In ancient times, most cultures believed that the sky was a domain reserved for demons, gods and mythical creatures. Countless stories were written about failed human attempts to leave their earthly domain and enter the forbidden world of the air. Most famous of these myths is the Greek story of Icarus whose father crafted him wings of wax and feathers. The youthful Icarus was overwhelmed by the exhilaration of flight and carelessly arced upward towards the heavens. His wax wings melted, then he plunged to his death. And for eternity the story has served as a warning to misguided dreamers trying to experience human flight.
Despite the obvious dangers, man continued to pursue the dream of soaring like a bird. Almost all early flight pioneers were doomed to countless broken backs, limbs, or death. But science continued to progress. Eventually Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first human flight in 1903. But the modern airplane was a far departure from mans original dream of flying effortlessly like a bird. So a select few continued to pursue mans original dream of flight.
Clem Sohn was a professional parachutist who traveled the country from airshow to airshow in the 1930s. He, too, was enthralled by the concept of flying like a bird. So he came up with a simple design of bird-like wings and sewed sailcloth to a metal frame. His first flight in 1935 was a complete success as he jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet and immediately went into a glide. After thousands of years of failed attempts of bird-like flight, a small-town boy from Michigan had succeeded. His flights made headlines around the world and as a result dozens of birdmen imitators cropped up. Many of these copycats were seriously injured or died from going into uncontrollable spins, including Clem himself. One birdman described opening his wings mid-air as “wrestling a tent in a hurricane.”
Eventually the birdman movement fizzled out, until Patrick de Gayardon came along in the 1990s. He designed the modern wingsuit that inflates using ram-air. It was much more stable and safe than the canvas wings of the past. After Patrick tragically died in after a wingsuit flight in 1998, a handful of skydivers, including Loic Jean-Albert, began to make their own wingsuits. In 2003 Loic performed the first documented proximity flight, which is a wingsuit flight in close proximity to the ground. This flight changed the sport forever. Instead of trying to glide as far as possible, the new challenge for the elite of the sport was to fly as close as possible to terrain.
With the wingsuit history lesson behind us, we join wingsuit pilots Mike Steen, Matt Gerdes, and Ellen Brennan in France. They meet up with Loic Jean-Albert who is a pilot at a skydiving station in Gap. The three attempt to fly with Loic’s plane after jumping out of it to show how similar a wingsuit flight is to a planes. Afterwards these three friends travel from mountain peak to mountain peak across Europe while explaining the sport of wingsuiting and their own personal motivations. They also make a flight with Jeb Corliss in Switzerland, a legend in the sport. Each exit point and flight path gives the wingsguit pilots new challenges they must overcome to stay alive. Lester Keller, the head sports psychologist for the US Ski and Snowboard Team, explains the motivations, desires, and needs of these type of thrill-seekers. All the wingsuit pilots comment on having close friends dying and why they choose to continue to fly, while another pilot explains why he quit the sport while he was still the best in the world. In addition, they discuss the decision-making skillset needed and the broad knowledge of BASE jumping, weather forcasting, and mountaineering, required to achieve safe flight. The advancement of wingsuit technology is also explained along with the process of working your way up to the most challenging aspect of wingsuiting: proximity flights. These types of flights result in the most deaths in the wingsuit community.
After a detailed and thorough explanation of the state of the sport today, next up is the future of the sport. Yvess Rossy of Switzerland is shown experimenting with rigid wings and jet engines strapped to them. While his research and flights are very promising, for now it is not within grasp of the everyday wingsuit pilot. A more realistic future for birdmen is combining technology with a traditional nylon wingsuit. At EHT Zurich, significant progress has been made in this field in the last couple years. Raffaello D’Andrea and Geoff Robson of EHT discuss using electric engines with a nylon wingsuit and adding a fly-by-wire autonomous cruise control system to keep a pilot perfectly balanced during flight. With this system the pilot could chose whichever flight path he desired as the cruise control system stabilizes the flight.
Thousands of years after humans first leapt into the unknown, a select few of us have achieved the very kind of flight that our ancestors have been envisioning for eons. Perhaps the transformation to true birdmen is not yet complete, but as technological innovations lead to newer designs, the boundaries of human flight remain wide open for the adventurous and courageous spirits who long to fly like birds.