Published On June 17, 2014 » 1029 Views» Articles
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By Emily Wheeler
Photography / Ian Webb www.ian-webb.com
The great dream of human flight is as old as man. The ancient Chinese, Leonardo da Vinci, and Marco Polo all experimented with and wrote about this surreal visualization. Most anyone will say that they have wistfully envisioned being able to fly like a bird.
The Wright brothers may have been the first to successfully design a contraption that could carry a person into flight, but only within the last decade or so have people been able to actually free-fly with simply a suit fitted to their bodies. This miracle of modern design, and the newest extreme sport, is becoming more and more popular with the creation of the World Wingsuit League. Expert skydivers and BASE jumpers are learning by the hundreds how to pilot these suits in which they are able to extend their air time, gliding with flexible fabricated “wings,” before safely parachuting to the ground. This idea may sound somewhat insane, yet what these people do is truly awe-inspiring. The sport of wingsuiting is so brand new in the realm of extreme sport, the limits to where it may go are endless.
Liro Seppanen is a Finnish skydiving, BASE-jumping, wingsuitpiloting, film-producing lover of life who founded the World Wingsuit League. Iiro is a man who actually DOES all of the things that people dream of doing. A good-natured, good-hearted, traveling daredevil, Iiro is a huge part of a revolutionary moment in time for cutting-edge extreme sporting. Iiro started out making his name doing air-born Houdini-like stunts with a European magic troop as a teenager. He became a professional BASE jumper, and eventually a television and film producer, founding Pan Pacific Entertainment with his partner Frank Yang. Iiro was one of the first testers of the “Birdman,” the first commercialized wingsuit in the late 90’s. He also founded the World Wingsuit League with the help of Frank Yang. Iiro is the greatest supporter of this sport and is passionate about educating people as to what it entails use.
These suits, which when the limbs are expanded give the wearer the appearance of either Batman or a flying squirrel, add area to the person’s body to create more lift and drag to the jumper’s free fall for more flight efficiency. Meaning that the air resistance or glide ratio will add approximately 2.5 meters moving forward for every 1 meter dropped. This resistance can also slow down the free fall and add time to the jump. The first person to use a suit to fly from a base was Rex G. Finney of Los Angeles in 1930. The suits used at this time were made from canvas, silk, wood, and even whale bone, and were obviously not very successful. Patrick de Gayardon of France designed the original modern wingsuit in the mid-1990’s. In 1999, Jari Kuosma of Finland established Birdman International LTD with his “Classic” wingsuit, which became available commercially for the first time to expert skydivers. In present time, there are several wingsuit manufacturers constantly designing more efficient and safer models. Some wingsuit companies include S-FLY, Phoenix Fly, Squirrel (appropriately named), and Tony Suits. All of these manufacturers stress the absolute importance of safety instruction and thorough training on how to use these suits.
Before you decide to buy a Squirrel suit online, know that the recommended amount of skydives one should do before trying a wingsuit is 200-500, meaning that the wingsuits are for EXPERT SKYDIVERS. It is of course possible to become an expert skydiver, though it will absolutely take time, hundreds of jumps, and thorough instruction. Some of the top wingsuit athletes are John Devore from the United States with 20 years experience, 18,000 skydives, and 1000 wingsuit jumps; Frederic Fugen of France with 17 years of experience 14,000 skydives, 10,000 BASE jumps, and 1,500 wingsuit jumps; Ellen Brennan with 7 years experience, 600 skydives, 700 BASE jumps, and 400 wingsuit jumps; and of course the world champion in wingsuit competition, Jhonathan Florez who has 10 years experience, 4,000 skydives and 3,000 wingsuit jumps.
Competition is the fuel to the fire that will keep any sport going. Watching sporting competitions is one of the favorite pastimes of people across the planet. Extreme sports like surfing, skateboarding, and motocross have exploded onto the world’s plane of sight in the last twenty years. It may seem far- fetched to be able to have a wingsuit competition, but with the help of Iiro Seppanen and Pan Pacific Entertainment, a yearly world wingsuit competition is held in China. Iiro and Frank Yang have been able to work well with the Chinese government. In turn, the same amazing Chinese location can be used again and again. The competition is held in October in an absolutely spectacular place, Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province. These jutting, rounded mountains covered in flora, inspired the “Floating Mountains” in the film Avatar. Here a “course” is flown by wingsuit athletes over a designated line on the ground. It can be likened to super slalom in the downhill skiing world. Yet this slalom is above the ground. The course is 1.2 kilometers long, flown from the jumping-off point, a 1,480 meter cliff/ridge. The wingsuit athletes fly along a valley, near another tall ridge, and the multiple individuals’ flight times are compared. Jhonathan Florez is the current world champion of the second annual WWL competition completing the course in 23.4 seconds.
The future of the sport of wingsuiting is unknown. The founders of the World Wingsuit League envision the world-wide televising of wingsuit athletes becoming close to as covered as other extreme sports. Wingsuiting could possibly popularize this genre of adrenaline sports, just as UFC popularized martial arts. Wingsuit competition is already red hot in China, the last world competition having had half a billion viewers. Most wingsuit athletes have become small producers themselves, recording their flights and posting them online. Indeed, even the viewer gets an undeniable rush from watching these daredevil athletes. Something that is also quite fascinating to the viewer, is the path taken, and the challenges faced that an individual encounters to become a wingsuit athlete. Not only does it take time and training, it takes perseverance, dedication, and a serious love for the idea of flying with a wingsuit. This is not a sport that someone can pick up as a hobby, simply because they think it looks cool. This is a privilege that comes out of the fruit of intense labor. One has to be passionate about the idea of ultimately catching more air than any other extreme sport will give you. Wingsuiting is the ultimate airborne experience, exceeding even its predecessor, skydiving.
Wingsuit athletes are not simply adrenaline junkies. These are the first people to experience the enigma of a human free flying. They are on the cutting-edge of a revolutionary time in discovering what humans can do with their bodies. Iiro Seppanen describes wingsuiting as being like love, in that if you are too afraid to take the leap, you will never experience the greatest feeling in the entire world. He also says that being a wingsuit athlete is not about being the bravest person, it is about being able to do something amazing in spite of your fear.