Extreme Sports: All About Wingsuit Flying

Updated on April 30, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Scientist and author, Beth writes on a wide variety of subjects. She loves to wonder about the world, and the science of why things happen.

Wingsuit flyer over Massachusetts.
Wingsuit flyer over Massachusetts. | Source

Wingsuit Wearers Fly Like a Bird

Extreme sports are for risk-takers. Wingsuit flying is a dangerous sport, but is probably the closest thing to feeling as if your flying with your own wings. In recent years high accident and death rates have hit the headlines, but wingsuit flying continues to be popular with adrenaline-junkies. For those who have the time, money, and nerve, this is a sport like nothing else.

The video below gives you an idea of the speed of flight, and the risky nature of wingsuit jumps. You have to have nerves of steel for this expensive hobby, and no doubt, it helps to be a little mad as well.

Wingsuit Proximity Flying BASE Jump

What is a Wingsuit? What is Wingsuit Flying?

A wingsuit is an adapted flying suit with extra pieces of material between a flyer’s arms and legs. This increases the body’s surface area, enabling a human to air-glide more easily and thus simulate flight. This is similar to the way a flying squirrel uses the skin flaps between its arms, legs, and body to glide through a forest’s tree canopy.

New wingsuit flyers start by doing BASE jumps. These are flights that launch from a high place and then using the special inflatable flying suit, glide freefall to the ground. More experienced sportsmen take a ride in a small airplane, or helicopter, and launch their skydive glide by jumping into mid-air; just like a freefall parachute jump.

Wingsuit flying is a relatively new sport. It relies on the ability of the flyer to maneuver their body around obstacles wearing an aerodynamic “flying squirrel” suit. It’s dangerous sport which requires skill and nerves of steel. It’s the latest in a series of attempts by humans to fly like birds.

Modern fabric technology has produced strong flying suits that can withstand the intense wind resistance encountered at high descent velocities. These fabrics mean that wingsuit flyers can go higher and further than ever before using a helicopter or small plane to increase their launch height. However, these longer flights mean the potential for impact injury and death is also greater than ever.

A flying squirrel glides through the air using the skin flaps between its arms and legs.
A flying squirrel glides through the air using the skin flaps between its arms and legs. | Source

Skydiving vs. Wingsuit Flying

Wingsuit flying is skydiving with extra adrenaline; a birdman is able to direct his flight using body movements in a specially designed inflatable suit. Some of the extra risks associated with wingsuiting are as follows:

  • Flat-spins (uncontrollable spinning)
  • Burble (a vortex in the parachute deployment area)
  • Tail-strikes (hitting an aircraft's tail on exit)
  • Twists (a spinning parachute)

In addition, the need to control the suit during a malfunction, such as having to depressurize inflated wings prior to opening a parachute, can result in life-changing injuries, and death.

Death of Mark Sutton: Wingsuit Flyer and Stuntman

I first became aware of this adrenaline-fueled sport when Mark Sutton took part in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics 2012. He parachuted out of the sky as the stunt-double for actor Daniel Craig, who played the role of James Bond. the fictional spy, greeting the real Queen Elizabeth the Second at the London Olympic stadium.

Mark’s skill and experience of skydiving and wingsuit flying made him perfect for the stunt role. But just one year later, he was dead aged 42 years. He was fatally injured in a wingsuit flying accident at Chamonix, Switzerland, as he was being filmed for a tv series about extreme sports.

Mark had served for several years as an officer in the British Army before changing to a career in the financial services sector. Outside his day-job he loved adrenaline inducing sports and he was an experienced parachutist and wingsuit flyer. He was one of the best flyers in the world at the time of his death.

Mark Sutton: Stuntman Killed During Jump

Impact Injury, Death, and Extreme Statistics

In 2013 Mark Sutton was not the first person to die participating in this daredevil sport; he was the 14th person to die that year. Epic TV was making a program about extreme sports and had organized three days of filming.

Mark died as he took part in a warm-up flying exercise prior to undertaking the main flight. As he descended from a height of 10,800 feet (3,300 meters), he went off-course and crashed into the mountain. He dropped out of the sky at speeds of up to 155 mph (249 kilometers per hour). The impact of the crash was so great that DNA analysis had to be used to identify his body.

The Gruesome Statistics Relating to Skydiving Sports

  • Between 1981 to 2012: 50 people died flying in wingsuits, and 80 people died when their parachute failed to open.
  • The fatality rate for all skydiving sports combined is approximately 1 death per 100,000 jumps.
  • For wingsuit flying the death rate rises to approximately 1 death per 500 jumps.

A novice gets used to his wingsuit on a First Flight Course.
A novice gets used to his wingsuit on a First Flight Course. | Source

Health and Safety Training

Because of the high accident rate associated with wingsuit flying, skydiving and parachute bodies recommend that more general aerial experience is obtained before you try the sport of wingsuit flying. USPA (United States Parachute Association) requires its members to have at made at least 200 freefall skydives before trying flying with a wingsuit. The Freefall University in Spain sets similar conditions for wingsuit flights, as do most other countries.

What Does it Cost to Learn to Wingsuit Fly in 2020?

  • Accredited Learner Course US $1,950 (£1,200)
  • 180 additional jumps US $6,000 (£4,000)
  • Parachute US $3,200 (£2,000)
  • Other equipment US $800 (£500)
  • Transport to sites US $800-3200 (£500-3000)
  • Wingsuit US $1,200 (£800)
  • Wingsuit Course US $800 (£500)
  • Membership of accredited club US $1000 (£600)

Total Cost = US $16,000 (£9,800) plus a time commitment of 18 months in which to complete a minimum of 200 freefall jumps before starting a wing-suit flying course.

Guinness World Record Wingsuit Jumps

In April 2012, the highest and longest wingsuit jumps were recorded by Columbian wingsuit flyer, Jhonathan Florez, at La Guajira in Colombia. The Guinness Book of World Records officiated and they say that Florez’s records are still unbeaten.

  • He achieved the longest wingsuit flight; it lasted 9 minutes and 6 seconds.
  • He launched his wingsuit jump from a record high altitude; 11,358 meters or 37,265 feet.

Physics of Flying in a Wingsuit

What Percentage of Wingsuit Jumpers Die?

The percentage death rate for wing-suit jumping is not precisely known; only the number of fatalities are recorded, and not the total number of jumps made each year. The high risk level of this sport is however confirmed by the results of a 2012 survey carried out by Dr. Omer Mei-Dan, a BASE jumper and sports medicine doctor.

He found the following.

  • 72% of wingsuit jumpers had witnessed death or serious injury of other participants in the sport.
  • 43% of them had suffered a significant BASE jump injury.
  • 76% had experienced at least one near-miss incident where a serious injury or fatality was avoided through sheer good luck.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

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  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    2 months ago from UK

    I remember the stunning opening of the London olympics and recall hearing the sad news of the accident, but I knew little more of this sport. Your article gives an excellent explanation. I wonder how the costs compare with those of someone training to be an airline pilot.

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