When The Kinks released (Wish I could fly like) Superman in 1979, their 'nine stone weakling' had little chance of realising his dream. Thirty five years later it seems anything is possible.
Jokke Sommer jumped from Mount Bispen, Norway in 2009. At first he fell almost vertically down the north eastern face, faster and faster until the air flowing over his fabric wingsuit allowed him to move away from the side of the mountain. Within three seconds he was moving at over a hundred miles an hour, precisely controlling his flight with small, intuitive body movements. His high performance wingsuit would have allowed him to soar out high over the Isterdalen valley but instead he banked right to pass just above the gentler south eastern slope. Lining up perfectly, he dived down towards a protruding hairpin bend of the Trollstigen road.
Jokke Sommer's Bispen Flight
On the ground Trond Teigen captured the sound of rushing air that signalled Jokke's approach, then the spectacular moment as he flashed past, just a few meters from spectators on the road. From here the slope drops away steeply, giving Jokke space to deploy his parachute for a safe landing in the valley. The first few seconds of this video show Trond's amazing footage as Jokke streaks past the road. Faster than a speeding bullet? Perhaps not, but still plainly reminiscent of a certain comic book Superhero!
A New Era Of Human Flight
Jokke is wearing a Phoenix fly wingsuit based on the design conceived by skydiving legend Patrick de Gayardon. In 1994 Patrick applied the principles used in ram air parachutes to create a fabric wing which could hold its aerodynamic shape without the need for stiff supports. After the many lives lost in wingsuit experiments since the 1930's, it came as a huge breakthrough! In 1999 a fantastic new world of human flight possibilities opened up to the jumping public when two companies began marketing their versions of the design. Sadly Patrick did not get to see how greatly the air sports community benefited from his work. He died in 1998 while testing refinements to his equipment.
To Infinity And Beyond
A great feature of the wingsuit is the ability to cover considerable distances. A proficient jumper in freefall can manipulate the airflow over his body to fly horizontally as much as one meter for each meter that he falls. With a modern wingsuit he can fly up to three times further.
Adventurer Dean Potter holds the current world record for the longest wingsuit flight from a fixed object. In Nov 2011 he jumped from the Eiger in the Swiss Alps and covered 7.5 Kilometres before opening his chute.
The art of distance flying is still a large part of the sport, but the exhilaration of leaping from a cliff and flying high over the landscape was not enough for some people. Despite flying at up to 130mph, their altitude greatly reduced any perception of speed. They began to fly lower.
Back in 2003 Loic Jean-Albert made a jump from a helicopter over the village of Verbier in the Swiss Alps. Following the terrain down for over half a mile, he flew just metres above the craggy surface. Footage of his descent introduced the world to the concept of wingsuit proximity flight. In the years since, many people have followed in Loic's slipstream. A quick internet search throws up plenty of breathtaking footage as wingsuit pilots skim down mountainsides, fly inches from cliff walls, pass through waterfalls, buzz trees, and even fly through narrow gorges.
A nice compilation of (mostly) Wingsuit Base Jumping Footage
So how low do these people fly? In an interview for Skydive Radio Mike Steen claimed to have once passed a mountain goat at eye level, and Matt Gerdes revealed that he used to feel the rapid tick, tick, tick of bushes brushing his toes! "That's in my past for sure" he added, "It's still really fun twenty, thirty feet from the terrain."
Respecting The Dangers
Matt has good reason for backing off a little. Many wingsuit base jumps are carried out safely each year, but sadly the sport has frequently claimed lives of people pursuing their ultimate dream. Some of the losses were highly experienced flyers, among the most skilled in the sport. As humans we will always make mistakes, and accidents at 120mph with virtually no protection are rarely going to be survivable. Jeb Corliss, widely regarded as the most experienced base jumper alive, was lucky to survive impacting a ledge of Table Mountain in 2012 (see video above 3:30). In an interview while recovering from his injuries Jeb spoke of his passion to carry on: "If you had the ability to fly, would you stop? Never! No! Flying is awesome! I will do flying until I die; I mean there's nothing that's going to stop me from flying!"
The sport is growing as more people want to experience what they've seen in youtube wingsuit flying videos. In an effort to increase safety, several accomplished flyers have passed on lessons and guidelines. There is one common message which is often repeated:
"Don't try and do what you see in videos without proper training.It took us years to get there" -Loic Jean-Albert
"The less training you have, the more often you do mistakes. So stressing into proximity flying often gives people a short life" -Espen Fadnes
"I was in the sport for six years before I flew close to anything at all. You have to balance your desire with a slow enough progression to stay alive." -Matt Gerdes
"Simply don't rush it! :)" -Jokke Sommer
Flying For Good
So what comes next for somebody who has achieved their lifelong dream to conquer the air? In his 2013 TedX presentation, British Army Major Alastair Macartney told of a mental crash after years of incredible flying experiences. He felt that the freedom he sought was not complete by being able to fly, that he was compelled to use his skills for the benefit of others. He came up with the idea for an extreme human flight team to raise awareness for the Royal British Legion, a charity which provides outstanding support for serving and veteran armed forces personnel. With friends Sergeant Deane Smith and former Warrant Officer Spencer Hogg, he formed Jump4Heroes.
Jump4Heroes Wingsuit Proximity Flying at Mount Brento, Italy
Image used with kind permission of Alastair Macartney; Team Leader of Jump4Heroes
To date the trio have undertaken a variety of impressive projects, including courageous wingsuit proximity flights in Brento, Italy and this stunning three man formation from the famous north face of the Eiger.
Alastair took his TEDtalk to Kansas City where he began with a film of his recent base jump from the world war one Liberty Memorial. He spoke of his desire to inspire and motivate others to step outside of their comfort zones and make the most of their skills, to push their own boundaries and do something special. Powerful message for a nine stone weakling with knobbly knees...
"I'd really like to change the world
And save it from the mess it's in
I'm too weak, I'm so thin
I'd like to fly but I can't even swim
Superman Superman wish I could fly like Superman" The Kinks