploy the parachute at a planned altitude and unzip the arm wings, if necessary, so they can reach up to the control toggles and fly to a normal parachute landing.
In the mid-1990s, French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon (nicknamed "DeG") developed a wingsuit that had unparalleled safety and performance. Unfortunately, de Gayardon died on April 13, 1998 while testing a new modification to his parachute container in Hawaii; his death is attributed to a rigging error which was part of the new modification. However, he planted the seed that grew a new generation of birdmen.
In 1998, Jari Kuosma of Finland and Robert Pecnik of Croatia teamed up to create a wingsuit that was safe and accessible for all skydivers when they established BirdMan, Inc. BirdMan's Classic, designed by Robert Pecnik, was the first wingsuit offered to the general public. BirdMan was also the first manufacturer to advocate the safe use of wingsuits by creating an Instructor program. Created by Jari Kuosma, the instructor program's aim was to remove the stigma that wingsuits were dangerous and to provide wingsuit beginners (Generally, skydivers with a minimum of 200 logged jumps) with a way to safely enjoy what was once considered dangerous in the skydiving world. With the help of Birdman Chief Instructors Scott Campos, Chuck Blue and Kim Griffin, a standardized program of instruction was developed that preprared instructors. Bird-Man Worldwide Instructors list. Retrieved on 2008-01-28.. Phoenix-Fly, Fly Your Body, and EG Wingsuits have also instituted an instructor training program.
Numerous suppliers have made many innovations over the last decade:
At a planned altitude above the ground in which a skydiver or BASE jumper would typically deploy their parachute, a wingsuit flier will deploy their parachute. The parachute will be flown to a controlled landing at the desired landing spot using typical skydiving or BASE jumping techniques. At least one organization is investigating the possibility of a safe landing without a parachute. However, most Wingsuit flyers believe the "runway" requirements of a parachute-less landing today make the attempt premature and the results will not likely yield anything more than a sensational video for the purposes of self-promotion. The quest of landing a Wingsuit is not sought by the majority of Wingsuit flyers.
A wingsuit flier manipulates the shape of their body to create the desired amount of lift and drag. With body shape manipulation and by choosing the design characteristics of the wingsuit, a flier can alter both their forward speed and their fall rate towards the Earth. A pilot can choose to manipulate their fall rate towards Earth with the goal of achieving the slowest vertical speed in order to prolong time in freefall, or the pilot can try to maximize the horizontal glide distance across the Earth. The pilot manipulates these flight characteristics by changing the shape of their torso, arching or bending at the shoulders, hips, and knees, and by changing the angle of attack in which the wingsuit flies in the relative wind, and by the amount of tension applied to the fabric wings of the suit.
Wingsuit fliers can measure their performance relative to their goals with the use of freefall computers that will indicate the amount of time they were in flight, at what altitude they deployed their parachute, and the altitude in which they entered freefall. The fall rate speed can be calculated from this data and compared to previous flights. GPS receivers can also be used to plot and record the flight path of the suit, and when analyzed can indicate the amount of distance flown during the flight. BASE jumpers can use landmarks on exit points, along with recorded video of their flight by ground crews, to determine their performance relative to previous flights and the flights of other BASE jumpers at the same site.
A typical skydiver's terminal velocity in belly to earth orientation ranges from 110 to 140 mph or from 180 to 225 km/h. A wingsuit can reduce these speeds dramatically, a momentary speed of 25 mph or 40 km/h has been recorded, however 60 mph or 95 km/h is more typical.
The suit also enables the wearer to travel longer distances horizontally; glide ratios of 2.5:1 are commonplace.
While still very experimental, powered wingsuits, often using small jet engines strapped to the feet or a rigid wing set-up, allow for even greater horizontal travel and even ascent.
Currently, there are two basic wingsuit types. The tri-wing Wingsuit has three individual ram-air wings attached under the arms and between the legs. The mono-wing wing suit design incorporates the whole suit into one large wing.
Wingsuit manufacturers offer training courses and certify instructors.
On July 31, 2003, Austrian stuntman and skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, flew across the English Channel with a small carbon fiber wing strapped to his back, a hurtling 20 mile long freefall descent that reached top speeds of 220 mph.
On July 24, 2008, Australian doctor Glenn Singleman jumped from 37,000 feet over central Australia setting a world record for highest wingsuit jump.