A hybrid of skydiving and hang gliding, the highly exhilirating (and unquestionably dangerous) sport of wingsuit flying has amassed a worldwide following in recent years. If you’ve ever wanted to see the world through the eyes of a flying squirrel and surpass a speed of 90 miles per hour at the same time, then wingsuit flying is right up your alley.
The goal of wingsuit flying is simple: to jump from a plane or leap from a steep precipice, and glide through the air without hitting any hard surfaces (such as sheer cliff walls). This can be tricky, as flyers often come within feet of these surfaces without making contact. By straightening the spine and keeping the legs stretched, the flyer’s body essentially acts as an airfoil; he or she is then able to change direction by ‘steering’ with the shoulders and legs. And by keeping the chin tucked to the neck, flyers can cover the maximum distance. When all the fun has been had, a parachute is employed and the flyer (ideally) cruises to the earth for a smooth landing.
The modern wingsuit is nothing short of a technological marvel. They are rendered from tough fabrics like ballistic nylon, and are designed to acclimate to the user’s bodily dimensions. The suit is outfitted with webbed wings that fit between the legs and in the armpits; when the wearer spreads his/her arms and legs, the wings to lift and remain upright for the duration of the plunge. While it bears mention that the man who invented this design, Patrick de Gayardon, died during a test flight, it has served as the basis of most modern wingsuit models. He is far from the sport’s only casualty; of the original 75 ‘birdmen’ — brave souls who pioneered wingsuit flying throughout the mid-20th century, 72 of them perished while taking part in the activity.
Today, Norwegian (of course) Jokke Summer is one of the hottest wingsuit acts around. For more than five years, he’s made it his mission to travel the globe bring awareness to the sport. And as he told Red Bull earlier this year, wingsuit flying is not as quease-inducing as one might think. “When I was looking at it five years ago I was shocked and I felt sick to my stomach just looking at it, but doing it, it’s not that scary,” he said. “The very first time is a bit special. It’s a lot of nerves playing and a lot of feelings and emotions. It’s very hard to put into words. It’s just something you have to experience.”
Most of us are probably content to just take his word for it, but if you’re interested in taking the plunge (so to speak), keep in mind that 200 successful skydives are required to step into a wingsuit. National Geographic recently provided a list of certified wingsuit academies where first-time flyers can learn the ropes.