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.