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.