Have you ever wanted to fly like a bird?
Have you ever gone flying in a wingsuit? It is the closest technology we have to flying like Superman, and it is becoming a very popular pastime.
Graham Dickinson, a thrill-seeking enthusiast, is known for his crazy wingsuit flights, and his latest stunt is no exception. Dickinson and Dario Zanon, a fellow thrill-seeker, jumped off a cliff in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France, and filmed the entire flight on GoPro helmet cameras.
Wingsuit flying is not for beginner skydivers — it is extremely dangerous. Even Dickinson comes uncomfortably close to some of the rocky terrain around him in the video. Wingsuit flying is a cross between hang gliding and skydiving, but unlike hang gliders, wingsuit fliers can perform some pretty cool acrobatics before deploying their parachutes to land. Provided the conditions are just right.
To understand how wingsuits work, we have to understand the physics of flight. Flight is the relationship between four opposing forces: weight, lift, thrust and drag. Weight/gravity pulls the flying object down, while lift is the resistance of the air. Thrust pushes an object forward, while drag is similar to lift and acts as a resistance to the forward movement.
When a diver jumps from a plane or off a cliff, he or she will instantly experience gravity; however, if wearing a wingsuit, the suit’s airfoil will provide lift. The airfoil is not large enough to fully counteract the effect of gravity, so divers must also wear parachutes to land safely on the ground.
Wingsuit divers provide no thrust, and must depend on his or her glide ratio — the relationship between lift, drag and weight.
The basic wingsuit design transforms a human into a full-body wing, meaning the suit must have as much horizontal surface as possible to effectively produce lift. This is accomplished by incorporating webbed wing surfaces between the legs and under the arms.
To travel great distances, fliers must keep the wings open but not fully stretched out, roll their shoulders forward, and bend their chin against their neck.
To stay in the air as long as possible, fliers must raise their heads, look forward, bend the hips and stretch the wings as far out as possible.
To turn in the suit, fliers simply have to twist their legs, hips, shoulders and feet, and since every part of the wingsuit is influenced by movements, they must keep the twisting motions small. Large movements can send a flier into a dive or an out of control spin.
This technology was not developed without tragedy. In the 1930s, test jumpers or “birdmen” tried various wing arrangements and materials — including wood, canvas and steel. Of 75 birdmen, 72 of them were killed while testing new designs. Sadly, there have been a number of other deaths associated with wingsuit flying following the birdmen.
Weather conditions are very important for wingsuit flying compared to other forms of skydiving. Winds can be fatal to a flier. Winds near the surface should not exceed 20 miles per hour, nor should you jump in a thunderstorm. Not only is lightning dangerous, the updrafts and downdrafts within a thunderstorm can easily send a flier out of control.
Our desire to fly is not going away any time soon — there will always be more and more thrill-seeking daredevils trying to break records and push the boundaries of what is humanly possible. Currently, the longest wingsuit flight in terms of distance was performed by a former Navy Seal, tracked at 18.257 miles.
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