Saturday, September 09, 2006

Stop, Drop, and Roll. Repeat as Necessary

Why is this man running? One explanation is that he, Jay Stokes, is in a hurry to get from his parachute to a plane so he can go back up in the sky and jump out again, land, and hurry to get from his parachute to a plane, so he can go back up in the sky, etc. I'd have said ad infinitum instead of etc., but Stokes seems to have stopped after the 641st time.

The clock, you see, had run out. This morning, after 24 hours, Stokes set a new record for jumps in a single day, breaking the previous one, also set by himself, of 534. The difference alone is more than all but a few skydivers have made in a day. Of course, a more impressive feet would be to break a record currently shared by myself and a few others: Least number of jumps in a day. How ya gonna top that one, Mr. Stokes?

Another explanation for the hustle, is that Stokes is running from his wife. As he told me before the event: "My wife’s about to kill me, she wants to throttle me when I talk about this. She supports me but she knows I need to stop. If I can break 600, there's nothing left to prove. Of course, I’ve said that at least two or three times before. If 400’s doable, why not 500? If 500's doable, etc." Since Stokes surpassed the mere 600 jumps he was aiming for by so much, the new record may turn his mind to trying 700 sometime in the future. Whether he'll be able to set a new record for most number of jumps while maintaining a marriage remains to be seen.

Other points of interest:

To take off, reach altitude, and return to the ground in under two-and-a-half minutes, the pilots had to be as good at flying as Stokes was at jumping. "When they kick me out, they nose over—it looks like a crash—then they pull up and drop in and land," Stokes said. "For the pilots I've selected, it's normal."

Stokes has a rigged rig that allows him to spiral down to ground faster. "It’s something I added in, a secret thing . . . a mechanical advantage."

Stokes had three planes going and 20 people on the ground working for him. 25 "systems" were cycled by six packers working in four hour shifts. Two people helped Stokes out of his harness when he touched ground while another pair fitted him into the next one soon after. A special forces medic made sure he was never losing it. "If it looks like I’m doing something silly, a sharp turn as I'm coming in to land, this guy knows what questions to ask."

As for the question Stokes is asked all too often—"Why?"—he says the following: "When you're dong this, you question yourself. 'Why am I even here?' What helps me is I’ve done that four times."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

French Flies

A question posed by the Icarus Report on May 3rd, 2006, has been resolved. Wingsuit flyer and birdman historian Francis Heilmann tells us that it's highly unlikely that Jean Durand the batwing jumper is the same man as Jean Durand the stunt flyer who lived in or visited the U.S. in 1928. J.D. of the batwings was a French soldier who flew in 1950 with wings of silk. In 1951, after a particularly terriflying (that was a typo, but I'm leaving it in) flight filled with spins he decided to put down the wings for good, thus saving his life.

Heilmann has also recently published an article in Paramag about the first French batwing jumper, featured above. "The first French parachutist with wings was 'James Williams' (his true name was Jean Niland), and he flew from a plane on the 16th of March, 1937 at Toussus-Paris, maybe for only one flight, no more, 40 days before the death of Clem Sohn," Heilmann wrote to me. The Icarus Report hopes to offer a full translation of the piece as soon as it's available.

On another note, I'd like to point out that an article I wrote about for Popular Mechanics about Visa Parviainen (who strapped jet engines to his ankles and flew horizontally for 30 seconds in his wingsuit) seems to have slipped under the radar of the skyflying community. You can read it here.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Fatal Subtraction

"Between 1930 and 1961 72 out of 75 birdmen died trying to achieve their dream," states the BirdMan manual. This statistic has been batted around in just about every web site, article, and conversation that touches upon the history of the wingsuit. I repeated it myself in a story for ForbesFYI several years ago. And the British Parachute Association has a web page that says "72 out of the 75 skydivers who became birdmen lost their lives in the pursuit of human flight." Popular Science ran an article (shortly after the ForbesFYI piece, I hasten to point out) claiming that "From 1930 to the early 1960s, out of 75 actively experimenting birdmen, 72 were killed in the pursuit." As I'd rather not tire you with more variations on the same sentence, let's just stop right now and say "etc." For the time has come to deal with this statistic head on.

Where, you ask, do these numbers come from? And I answer thusly: From a book called Parachuting Folklore by Michael Horan. On page 76 of that work we find the following:

Roy "Red" Grant, self proclaimed as the last of the birdmen, estimates there were never more than seventy-five of these characters. He figures three quit the business, he is alive and the rest of the batmen made a big hole in the ground."

Now, there's a lot that can be said about these words. By Mr. Grant's count we should say either that 71 of 75 birdmen survived or that 72 of 76 survived. Who's to blame for the shoddy arithmetic, I don't know. Martin Caidin, in his Barnstorming, starts a chapter on Grant by saying that "there have been only seventy-six batmen" and goes on to say that Grant is the "last of the breed." Caidin's book came first (1965) so we can't assume another batman cropped up on the scene between the publication of the two books. Regardless, Grant was neither the last of the birdmen nor the last of the breed. Several batwing jumpers flew for the first time not long after he retired, to say nothing of today's flockers. Already we see that his word can be questioned, never mind the "estimates" of the paragraph above.

Soon after I published my own regurgitation of this dubious data I got a call from Charlie Laurin informing me that he and his pal Art Lussier were two of the original batmen (can you see where this is going?). Further research revealed that Earl Stein was likely one of the survivors. That made three, four if you counted Grant. And then there was Private Bannister, then Donnie Marshall, then Don R. Bost, just to name a few of the men that turned out to have finished their winged careers intact. Furthermore, many of the batwing jumpers that died during their batwing heyday met their end in plane crashes and wing-free parachute jumps. Certainly there were many that died in their wings (all the main innovators, in fact), but the percentage, it seems, was less than 50.

Maybe you call this nitpicking, maybe you think "who cares?" but I believe that if you look closely you will find one of those "deeper issues" lurking behind the oft repeated numbers. The fact is, this little factoid (or falstoid, apparently) is a juicy one. It's one that people don't want to let go of. I'll go so far as to guess that some of you are disappointed that the fatalities aren't as high as it first appeared. But many of these batwing jumpers, however they perished, are just numbers, not names—we don't even know if there were as many as 75. So I suppose wishing that more of them had died in wings doesn't have to mean you wish any one of them had died in wings.

Here's evidence that we enjoy the frisson that comes with a higher body count. In Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers, I mention the 72 out of 75 bit, but explain the source (and it's spuriousness) in a footnote on the same page. Several reviewers ignored the footnote and repeated the "estimation" in their reviews as if it were fact.

Now that we've set the record straight I hope you will help me, if not to eradicate the error, at least to convince journalists and manual-writers and even flight-minded conversationalists, to include a qualifier such as "according to one birdman" or "so goes the lore" or "if you can believe such hyperbole" or "so we'd morbidly like to believe," etc.

Above you can see one of the nameless batwing jumpers. If you recognize him, do send a speedy note.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chuteless Again!

Yesterday, for what seems to have been the seventh time in history, a man leapt out of an airplane without a parachute (of his own volition, one must add) met another skydiver sometime in freefall, attached the chute that was handed him, opened it and made it to the ground without injury. That man, (shown here making some humdrum jump with a parachute) is Andreas Dachtler. "It felt just like a normal jump and that was what I had expected," wrote Dachtler in an email. "The extreme mental tension during the ascent had been blown away by the wind."

Bill Cole, the second man in history to make a chuteless jump (he's responsible for two of the seven mentioned above—in 1968 and in 1972) once said a similar thing: "When I left the aircraft I just acted like there was a chute on my back, so I didn't worry about it." In fact, Dachtler's jump, which had been in the works for years, was initially supposed to include Cole as the man who would hand over the life-saving chute. Unfortunately Cole remains injured from a nasty landing he had a few years ago, and the passing of the guard had to be a figurative one.

The first to perform the stunt was Rod Pack, 41 years ago. Unlike the chutelss jumps made by Dachtler and Cole, Pack jumped out of one plane while the man with the extra chute, Bob Allen, jumped out of another 1,500 feet away.

That jump caused something of a stink in the Skydiving community as many thought such antics would make jumpers look like a bunch of crazies to the outside world. By now, such stunts are a normal part of our X-Game informed world. Or am I wrong? More details about Dachtler's jump to follow.

Remember, you heard it here first, at the Icarus Report.

Monday, June 19, 2006

When There's no Seat Cushion Flotation Device

These pictures, of Manus "Mickey" Morgan are fairly precious, if you have any interest in the history of the wingsuit. Sadly, they just wouldn't fit in the book, so I offer them to you here. The first two come from the now defunct "PIC" magazine, the last from an unknown source. Morgan was one of the first few bat-wing jumpers and for a while he held the wingsuit altitude record with a jump he made at 17,500 feet—in 1937. The hydrophobic birdman's chief innovation was to include an inflatable bladder with his gear, so he could better survive a water landing. Today's skyflyers must be stronger swimmers as they have yet to include this development.

I hope I won't disillusion you by noting that the second shot was surely taken with the plane firmly on terra firma. I bring this up because I have witnessed with my very own eyes the very same photographic technique being used today. The average news photographer is not a skydiver himself and prefers reclining at plane-side to falling backward through space with only an instant to get the shot.

On another note, I'll be reading from Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers tomorrow (June 20th) at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I can guarantee some wild tales of men with wings.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Young Bird Delays Blog

Wingsuiters, groud-bound readers, flight-minded folk, and stray stumblers,

Please forgive the delay. I have been busy bringing my own new egg into the world (will resist the temptation to put photos here). Meanwhile, the history of personal flight marches on. Please check out the supposed first military batwings (I hasten to point out, if only parenthetically, that Manus Morgan taught the National Guard how to use batwings in California back in the forties). More on this when I catch my breath.

You may possibly enjoy the following site, a recreation of one of the early tower jumpers, though in this case it's a bridge. Exactly what scene they've recreated I don't know but the wings resemble depictions of those worn by Charles Allard in 1712.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Cecil and Desistle

People, I need your help. The picture here, it seems, shows one Cecil MacKenzie. The photo appeared in Canadian Geographic with the following text: "May 24, 1912. Might as well jump: Wearing bright red tights and a leather helmet, Charles Saunders makes the first parachute jump from an airplane in Canada, over Vancouver, beating out bat-suited Cecil MacKenzie for the honours." Now, to me this reads as if MacKenzie made one of the first Canadian parachute jumps shortly after Saunders, if not immediately after him in some kind of race. Bat-wing jumping, though, did not happen till Clem Sohn hit the scene in 1935. And the picture is clearly from a later period, proabably the late sixties. My guess is that Canadian Geographic wanted to include a funny picture with the their timeline and threw this in. I've tried to get a response from someone at CG, and I've tried to find mention of MacKenzie in newspapers and elsewhere (meaning, you know, Google), all to no avail. So this is a call to all wingsuiters, all parachutists, and all Canadians: Help me find something, anything, about Cecil MacKenzie, who had some of the coolest wings in the long history of birdmen.

On another note: The book (Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers, in case you don't feel like looking over to your right) is at long last available—at Amazon, on every Barnes & Noble shelf, and, with luck, at your local little tiny bookstore. Buy it, read it if you like! Makes a great gift, works well as wallpaper, excellent material to build a house with if you're lacking bricks. I'll be giving some readings and the like in and around NYC. I'll keep you posted with exactitudes.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Ars Longa, Wingsuit Flight Even Longa

Why, I ask you, do we need to pit sprinters against each other at the same time, and in front of an audience to boot? I understand about the money, and that for the officials it's more efficient to have everyone hustling around the track together, but, you know, some people just don't test well. It could be that the fastest runners in the world remain unknown because they've got stage fright, are skittish around others, are slowed by the oppressive gaze of the man with the stopwatch, freeze at the sound of a pistol shot, etc. Seriously. Er, not seriously. Doesn't matter really.

What I'm trying to tell you is that in the world of wingsuits there exists a race that can be done at your leisure. This, again, is thanks to the magic of the Global Positioning System. Climb into your wingsuit, strap your GPS to your wrist, get in the nearest plane, take it to 13,500 feet, jump out, wait for fifteen seconds then fly—for all you're worth, or some portion of it—for two minutes, and see how far you've gone. Anytime. Any time. Have I overstated my case? Anyway, afterward you can enter the data at As you must first dowload the tracking derby "agent," your results will come straight from your GPS—you can't just write in that you flew for 94 miles. Cheating, though, is not impossible. I recommend jumping with a bazooka, stuffing the GPS inside midflight, and firing it before opening your parachute. Of course, now that the word's out, the contest will turn into one of who's got the biggest bazooka. Then again, all contests do.

The current leader is the Belgian (well, he claims to be Dutch, but who knows?), Costyn Van Dongen, who flew for 2.799 miles (long flight, small bazooka). If you don't feel like competing, you can still get a taste for what a wingsuit flight is like through Van Dongen's eyes by clicking here.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Most of us think of a parachute as something used to put people safely on the ground after a jump out of a plane. Others, though, think of the parachute as a plane. Baron Taylor for, instance, has for three weeks now been crossing the country using an aircraft that looks like something out of a Mad Max movie—maybe a batting cage crossed with a lawn mower attached to a red canopy (and, yes, he's dubbed himself The Red Baron). It's called, cleverly enough, a powered parachute, and Taylor's trip is meant to promote them for use in quick and dirty rescue and surveillance operations—what the PowerChute Education Foundation misguidedly calls ELLASS (Emergency Low Level Aerial Search & Surveillance). Is it pronounced alas or El Ass? Taylor took off from an aircraft carrier in San Diego and plans on making his way to Charlestown, South Carolina over the next few months. But judging by his May 10th road log entry he may not be proving that powerchutes are entirely safe and reliable.

Powerchute flyers fall in the category of "sport pilots" and the question immediately rises: what's the sport? Could it be coyote hunting?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Fast, First, and Famous

In the last post we dealt with the question of who might be the fastest wingsuiter of all time. The champion will be determined in June, giving us ample time to discuss, pick favorites, and place bets. But other unanswered questions about the birdmen of history are likely to remain unanswered. A favorite is Who was the first birdman? My vote goes to (you guessed it) Icarus. For several millennia the birdmen of yore enacted a tale so similar—a jump from a tower in an effort to escape incarceration, followed by a fall and usually death—that it seems hard to believe that the story of Icarus was pure myth.

Now that we've got that resolved we can turn to other inquiries. Like Who is the most famous birdman? No, it's not Patrick de Gayardon, or Leo Valentin, and probably not even Icarus. The question, framed another way, has caused several semis worth of fat to be chewed over the centuries (I'll work out the exact calculation later): Did Leonardo Da Vinci actually fly? There's no smoking gun, or twanging bow string for you anachronism hating folks, that says he did, but there are plenty of bits and pieces that suggest as much. And now we have a new one. Two determined men from Seattle, Sandy McLaughlin and John Grove, have built a working ornithopiter based on Leonardo's drawings and jottings about flight. By "working" I do not mean that the ornithopiter has ornithoped, or that it has glided for that matter: The wings are for museum display only. But the builders insist that if you climbed into the structure and hopped off a hill you might have some real air time. And if we can do it, surely Leonardo could too.

Which is the long way of saying Check This Out.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I'm with Stupino

Who's the fastest wingsuit flyer of them all? The answer, my friends, will be discovered in late June in the gloriously named Russian town, Stupino (also useful for palindromes: "Spam at noon? I put Stupino onta maps"). The event is titled The World Wingsuit Boogie and Competition, and it will be the first of its sort. Skyflyers there will attempt to outdo each other in races for speed and flights for distance—in their given weight class. There will also be a contest of some sort for style: flying in formation or performing nifty tricks in the air.

The machines that will lift wingsuiters to jumping altitude are to be two MI-8 helicopters—troop transport left over from more Soviet times. These will haul some 20 to 30 jumpers each, allowing the competitors to attempt to set a record for the largest wingsuit formation. Should they manage it, the mark will hold at least till July when 70 wingsuiters will try for such a record in Germany.

Friday, May 12, 2006


It's true that this man's sleeves are shiny, and it's true that the fibers of his wings are of the synthetic sort, and it's true that he seems to be hovering in a Star Wars like passageway, the side door of which must surely lead to a deadly trash compactor, but however futuristic this shot may seem, what's most peculiar to me is just how familiar these wings appear when compared to those of the batwing jumpers of the thirties like Jean Durand and Charlie Zmuda. Ok, I'll let that sentence end there. The man is Jari Kuosma, whose BirdMan wingsuits have pretty much allowed thousands of skydivers to fly about in the air, for several minutes at a time. And in the photo he's experimenting in a wind tunnel in Finland while developing the "Skyflyer 3—Special." The new wings (which have been on sale for a year now) have semi-rigid Mylar ribs, have disposed of Velcro, and have a faster cutaway system. Kuosma also took advantage of his time in the tunnel to test dimpled fabric, with a golf-ball like surface, that might allow for better air separation as it leaves the rear edge of the wings.

But putting fabric between the legs and between the arms and torso has been the primary birdman setup since 1935. The first bat-wings had ribs for something like rigidity as well, and those early birdmen certainly did glide—there's newsreel footage that proves it. Of course, it's true that flights of much more than a minute weren't really possible till the double layered "ram-air" wings of the 1990s, but Kuosma's wings have taken us about as far as we can go with wings that don't extend beyond arm-span. However much drag is reduced with different fabrics and shapes, the increase in performance will be marginal—nothing compared to the increased flight time that comes with a few months of shoulder pressing barbells.

If we've reached the near end of wingsuit development, what's next in this new and ever evolving sport? More flight time can really only come with longer wings. But skyflyers tend to enjoy jumping with their friends, which is part of the reason wingsuits, unlike their rigid-winged counterparts, have become so quickly popular—they don't take up an extra seat in the plane. But for a more truly birdlike flight, Skyflyers will either have to have some kind of longer, collapsible wing, or start jumping by themselves.

As for the collapsible wings . . . I'll get to that soon.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Cloud Monet?

Take a look at this picture, I say. Now before you start ranting about the NEA and the state of the art world today ("A child could have done that!" you yelp), let me explain. This is yet another new form of art: GPS art. And this particular work, as abstract as it may seem, couldn't possibly have been done by a child—at least not legally. What you are looking at are the flight paths of a flock of wingsuiters. They jumped together, each with a GPS on the wrist, with the aim of creating something like the above. Such aims, I realize, do not entirely nullify your criticism. Though it is the nature of GPS wingsuit art to accentuate fluidity, to toy with cyclone-like chaos, and to have fewer right angles than, say, GPS walking art, I am of the opinion that they can do better. Wingsuit flyers these days can stop, if not on a dime, than at least on a blanket full of Sacagawea dollars, letting them make acute angles in the air as the spirit hits them. And as they jump in greater and greater numbers, surely they can begin to draw things less amorphous and more Sistine Chapel-like. Might look nice from below.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Billabog Blog

As you read this the wild men of the Michigan Parachute Club are meeting for their annual reunion at founding member and bat-wing jumper Art Lussier's cabin in the woods, known as "The Billabog." Next year's reunion will mark the club's 50th anniversary, so I'm sure you can imagine how many times these pilots and jumpers have told the stories of how they escaped the claws, jaws, and clutches of death (and I won't spoil them for you, just in case you intend on reading the book). Rehash, hash, and rehash again is the order of the day. And yet new details emerge. The story of the time Lussier (shown then and now in the photos above) deliberately flew through a set of power lines in Alaska, knocking out power for a fairly large region for a fairly long time, it turns out, has never been fully told. After the cables snapped it seems Lussier continued flying at low altitude for some time—his plane whipped up a wind that tore some shingles off the roof of a house, as well as the man who was working on them. In another incident Lussier attempted to do a loop with a stolen PT-19. Going into the loop with the plane was easy, coming out of it was another story. He didn't manage it till just above the ground—the altitude could be measured by looking at the now shorn flag on the top of the hanger he passed over.

If you want to live a long life, don't worry yourself too much about the antioxidants, the red wine or the fish oil. Head up to Michigan and have a little of whatever the Michigan Parachute Club's been eating.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Fear Itself

Would you mind terribly if I contradict myself? In one of the posts below (May 2) I wrote a bit about how skydivers are as various as skiers and that their unique relation to fear was mostly in my imagination. I then went on to tell a story about Pamplona to make an entirely different point. But as it happens, the tale of my moment with he bulls in that town actually allowed me to make a possibly useful generalization, if not about skydivers, at least about wingsuiters.

After my first tandem jump, several seasoned wingsuit flyers and I sat at a picnic table swapping tales (and drinking beer, which—it's true what they say—never tastes as good as it does after a jump). The only experience I'd ever had that was comparable to jumping out of plane was running with the bulls. I'll spare you all the details of that saga, but I explained to them how every experienced runner I'd met suggested watching the run the first day so you could get an idea of what would happen, then running the second day. I, however, was so terrified that I decided I'd run the first day just to get it out of the way. That night I dreamt of nothing but bull horns entering flesh. I woke from what little sleep I'd had certain that I'd be dead before the morning was over. And as I wandered in my white clothes and red sash, over to the actual street on which I was surely soon to spill blood, I noticed that I was so weak with fear that my legs were numb. Walking any faster, to say nothing of running, turned out to be physically impossible. So I didn't do any running from any bulls till the second day.

Now when I told this story around the picnic table the response was not "that sucks" or even "what a wimp." Instead, the unanimous reaction was "Cool, I wish I could feel that." It had never crossed my mind that anyone would want to experience fear on that level. A picnic table of skydivers is a small sample group, I realize, but I'm inclined to think that the risk takers of the world just might enjoy taking risks more than the rest of us.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Pipe Down

The world, with it's notorious short-term memory, may have leapt on to other things, but I myself am not done with Jeb Corliss (who, just in case you really did forget, tried to jump off the Empire State Building on April 27th). Here's some inside information not reported elsewhere: Corliss himself hired at least one of the helicopters that circled above him as he stood cuffed to the outside of the observation deck railing. He apparently also hired a "visually stimulating young lady" in an effort to distract security and law enforcement. It’s also worth pointing out that Corliss’s efforts to milk the media have earned him the scorn of certain BASE jumpers who feel he may have ruined the site as a launching pad for any future jumps for others.

More shocking than these trivial details is the following fact: Mere days after Corliss was released on $3000 bail, a metal pipe managed to hop off an upper story of the new New York Times building and fall to the street below. The stunt provides us with a lesson in the value and risks of publicity. Where the face of the unsuccessful Corliss was seen by millions, few heard the story of the triumphant pipe, and no one knows its name. By choosing a site slightly lower in profile, the daring duct got to the ground below without resorting to disguise or alerting authorities with a plethora of cameras or buxom women.

Ironically, the security officers at the Empire State Building argued that they had held on to Corliss because letting him jump would have endangered the lives of passersby below. But Corliss has never killed anyone by landing on them. Thanks to lax security around the Times building, though, the pipe was able to make its jump and ended up crashing into a Honda, terrifying a family of three, and sending them to the hospital with minor injuries.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the pipe didn’t make its jump till Corliss was out on bail. Corliss, now a proven master of disguise, may have donned a Hollywood style “pipe costume” and snuck past security in the hands of a well-oiled construction worker. Police officers in the area, on the look out for more graying fat men after Corliss’s release, reportedly noticed nothing peculiar about the materials entering the construction site.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Durand Durand

In the first photo we have Jean Durand, "Stunt Flyer," standing in front of a Standard J-1—a shot taken in 1928. Below it Jean Durand poses on a windy day in his bat-wings (photo provided by Francis Heilmann). Same man? I'm guessing so, but the Jean Durand in the wings was French and "Stunt Flyer" is decidedly English. Was he on a tour of the U.S.? Flying the J-1 or jumping out of it? As he was already flying in 1928 and (still) looks very young in the second photo he was probably one of the first handful of bat-wing jumpers. He almost certainly was the first to use wings without any spars or any other rigid parts.

If you look closely you'll see a wire clipped to the front of his harness that runs down to what looks like a package wrapped around his left foot. No, he was not the original shoeicide bomber—this must have been his method of deploying flour behind him as he flew (or fell), allowing folks on the ground to see his trail through the sky. Unfortunately that is all of his story that we know. On the off chance that you've got some tidbit of information about Durand (either one) please do send me a note.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Would This Man Throw You Out Of An Airplane? And If So, Why?

When I first started writing about birdmen and wingsuits I initially wanted to discover some underlying psychology that explained why the skydivers that kept skydiving kept skydiving. I was hoping to find, in essence, a type, and went so far as to dream up three of them: 1) The daredevil that has no fear 2) The straight man that needed to overcome fear 3) The addict for whom feeling fear—and/or overcoming it—is itself a delightful high. Sounds good, perhaps, but it happens to be all folderol. A drop zone is more like a ski slope than anything else—the airplanes just another way to bring people up so they can have fun coming down. Adrenaline is surely a factor, but at the time I focused on the relationship to fear because—ahem—I was feeling plenty of my own. There are as many kinds of people skydiving as there are skiing and after a handful of jumps fear is just something to get out of the way if it happens to be there at all.

That said, there is one human trait that crops up again and again amongst winged men: a huge percentage of them have lost one or both parents as a child. Bat-wing survivor Charlie (or Carl) Laurin (shown above), for instance, was adopted as an infant. Jari Kuosma lost his father when a teen. Clem Sohn lost his mother while still a child. The list goes on. The easy explanation is that having just a bit less in the way of parents to answer to removes inhibitions to take risks. Us fully parented children tend to hear something like a voice saying "you shouldn't do that" when confronted with risk, even when fear is not an issue. When in Pamplona, for instance, a friend of mine tried to back out of running with the bulls because he knew his mother would be upset if anything happened to him. (As it happened, when his credit card was stolen he had to call home to have it cancelled. His mother, hearing that he was in Pamplona, cheerfully asked if he would be running with the bulls. And so he had to.) Had he never had a mother, perhaps he wouldn't have tried wriggling out the situation in the first place.

Or maybe it's just a statistical fluke. One way to figure it out would be to take a crop of children and "remove" the parental influence—through kidnapping or murder—and then compare the children, once they'd grown up, to some control group. Tough to get the funding on that one, though. So I'll tell you what: I'll ask a few shrinks if my theory holds water if you'll ask your skydiving, BASE jumping, sword swallowing, human cannonball friends how many parents they have.

And the answer is yes, he would, if you pushed him just a little too far.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Puttin' on the Witz

Showmanship was undeniably part of the bat-wing jumper's routine. Whatever their skills in the air, the batmen of yesteryear were sure to stoke the crowd’s excitement by strutting before them, flapping their wings, and making exaggerated claims as to what they were about to do. Once in the air, an announcer would heighten the drama by shouting for the birdman to open his parachute, as if he were mere seconds from a certain death. Perhaps the greatest bat-wing jumper of all time, in terms of showmanship, is shown here at left, the anonymous “Birdman of Haifa.” Where others faked near death experiences by letting go of an open parachute and reentering freefall before opening a reserve, the Birdman of Haifa took things one step further, terrifying his audiences by adding explosions to his show, chewing blood capsules, and exposing great plumes of body hair. His marketing abilities were matched only by his knack for positioning himself horizontally above the earth: after more than 4,600 jumps he’s still alive to tell the tale.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Flock of Ages

The opposable thumb, the large brain, the fire: These things have helped us conquer and surpass numerous inferior creatures. I mean, we get silk from worms, burn ants at our leisure, tell elephants what to do. And yet the feathered beings of our world lord it over us (most of them, anyway). Always swooping and gliding and diving and climbing. Ever looked a seagull in they eye? Nothing but scorn.

Now, I've tried to make the point that in the last few years we've made some progress in reducing this appalling gap between what we can do and what a bird can do. Going up, of course, is still the major hurdle, but birds do a few other things we'd like to manage. Namely, fly together. Flocks, they call them, and the word has been co-opted by the bird imitators of our time. Until now, though, human flocks have been fairly small. But this July, over Cochstedt, Germany, 70 wingsuiters will pour out of an Antonov 72, fly about together, and, with luck, enter the Guinness Book of World Records (for the greatest number of wingsuiters exiting a plane at one time). Each skyflyer will be provided with a smoke canister, so the view from the ground, to say nothing of from the heavens, ought to be streaked with glory.

Getting out of the plane will be the easy part of the event. "Organizing this is like trying to herd cats," says Scott Campos, a BirdMan Chief Instructor and author of Skyfling: Wingsuits in Motion, who's helping to put the flock together. "The logistics of setting up an event extend all the way down to things like porta potties, city and vendor licenseing fees."

As for flying cats—stay tuned.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Mad Dashio in Mustachio

The debate rages on: Does Jeb Corliss, the man who tried to leap from the Empire State Building on Thursday, look better with a little hair on his head? In addition to his all black gear and awe inspiring summersaults off high points all over the globe, the Corliss style includes a shiny pate. But after shedding the now famous $15,000 fat man suit and leaping over the railing on the observation deck, Corliss was caught—on camera—with the thick gray remains of the disguise still about his face. I, for one, feel he should consider a less disposable form of facial hair for the long term.

Other, similarly crucial, questions about the adventure abound. Why, you might ask, did Corliss continue to kick at security guard Kevin Downes, who eventually checked into Bellevue Hospital "with head and ankle injuries," according to the Daily News, but leave the police officers, who later arrived with bolt cutters, unscathed. The answer has something to do with Corliss's previous relations to police officers and security guards. One year ago (very nearly to the day) Corliss explained to me part of the reason he usually gets off with a mere wrist slap: "Cops are human beings, as long as they realize you’re not damaging things. They know 'this guy is a professional athlete.' If you’re cool, then, ordinairly they’re super cool. The people that seem to be aggressive and not very nice are park rangers. They're like the devil—actively, aggressively, hostile. Literally satanic. And security guards: We make them look bad, we penetrate their security like it doesn’t exist."

As Corliss pointed out to me, jumping from conveniently high places is not actually illegal and the "reckless endangerment" and trespassing charges usually get dropped. Downes's ankles, though, may make the waters Corliss is now swimming in slightly hotter. Assault charges can land people behind bars. But Corliss is sure to claim self defense, and rightly so: Downes's initial gropings could have sent Colriss over the edge in an unstable position. It would have been safer for Corliss, and the human traffic below, if they'd allowed him to jump. Never mind the glory of letting him achieve his historic first jump in facial hair.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Don't Look Back

A friend of mine was recently taking a look at the World BASE Fatality List and noticed that a seemingly large percentage of the deaths reported there involved a wingsuit. I hastened to point out that his comment said more about the dangers of misreading statistics than it did about the dangers of using a wingsuit. To begin with, if you read the list carefully you will see that all but possibly one of the deaths that occurred in a wingsuit had nothing to do with the wingsuit itself. More importantly, there's a high rate of wingsuit accidents in BASE jumping because there's simply a high rate of accidents in base jumping. Wingsuits are just more common among BASE jumpers than they are among regular skydivers. And this is because wingsuits actually make BASE jumping safer. Jumping off a building, antenna, span, or earth is more dangerous than jumping out of a plane for two reasons (to be perfectly obvious about it): 1) There's less time to open a parachute, less time to straighten things out if there's a problem, and no time to use a reserve (so some BASE jumpers don't even wear them). 2) There's the added worry of hitting the building or cliff you just jumped off of. Wingsuits reduce both of these risks by keeping jumpers in the air longer and moving them away from whatever edifice they might have jumped off. There have almost certainly been lives saved by wingsuits. The fact that there have been only two non-BASE related wingsuit deaths ought to help illustrate the point that wingsuited jumps are not inherently more treacherous than the wing-free variety.

If you're a BASE jumper and can point to a time when a wingsuit has clearly helped you steer out of a mess, I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

History Calls

What happened to Charlie Zmuda? I may be the world's leading historian on the lives of the birdmen, but some of those lives just slip through the slip stream (or cracks, if you must have cracks). What we know of Zmuda is this: He took Clem Sohn's job. Sohn, the worlds first bat-wing jumper, died two days and sixty-nine years ago when neither his main parachute nor his reserve opened at a jump just outside of Paris. Sohn's pilot from the beginning was the World War I ace and airplane racer Art Davis and after Sohn's death, Davis needed another bat-wing jumper. Sometime within the next two years he signed Zmuda to the job and together they started appearing at air shows and air races. I strongly suspect that in the photo shown above Zmuda is wearing Sohn's actual wings (though not the wings Sohn died in): The shape is identical. Zmuda made winged jumps with the similarly obscure Elmo Bannister and, alas, little else is known about him. Did he retire from his bat-wing career unscathed? Is he still alive? I'd like to know, if only to keep typing the name "Zmuda."

If you're a Zmuda with a dim recolection of some skydiving relative of yore, do send me a line.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Hatch Marks

You may not know it, but we are living in a veritable renaissance of human flight. And I don't mean those modern contrivances they call airplanes. Right now there are more people flitting about the clouds—thousands of feet above the earth, engine free—than ever before. It's only been eight years since the modern ram-air wingsuit was invented and since then skyflyers have taken to the air in flocks. But it's not only the fabric-winged that have recently conquered the air: small, personal-sized rigid wings have let skydivers zip over the earth at speeds greater than what most small planes can achieve. Meanwhile Finnish wingsuiter Visa Parviainen has attached miniature jet engines to his ankles and seems to have flown horizontally, if only for a few seconds. In the photo above Yves Rossy is shown moments before unfolding his wings, turning on his own small jets, and shooting across the sky parallel to the earth.

The ever-present, never-squashed human goal to fly—not just to fly, but to fly like a bird—has never been closer.