If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fly like a bird without using any kind of aircraft, wonder no more. You can have the full-on feeling of flying by using a wingsuit.

Wingsuit flying, or wingsuiting, is an extreme sport under the skydiving category. But it is not exactly the same thing. You have to jump off a plane or mountain, and use what’s known as a wingsuit to glide or “fly” to safety.

It is definitely not a sport for the faint-hearted.

The jumpsuit adds surface area to your body, with fabric “wings” supported by inflatable pressurised nylon cells under the arms and between the legs. This provides the lift.

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A wingsuit enables the wearer to fly longer distances horizontally. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Richard Schneider

You can fly horizontal distances and reduce your descent rate (ie be in the air longer before landing on the ground) with the wingsuit. In the sports lingo, this means that you increase your time in freefall.

Wingsuits are often referred to as birdman or flying squirrel suits, or, best of all, batsuits, because of their similarity to the animal or perhaps, the superhero, Batman.

Is it safe?

The earliest attempt at flying using a wingsuit was in 1912 by Franz Reichelt, a 33-year-old tailor from France. He jumped from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to test his invention. It was a combination between a parachute and a wing, and quite similar to the modern wingsuit. Unfortunately, due to some miscalculations, he was killed when he hit the ground head first. (He also misled the guards, telling them that a mannequin would be used for the experiment.)

An actual wingsuit was first used in 1930 by American Rex Finney, 19. He was trying to increase horizontal movement and flexibility during a parachute jump. Such early wingsuits, made of materials like canvas, silk, steel, wood and whalebone, were not very reliable. But some wingsuiters claim to have glided for many kilometers.

In the early 1980s, Italian American John Carta, a base jumping pioneer and Vietnam war veteran, experimented using bat wings in his parachute jumps. He was nicknamed “Birdman” for his daring feats.

The first modern wingsuit was developed in the late 1990s by a Frenchman, Patrick de Gayardon, who adapted what had originally been used by Carta.

Most dangerous feat in the skydiving world

There were many attempts after that to design and build the perfect wingsuit. In 1999, the first commercial wingsuit was created by two men: Finnish Jari Kuosma and Croatian Robert Pecnik. Kuosma established Bird-Man International Ltd and Pecnik designed BirdMan’s Classic, the first wingsuit offered to the skydiving public. They were the first manufacturer to promote the safe use of wingsuits through an instructor programme.

Kuosma wanted to remove the negative stigma associated with wingsuits – that they were unsafe. He also wanted to provide wingsuit beginners (skydivers with a 200-jump minimum) a way to safely enjoy what was once considered the most dangerous feat in the skydiving world. They developed a standardised wingsuiting instruction programme to train instructors.

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A wingsuit flight over the ocean. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Richard Schneider

Extreme sports

Wingsuiting is different from Base jumping, which is another extreme sport.

In Base jumping, the jumper leaps from the top of tall fixed structures with specialised parachutes. Incidentally, Base is an acronym for Buildings, Antennae, Spans, and Earth. These are the fixed structures that a jumper can leap from.

Wingsuiting, Base jumping and skydiving/parachuting are all extreme sports, but wingsuiting is the only one where you can get that feel of horizontal “flying” instead of “falling” to the ground. Imagine doing that if you’re afraid of heights!

Even if you don’t have a fear of heights, don’t go jumping off any mountains just yet as it takes years to learn how to fly efficiency, manage the wingsuit angle, and maximise your performance. You wouldn’t be able to just jump off a plane or a cliff tomorrow.