Chasing the Spaceball 2.0
By Annette O’Neil
Sebastian Alvarez, D-32538, was a pro surfer and a Chilean Air Force pilot (flying helicopters and planes alike) in his home country before he donned his first wingsuit. Since then, he has done (unsurprisingly) brilliantly in the sky, as well as on BASE jumps, competing in several high-profile international events. If you’re curious, you can find several examples of his wingsuiting showmanship on YouTube. Now, he has decided to go where no wingsuiter has gone before: after a spaceball.
For the uninitiated, a spaceball is a tennis ball or similarly sized object that is equipped with a fabric tail for stability and weighted to fall at various freefall speeds, depending on the amount of weight in it. Traditionally used primarily as a training tool for freeflyers, it is deceptively difficult to fly with. Alvarez is 99 percent sure that no other wingsuit pilot is doing this (for good reason, as it turns out).
It all started about two years ago. “I was always super curious about what they were doing back in the day, like 10 or 15 years ago, with these spaceball things,” Alvarez begins. “Freeflying and all that. Lights. All that stuff. I really liked it a lot. So, at one point, I just wanted to play around with a spaceball and see what happened.”
“I’ve done a lot of projects, a lot of which were definitely technical,” he noted, “but this was the most technical thing I’ve done. I wanted it to be technical. I was super stoked about that.”
He had to get to know the little critter first, of course, so he stripped off the wingsuit and started like a spaceball-mad skydiver traditionally does: in a freefly jumpsuit. He took the project to Chile for the Southern Hemisphere summer, where a drop zone gave him the okay—and some jumps, besides—to dive into the work wholeheartedly. (“The project took me years to think and ask about,” he said, “but only four or five days to make it happen.”) Stefania Martinengo, an Italian skydiver friend with lots of spaceball experience, coached him through the various tips and tricks of the spaceball trade and inspired him with lots of fun stories.
A wingsuit pilot to the core, Alvarez was out of the freefly suit and back in his wings quickly. “I just feel more comfortable in it,” he said, grinning. The project evolved quickly.
“At the beginning, everything was new for me,” Alvarez said. “But we started figuring it out—adjusting the speed of the spaceball in order to make it comfortable for the speed of the wingsuit. Then my camera flyers [Javier Tarud and Matias Baeza] and I figured out that the more weight we put in and the more stable we could make the spaceball, the better it was for me to keep up with in a wingsuit. No matter what, it was pretty much head down all the time. We were going really, really fast.”
The problem with the wingsuit, as you can probably imagine, is that there is no such thing as flying a static head down in one; you’ve always got to be moving around. Once the team dialed in the speed of the ball, the carving had to be next.
“The first time it worked was really amazing,” Alvarez said, grinning. “I was actually able to fly with the spaceball and stay close to it and carve around and switch and do some snakes. First, I was really stoked because I was happy to realize that it was actually possible to do it. Then it was even more challenging because I wanted to go for more difficult things—not only staying close to the ball, but to do these really beautiful carves.”
Then, of course, there’s one extremely important aspect of any spaceball jump: You need to catch the ball. And to do so, you have to be very precise. And the old-school spaceball jumpers who paved the way weren’t generally carving like heck when they did so. Alvarez had to kind of reinvent the quickly spinning wheel. So he jumped and he jumped and he jumped, working closer and closer to the ball every time. Finally, he made contact.
“For the first time, I touched the ball,” he said, grinning. “I went into another dimension. I had this ball in my hand! I was carving with my camera flyer and I released it again and again.” (It’s important to note that Alvarez always released the ball with sufficient time before deployment altitude for his camera flyer to recapture it.) Alvarez continued, “I had proved it was doable. Finally. It was pretty safe and very, very technical but beautiful at the same time. It really fulfilled everything I was looking for.”
The road between “probably doable” and “everyone’s doing it” is becoming a shorter and shorter one in air sports, so it’s not surprising that Alvarez’s next big goal is to bring wingsuit spaceball carving out to the world at large.
“People are going to like this,” he said, enthusiastically. “I would love for us to have competitions around spaceballs. Just like back in the day.”
About the Author
Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.