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Extreme Sports: All About Wingsuit Flying

Scientist and author, Beth wants to get healthy, stay healthy, and live life to the full.

Wingsuit flying is a type of skydiving. It's not a sport for the faint-hearted.

Wingsuit flying is a type of skydiving. It's not a sport for the faint-hearted.

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 flat-spins (uncontrollable spinning), burble (a vortex in the parachute deployment area), tail-strikes (hitting an aircraft's tail on exit), and 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. 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.

What Is a Wingsuit? What Is Wingsuit Flying?

A wingsuit is a special jumpsuit that has 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 a dangerous sport that requires skill and nerves of steel. Modern fabric technology has produced strong flight 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.

Exploring The World's Most Dangerous Sport: The Birdmen Chronicles

Death of Mark Sutton: Wingsuit Flyer and Stuntman

I first became aware of this extreme 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.

Risk of Impact Injury and Death

Mark Sutton was not the first person to die participating in this daredevil sport. In fact he was the 14th person to die in that year alone (2013.) 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.

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.

Technology Changes Extreme Sports

Advances in wingsuit technology have reduced the inflation time of these flying suits, leading to quicker starts and easier exits. I recommend you take a look at this dramatic video by wingsuit athletes Jokke Sommer, Espen Fadnes and Ludovic Woerth, Wingmen. It introduces you to some of the most challenging places to wingsuit fly and BASE jump. Viewing it makes it easy to understand why people get such an adrenaline high from this sport.

So You Want to Learn How to Wingsuit?

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 made at least 200 freefall skydives before trying to fly with a wingsuit. The Freefall University in Spain sets similar conditions for wingsuit flights, as do most other countries.

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.

What Does It Cost to Learn to Wingsuit Fly?

  • 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 = USD $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.

Sadly, Jhonathan Florez also died as a result of competing in this extreme sport. In 2015, he was killed on Mount Titlis, Engelberg, Switzerland. He was practicing wingsuit jumps for a tournament due to be held in China. He was just 32 years old.

Before taking to the air, wingsuit flyers practice their technique on the ground.

Before taking to the air, wingsuit flyers practice their technique on the ground.

What Percentage of Wingsuit Jumpers Die?

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

He found that 72% of wingsuit jumpers had witnessed the 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.

Can You Gain Altitude in a Wingsuit?

Wingsuit flying uses air resistance to counteract the effect of gravity. Jumping off from a high vantage point, the suited flyer drifts to the ground attempting to imitate the flight of a bird. Modern wingsuit flyers are able to use warm air currents like a glider. The buoyancy of thermal uplift allows the human bird to gain some altitude. However, this movement is dependant on the right weather conditions, and even experienced flyers have little control over the speed and distance of any gain in altitude.

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.