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Join Date: Mar 2008
Location: Perth, WA
Re: Big Balls wingsuit ride
Don't pack your parachute: Totally free fall
* 17 November 2009 by Julian Smith
ON A bright day in 1912, an Austrian tailor named Franz Reichelt jumped off the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. This was no suicide attempt. Reichelt was wearing a special overcoat of his own design that was supposed to let him glide gently to the ground. Sadly, it didn't work. As the crowd watched and movie cameras whirred, the "flying tailor" plunged 60 metres to his death.
Over the next few decades, up until the 1960s, daredevil showmen continued to experiment with homemade wings of canvas, wood or silk - with one crucial difference. These so-called "Birdmen" relied on parachutes to land; the wings were just there to let them "fly" on the way down. Even so, many died, usually when their wings interfered with the parachute. The idea fell out of vogue until the introduction of safer commercial wingsuits in the 1990s.
Now a small group of fearless - some would say foolhardy - wingsuit enthusiasts is reviving the dream of the very first birdmen. Their ambition is to jump out of a plane, glide thousands of metres and land in one piece - without a parachute.
At least two teams around the world are bent on tackling this pinnacle of extreme sports, and they have very different approaches in mind. In the race to be the first, secrecy rules, but the leading contenders have revealed some tantalising details of what they hope will be - only metaphorically, of course - a ground-breaking achievement.
A modern wingsuit is a full-body outfit with wings of tough nylon sewn between the arms and the torso, and between the legs: think Las Vegas-era Elvis crossed with a flying squirrel. During free fall, the airflow inflates the wings to form aerofoils, creating lift and turning a one-dimensional drop into a three-dimensional glide. While skydivers usually fall at terminal velocity - about 195 kilometres per hour - a wingsuit flier falls at only 80 to 100 km/h while travelling horizontally at 115 to 160 km/h. Skilled fliers can perform surprisingly precise aerial manoeuvres, including briefly slowing their vertical descent to zero and even gliding upwards a short distance at the end of a swooping dive. Daring individuals have skimmed as low as 5 metres above sloping ground.
Wingsuit pilots always use a parachute to touch down safely but, perhaps inevitably, a few have started to wonder if they could do without one. It's the most common thing skydivers say when they first try a wingsuit, says veteran pilot and wingsuit flier Tim Mace. "Because they're used to falling so fast, a wingsuit seems like it's stationary."
"My resentment toward the parachute surfaced early on," says Maria von Egidy, a wingsuit designer and film costume maker in Cape Town, South Africa. "There are simply too many restrictions created by its size, position and deployment."
So is a chuteless landing even theoretically possible? "It is doable," thinks physicist and parachute researcher Jean Potvin at Saint Louis University in Missouri. For it to succeed, keeping control over the flier's speed and trajectory is key. With its high speed and tiny wing area, a wingsuit is responsive to the slightest movement- more like an F-16 than a jumbo jet- and leaves little margin for error.
Copying the way others land has to be a promising approach, and is the one adopted by von Egidy, who heads a wingsuit company called Jii-Wings. Just before touchdown, parachutists and hang-gliders execute a manoeuvre called a flare: raising the craft's nose to maximise lift from its wings while cutting its speed. Larger aircraft and many birds also flare when landing. Von Egidy is developing a suit she calls the Integrated Glide and Landing System (IGALS) that will allow fliers to do the same. It aims to achieve two things, the first being a much flatter glide angle. Normal wingsuits have a glide ratio of about 2.5:1- the pilot travels 2.5 metres horizontally for every metre of fall. Von Egidy claims she can achieve 4:1 or better by increasing the suit's wingspan, stabilising the aerofoil and changing the wing's shape.
The most innovative part of the design, though, is that it allows the pilot to drop out of the wing just before landing and hang beneath it, rather like a hang-glider pilot does, making it easier to flare without losing control. This is the key to achieving the second aim: to slow "smoothly and dramatically" just before touchdown, so that the pilot ends up flying slowly enough to simply run off the excess speed, as in a parachute landing. Von Egidy, who is revealing the concept behind the suit for the first time here, claims it has "proved totally viable" in scale-model tests. She plans to enlist stunt riggers to help set up giant swings so test pilots can practise swooping. After that will come high-altitude free-fall tests, using cut-away suits that pilots can discard in mid-air if anything goes wrong.
Flexible wings, long glides, a short swoop to a soft landing- isn't that pretty much how gliding mammals do it? Yes, says Greg Byrnes of the University of California, Berkeley, who studies Malayan colugos, otherwise known as "flying lemurs". But the analogy can be deceiving. If you want to land like a gliding mammal, Byrnes points out, there is a real problem with wing-loading - the ratio of weight to wing area.
Simply making a larger version of a flying mammal's body won't work, as body weight increases as the cube of height or length, while wing area increases far more slowly, as the square of height. So to glide as slowly and touch down as gently as a flying lemur, a person would need very large wings. Aerospace engineer L. Van Warren, who runs the design firm Warren Design Vision in Little Rock, Arkansas, calculates that a 1.8-metre-tall person would need a wing surface of 24 square metres to soar like a flying squirrel. That or the pilot would have to weigh no more than 9 kilograms.
If slowing down a wingsuit isn't possible, that leaves just one logical alternative, says skydiver Jeb Corliss: coming in to land at high speed. The former host of Discovery Channel's Stunt Junkies series, Corliss has made more than 1000 base jumps from mountainsides, towers and other tall structures. For his next project, he plans to leap from a helicopter, aiming for a huge runway suspended in the sky that slopes at 45 degrees at one end and curves to flatten out at ground level at the other. Wearing a special wingsuit, he will enter the top of the ramp at 175 km/h and slide to a stop. "It really isn't that complicated," he says.
Not complicated in principle perhaps, but the scheme requires at least three high-tech components: a coating for the runway to control friction as Corliss slides to a halt; a guidance system above the runway so he can be sure his speed and flight angle is exactly right on his approach; and a wingsuit that will slide smoothly along the runway while protecting his body from the heat generated by the skid. Corliss will be aiming for a "window" just 2 metres square at the top of the slide, and there won't be any test runs. "The first time it's landed, it's landed," he says.
That may sound like a modern version of Reichelt's leap, but it is not quite as foolhardy. If it goes wrong, there is an escape plan. "If you're within even 1 foot of landing, if you don't like it for whatever reason, you can fly away and open a parachute," he says - albeit at just 60 metres above the ground.
Assuming a bailout doesn't prove necessary, it will be critical for Corliss to control his momentum and slide path after touching down. "If you start to tumble or go sideways, you'll start flipping and flopping, and every time you do, you'll break something important, like your neck."
"Anything base jumpers think is crazy, you know, is crazy," Corliss admits. But he also points out that flight itself was once considered laughable, let alone skydiving and wingsuit flying. "Way back when, they thought ski jumpers were totally insane," Potvin says. "Now it's in the Olympics."
Anything that base jumpers think is crazy, you know, is crazy
Mace has also given some thought to the idea of skidding to a stop. From an aeronautical perspective, he says, the issue is how to land a wing with no engine. The closest existing analogy may be the Space Shuttle, which glides in to land down a steep approach path before flaring when it reaches the runway. Commercial pilots also practise landing without engines, Mace says, and a wingsuit isn't all that different.
But aircraft, of course, have landing wheels. Even if you flared a wingsuit on landing, you would still need something like a biker's suit, only much tougher. "You'd need fairly solid ceramic body plates," Mace says, probably from head to toe. "There are suits around now that this could be done with, definitely: high-lift suits without too much forward speed." He thinks a team of 10 or more could come up with a working design in a year for about $500,000.
Whether or not chuteless landing is possible, the idea has an irresistible lure for some. Von Egidy sees her suit as a step towards a grander vision of people soaring like birds, not just gliding. "There could be nothing more challenging on Earth than to explore the limits of direct human flight. We are in fact far better suited to flight than we believe."
Needless to say, not everyone agrees. A chuteless landing "won't bring much to the sport", says Loïc Jean-Albert of Gap in France. Videos of him soaring down Norwegian valleys and snow-covered mountainsides have made him a wingsuit celebrity. "It's more of a media thing... I'm quite happy with a parachute."
Some wingsuit enthusiasts worry that the race to achieve a chuteless landing will lead to an accident that tarnishes the image of their sport. As an instructor on the popular online skydiving forum Dropzone.com puts it: "Anyone can land a wingsuit without a parachute... once."
The designers and pilots aiming to land unaided have a somewhat different worry. They fear that sometime, somewhere, a wingsuit flier will accidentally land without a chute and survive. "That person will be the first to land a wingsuit," Mace says. "Whether they did it safely and repeatably will be irrelevant. No one ever remembers who came second."
For Corliss, achieving something new is a key part of the challenge. "It's becoming next to impossible to do something no one else has ever done," he says. He compares the quest to fly and land without a chute to last century's efforts to climb mount Everest. "People have been dreaming about something like this since the days of Icarus," he says. "It's about pushing the boundaries of what humans can do." It is also about proving the naysayers wrong. "Nothing makes me happier than when I hear someone say, 'You will die, this is impossible.' I'm going to do it, it's going to happen, one way or the other."
Nothing makes me happier than when I hear someone say, 'This is impossible, you will die'
Julian Smith is a writer based in Portland, Oregon
For those of you who know me, you will be aware my ambitions are unlimited. You know I'll settle for nothing short of greatness. For those that don't, allow me to introduce myself. I am McDethWivFries, and if you'll indulge me. I'd like to play my cowbell.