The history of wingsuit flying up to around 2010 is pretty well documented. Taya Weiss wrote an excellent article, “Icarus in Nylon,” on the development of the discipline for the April 2010 issue of Parachutist (available under the Back Issues tab at Parachutist.com). So I’ll skip all of the “man has been dreaming of flight since time immemorial” stuff. Let’s skip over DaVinci’s sketches, the guy who jumped unsuccessfully from the Eiffel tower and even the legendary and most crucial player in the entire history of wingsuits, Patrick De Gayardon, who piloted his own suit designs in ways that turned a bizarre stunt into an actual sport. Since the development of the sport in the last decade is largely the stuff of YouTube videos, let’s talk about what’s next. Where’s wingsuiting going in the future?
Of course, no one knows for sure what the future of our little corner of skydiving holds, and the Damoclean swords of Part 91 insurance troubles, fuel prices, carbon emissions and the unknown-unknowns all hang heavily overhead. But we can get a sense of what’s coming in the near future by looking at the recent past. Wingsuit flying has come a long way in the past decade. By all accounts, this part of our sport has grown by 300-400% in terms of active jumpers. Demand, industry competition and the kinetics of social media have driven this growth. So, the future is looking rather bright.
Courtesy of Squirrel.
There’s a reason wingsuit flyers are excited, even bullish, about every aspect of wingsuit flying, because they see firsthand how much effort is going into developing it. One of the most unexpected and exciting areas of development is in applying modern technology—specifically, the adaptation of heads-up displays and augmented reality—to the relatively low-tech activity of wingsuit flights. Imagine exiting a plane solo and flying a virtual 3D course through the air, with dives and flares and massive banking turns at high speeds through tunnels, donut-shaped gates and around “objects,” and then being able to share that course and your score with jumpers from around the world who can load the same game into their headsets. This has been coming for a while, but recent advances in latency reduction and hardware improvements are getting to the point where this will be a game-changing toy in the near future—watch this space.
The development of a wingsuit is never done. With each model, at a certain point the manufacturer has to stop the progress and call it finished in order to release something into the wild. The day after that version ships, the work continues on the next version of it. The result is a continuous incremental improvement of each design, with public product releases every two to three years simply being waypoints during development.
For wingsuit designers, the suit-design factors that we are continually working to improve are simultaneously at odds and complimentary—for example, trying to reduce the stall speed of each design without reducing the top speed. In order to do this, we have to find ways to reduce drag (primarily the reduction of parasitic drag through the reduction of suit deformation and total reference area) but also increase lift (without increasing reference area!). A low stall speed makes it easier to fly in formation with a diverse range of suits, fly XRW (mixed wingsuit and canopy flight) and maintain comfort at higher angles of attack during parachute deployment. And, of course, a suit with a high top speed is loads of fun. Therefore, small performance improvements in just one area of suit design can make wingsuiting safer and more fun across a wide range of disciplines ... and the list of design considerations is long.
Over the next few years, wingsuit designers will continue to make improvements in every aspect of performance, from stall speed to top speed to the consistency of internal pressurization and even general comfort. In short, with each passing year, it becomes easier and more fun to fly a wingsuit while more possibilities for wingsuit flight materialize.
Industry competition has had a highly positive effect on these advances. Excitingly, but also frustratingly from a design perspective, the margins considered significant become smaller as time goes on. A 2% performance increase in a race suit doesn’t sound like much, but nowadays it could mean the difference between being on the podium or not in an international-level competition.
Some other margin increases result in more dramatic practical evolution. To get an idea of what low-speed efficiency and high-speed handling performance increases can yield, search for “Will Mitchell jumps the Y” on YouTube. Trust me, it’s worth it if you like to be impressed by human flight.
Wingsuiters are like bananas, they come in bunches. Around the world, DZs that adopt wingsuit-friendly attitudes and procedures sell a lot more jump tickets to this increasingly dedicated segment of the sport. It’s hard to know how many people get into skydiving solely to fly a wingsuit, but the percentage is significant and undoubtedly feeds the growth of skydiving in general ... ask any tandem instructor how many times they’ve been told “I want to do that wingsuit stuff” by their students.
Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, the DZ manager at Skydive Perris in California, has witnessed this growth first hand, saying, “I’ve watched as many of the new disciplines developed. I was there when Omar [Alhegelan] and Olav [Zipser] started freeflying, and people were asking, ‘what the hell are those guys doing?’ Each discipline has followed a similar process: A few people try something new and crazy, and if they stick with it and don’t hurt themselves, they develop new, unique flying skills. It starts to spread slowly at first. In the early stages, there isn’t any real measurement of skill, so a new discipline is unjudgmental and very inclusive. As jumpers become more skilled, they try to push themselves further, and competitions and records develop. This was the case with formation skydiving, freeflying and now tracking and angle flying. Wingsuiting, in most ways, is no different, but it is more complex because it requires a significant amount of gear. Like other disciplines, in the beginning the vast majority of people didn’t want to touch it. After the initial growth began, it was about creating structure for the discipline to be able to grow and be accessible. Once that was in place, it became another awesome way to fly. It’s beautiful that wingsuiting has turned into that. It’s now on equal footing with other disciplines, and with a little thought and planning, we can easily share the skies together.”
Thanks to good management and positive wingsuit vibes, Skydive Perris has become a major hub of wingsuit flight over the past few years. Perris manifest reports that there were around 3,300 wingsuit jumps in 2016, and there have been more than that in just the first few months of 2021 alone, putting this year on track to double the 2016 numbers.
Photo by Dan Dupuis.
The design of any product evolves in a mutually beneficial relationship with its users. A designer makes a suit that can do X, and then some amazing wingsuit pilot out there goes and does X plus Y, equaling some amazing and previously unimaginable thing which inspires the designer to make another suit that does X+Y even better, resulting in more user innovation. It’s a beautiful thing! And, added to that, we’re seeing the expansion of some highly useful training tools.
In 2017, Inclined.se unveiled the world’s first wingsuit tunnel. Initially an air-deflecting ramp inside of a level loop, it is now an impressively inclined section of tube that is capable of supporting flight from tracking-suit to high-performance-wingsuit glide ranges. There is likely no better environment to learn static transitions, stable flight and precise static maneuvers. The U.S. location, planned for Kissimmee, Florida (near Orlando), will undoubtedly expand the substantial impact of this tool in our sport.
Simultaneously, over the past few years, wingsuit training has evolved a great deal with the emergence of camps and coaching. The organization Next level Flight (nextlevel.ws) focuses on wingsuit training and safety development in the skydive and BASE environments. In the spirit of other organizations such as Flight-1 (for canopy flight), it hosts camps and provides coaching at DZs around the world, with an evolving curriculum focused on improving basic safety in formation flying and advancing technique in general. The effect of good coaching cannot be overstated—the difference in fun and safety between flying in a modern, high-speed 3D formation vs. the traditional and unfortunately still-widespread practice of 2D low-speed flight is massive! Get your DZ up to speed if it hasn’t hosted a 3D-flight camp yet.
Back in 2014, it seemed like wingsuits reached some form of critical mass or peak demand in the media and popular culture. YouTube, Facebook, Hollywood and the like pushed images of wingsuits into the faces of grandmothers in distant countries, in addition to everyone here at home. Seven years later, it doesn’t seem to have peaked yet. Eventually skydiving may be supplanted by personal VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) electric turbine-powered auto-stable flying machines launched from our backyards, but in the meantime—as more and more people make the transition from dreaming about human flight to doing it—many are choosing wingsuits. Which brings us to the crux point of any skydiving discipline, the DZ.
“Movement” is sort of an understatement when used to describe a modern wingsuit skydive. Today’s higher-performance suits can cover patterns that range two to three miles from the DZ and last several minutes. This brings us to a murky part of the future that we can’t see well into, but one of two outcomes is certain: There will either be more collisions between wingsuits and other things or more DZs will adopt proper safety precautions. Of course, there is always a third option: ban wingsuits and sell fewer jump tickets. All of these possibilities argue for one simple solution: wingsuit pilots and DZ management should educate themselves on how to set safe and simple rules to keep wingsuits, aircraft, and tandem or other student skydivers safe. Establishing basic communication between manifest, wingsuiters and pilots is critical. As are well-established paths of flight, opening areas and procedures for multiple wingsuit groups per plane. DZOs can avail themselves of the answers to the question of how to integrate wingsuit flying at nextlevel.ws.
About the Author
Matt Gerdes, D-32437, is the founder of Squirrel, a manufacturer of wingsuits and equipment, and the author of “The Great Book of BASE.” He has completed more than 1,200 BASE jumps with no injuries. He is an FAA-rated pilot, and a member of Next Level Flight, an organization working to further the education of wingsuit flyers and BASE jumpers worldwide.