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Wingsuiting History

A History of Wingsuit Flying

Wingsuit flying is the art and sport of flying the human body through the air using a special jumpsuit, called a wingsuit, which adds ram-air-inflated airfoils between the arms and legs so that wingsuit pilots” can actually fly their bodies like gliders: They can’t sustain level flight, but they can glide at angle of more than three feet forward for every foot they go down – and they can go up for brief periods by flaring hard after a steep dive.

Wings were added to jumpsuits in the 1930s as an attempt to increase horizontal movement. These early wingsuits were made of materials such as canvas, wood, silk, steel, and even whale bone, but they were not reliable and more than 70 percent of those early “batwing” jumpers died when their contraptions failed.

Wingsuiting was introduced to the American public in the 1969 movie, The Gypsy Moths, starring Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman. The stuntmen for the film were Tag Taggart, Kevin Donnelly and Jerry Rouillard, and its freefall sequences were filmed by Carl Boenish, who later became the world-famous “father of BASE jumping” in the late 1970s. The suits depicted in the movie, however, were no better – or safer – than those of previous decades.

In the mid-1990s, however, French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon invented a safe-to-fly wingsuit with arm and leg wings that had no dangerous hard parts but which were ram-air-inflated like the proven “square” parachutes that had been flown safely for decades – and a new sport was born on 31 October 1997 when he showed his new design to reporters.

The safety and performance of de Gayardon’s suit revolutionized the sport and, since then, wingsuit pilots have pushed to the edges of the human flight envelope, first from aircraft, then from vertical cliffs and, now, from mountaintops, where they “proximity fly” through valleys and gorges as they pursue the most daring and breathtaking sport so far known to man.

Two years after De Gayardon unveiled his new wingsuit design, Jari Kuosma of Finland and Robert Pečnik of Croatia teamed up to manufacture wingsuits based on DeGayardon’s design through their company, Bird-Man International Ltd. A few years later, Robert Pecnik left Bird-man and founded Phoenix-Fly. Other manufacturers followed suit, including the French company S-Fly and long-established U.S. jumpsuit maker TonySuits, owned by British skydiving champion Tony Uragallo. More recently, Intrudair and Squirrel joined the growing ranks of wingsuit makers scrambling to meet the ever-increasing demand for their cutting edge products (the International Parachuting Commission (IPC) and several national parachuting associations have recently added wingsuiting to their slate of competitive events).

Wingsuits are still sometimes called “birdman suits,” “flying squirrel suits” or even “bat suits.” Whatever they are called, wingsuit flights normally last more than twice as long as a normal freefall from the same altitude, and cover far more horizontal distance. Jumps can be made from aircraft or fixed objects high enough for the wingsuit pilot to get his suit “flying.” The current world record flight is more than 17.5 miles, accomplished in April 2012 by 2013 WWL Champion Jhonathan Florez of Colombia, who jumped from 37,265 feet above La Guajira Colombia and flew for more than 9 minutes before opening his parachute.