The Insane World of Wingsuit Flying


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.