Have you heard Wingsuit flying? It’s described as the world most exhilarating and dangerous Sport.
But after the sport’s most deadly summer, during which there has been almost two dozen deaths in three months – the vast majority in the Alps, where flying is legal – participants have begun asking why wingsuit flying has suddenly turned so lethal.
It has not only been less experienced wingsuit fliers who have been dying this summer, but also some of the sport’s most experienced and well-known figures.
Those include Uli Emanuele, famous for flying through a small rock window in Switzerland in 2015, and Alexander Polli, both of whom were killed in accidents in the Alps last month – in Polli’s case attempting to perform a spiral manoeuvre before hitting a tree.
And the sheer number of deaths – in towns such as Chamonix, below Mont Blanc, and in the Lauterbrunnen area of Switzerland – has reached such a level that it is causing serious concern among mountain rescue teams and local residents – some of whom have witnessed fatal accidents.
Commenting after Polli’s death, the head of the mountain rescue services in Chamonix, Colonel Stephane Bozon, criticised what he described as the recklessness of some fliers, describing the problem as frightening.
“This requires our full attention,” said Bozon in the immediate aftermath of the accident, adding that authorities were working to prevent such tragedies being repeated. “It is a practice that frightens us. [Polli’s accident] occurred during a spin move … We must return to people behaving a little more rationally.”
Originally a subdiscipline of Base jumping, freefall parachuting where jumpers launch themselves from buildings, cliffs and bridges – wingsuit flying (sometimes known as wingsuit Base) is a relatively new discipline.
The recent spate of fatalities was highlighted this week in an article for National Geographic by Andrew Bisharat, a longtime US observer of the climbing and wingsuit flying scene, who asked bluntly: “Why are so many Base jumpers dying?”
One answer – supplied to Bisharat by Richard Webb, a former US combat pilot and veteran wingsuit flier – was: “Right now, wingsuit Base jumping is, globally, the hottest thing going for the impressionable, 18- to 35-year-old single-male demographic.”
Webb’s frustration was clear in June on his blog when he described the recent deaths of friends and luminaries in the wingsuit world, reflecting a wider conversation among fliers after the recent deaths.
“I’m tired of losing people I had always hoped to fly with,” he posted. “I’m tired of adding names of close friends to my personal fatality list.”
The sport was popularised in the 1990s by Patrick de Gayardon, a French skydiver, who introduced what is generally recognised as the first version of a “safe-to-fly” wingsuit modelled on the same principle that allows flying squirrels – with their membranous wings – to glide.
De Gayardon died in 1998 in an accident when a parachute failed to deploy.
Since then wingsuit flying has become a staple of extreme sports with a recognised competition circuit – popularised on extreme sports television channels and on YouTube – attracting a growing audience that some, including Webb, suggest has contributed to the recent spike in deadly accidents.
Although statistics vary, what is clear is that wingsuit flying has long been more dangerous than conventional skydiving.
According to practitioners and observers, examination of the recent accidents suggests a number of common factors may have coincided. These include the increasingly high visibility of extreme supports – including via point-of-view footage from helmet cams – which has made such pursuits seem accessible and attractive to a wider pool of interested participants despite the risks.
Analysis of the accidents suggests many of those killed – whether experienced or less experienced – were “pushing the envelope” at the time of their accident, leading some to suggest that the flying community needs to be more conscious of the risks involved.
Ellen Brennan, a flier based in Chamonix, where there has been a growing number of fatal accidents, believes the main problem is overconfidence and complacency.
“I’d have to say that the majority of the accidents have occurred because of the jumper overestimating his or her own abilities,” she said. “Often jumpers become complacent and comfortable at certain jumps leading them to believe they can get away with pushing their limits much further, or ignore less than ideal weather conditions. Unfortunately we are not superman, we are fragile meat missiles.”
Matt Gerdes, a flier and wingsuit designer at the the US manufacturer Squirrel, is among those calling for more education in the sport. “If we were to work on just one thing, it would be education,” he posted on Facebook in May.
“The simple truth is that wingsuit Base jumpers don’t know what they are getting into, don’t know how to practice the sport safely, and don’t even know enough to know how little they know.”
Comparing wingsuit flying to big wave surfing, Gerdes pointed out that wingsuit flying – while more dangerous – appears much easier at first, encouraging a too fast progression.
“[The comparison to] big wave surfing is interesting. Base jumping is far more dangerous and fatal, yet much easier,” he told the Guardian last week. “After just a couple of hundred skydives most people consider themselves more than ready to Base jump. And it’s usually shortly after that they put on a wingsuit. This absurdly fast progression happens in less than a year in many cases.
“And the fact is that it is very easy, and it feels very easy, until it goes wrong. The sport is so easy that it sucks pilots into feeling like they can handle it all and that they are really good at it. It feels more like a video game than a sport and the finality of an error is impossible for most young people to grasp.”
There remains a question too of how much of an extra safety margin experience brings to a pursuit where tiny variations in turbulence and conditions can be crucial and where – say those like Webb – complacency is as big a risk as inexperience.
Among those with deep familiarity with the risks of wingsuit flying is Steph Davis, an accomplished American rock climber and flier whose husband, Mario Richard, was killed in a flying accident in Italy in 2013.
“In the last five years wingsuit Base jumping has changed significantly,” Davis, who made her first jump in 2007, told the Guardian from Chamonix, where she is currently flying.
“I come from a background of adventure climbing and this strongly affects how I make decisions and how I fly. The understanding of risk and margins of safety is something that takes time to develop.”
Davis traces a number of developments in particular that have changed flying dramatically since she began.
“[At first] people were interested in how far the suits could fly, more than getting close to terrain. Then people started diving down to terrain and flying right over the ground or the trees, what I used to call ‘mowing the lawn’,” she said.
“This style of flying was being done by only the most advanced and experienced jumpers, but it coincided with small helmet cameras becoming accessible and affordable, as well as the rise of social media. Suddenly every jumper had a camera and wanted to show their footage and it had to be more and more impressive to get a positive reaction from others.”
Like Brennan and others, Davis identifies overconfidence as a key issue. “The recent spike in fatalities is a reflection of many different things, all involving decision making: overconfidence and a desire to continuously push (and get closer and closer to terrain, and then show footage of it) or lack of experience and/or understanding of consequences and mountain environments.”
Despite his argument for more education, Gerdes, however, remains unconvinced that wingsuit flying can be regulated. “Regulation is not really possible. Not any more than other mountain sports. Alpinism, mountain biking, rock climbing. What we will see is that the public will become more accustomed to seeing wingsuiters die. When 15 people die in an Alpine avalanche, it makes headlines, but people don’t usually cry for mountaineering to be canceled as a sport.”
For his part, Bisharat, who has closely chronicled the sport, believes some regulation could have a positive effect. “I think an informal regulation might help. You need a pilot license to fly a plane and you need a motorcycle license to ride a bike. I think having a wingsuit license could help, even if, in reality, it wouldn’t be enforceable.”
Meanwhile, Davis is keen to underline why people are drawn to flying in the first place. “There’s a lot of talk in the media this week about danger and death,” she said. “But that’s not why people fly. We fly because pushing off the edge of a cliff and feeling your wings inflate with air, seeing the walls beside you, and the Earth from above, is magic.”