Wingsuits are a special kind of jumpsuit with ram-air-inflated wings between the arms and legs that enable human beings to fly their bodies like gliders. They can’t sustain level flight, but they can glide 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. The early wings were made with 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, who jumped the same kind of suits that had killed so many real-life parachutists. The stuntmen for the film were Tag Taggart, Kevin Donnelly and Jerry Rouillard. Its freefall sequences were filmed by Carl Boenish, who in the late 1970s became the world-famous “father of BASE jumping.”
In the mid-1990s, however, French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon invented a safe-to-fly wingsuit. Its arm and leg wings had no dangerous hard parts; instead, they were stiffened by the same ram-air inflation that made “square” parachutes so reliable and safe. A new sport was born on 31 October 1997 when de Gayardon showed his new invention to reporters.
The safety and performance of de Gayardon’s suit created a new parachuting discipline and, since then, wingsuit pilots and the people who make their wingsuits have expanded 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 inspired by 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, the Hungarian company Intrudair, and long-established U.S. jumpsuit maker TonySuits, owned by British skydiving champion Tony Uragallo. More recently, Squirrel joined the growing ranks of wingsuit makers scrambling to meet the ever-increasing demand for their cutting edge products.
Wingsuiting has gone mainstream, too: The International Parachuting Commission (IPC) and several national parachuting associations have added wingsuiting to their slate of competitive events and record categories.
Wingsuits are still sometimes called “birdman suits,” “flying squirrel suits” or even “bat suits.” Whatever they are called, wingsuits allow people to realize the age-old dream of human flight. 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 from 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.