Wingsuit Flying: Incredible Thrill, But 'No Second Chance'

Aug 26, 2013
Originally published on August 27, 2013 4:30 pm

"There is no second chance ... there is no margin of error whatsoever."

That's why, says Dr. Omer Mei-Dan, he and others who enjoy base jumping and wingsuit flying are grieving but aren't surprised by the recent deaths of two high-profile extreme sports enthusiasts.

Mark Sutton, the English parachutist who was "James Bond" at last summer's opening ceremony of the London Olympics, died Aug. 14 in Switzerland when he flew into a rocky ridge while "flying" in a wingsuit. Mario Richard, a Canadian, died Aug. 19 in Italy "when he apparently failed to clear a rock by three meters." Richard also was wingsuiting.

Mei-Dan told NPR's Robert Siegel on Monday that an estimated 6 to 7 percent of the 3,000 or so "base jumpers" who use wingsuits or parachutes die each year — an astronomical number when you consider that the USA's most dangerous job, logging, has an annual fatality rate well under 1 percent of the workforce.

Base jumpers and wingsuit flyers, Mei-Dan says, are experienced. They've typically parachuted hundreds of times, or more, before trying to fly from buildings, cliffs and towers. The same goes for those who drop from helicopters above mountains and canyons, and then use their wingsuits to try to whiz by as close as possible to the rocks and ridges below.

Among the dangers, says Mei-Dan, is the temptation to "push the envelope": To try to go closer to a rock wall, for instance, than anyone else. "When you push the envelope and you don't have a margin of error, you [can] pay for it," he says, with your life.

So why do it? The experience of flying toward the ground in a wingsuit is "almost indescribable," Mei-Dan says. "It's something that you really have to try to understand what type of feeling you get when you're freefalling next to a cliff."

There are many videos on the Web of wingsuit flyers — many of them heavily edited productions with dramatic music. This one posted by Sutton in 2012, though, offers a pretty good sense of the physical challenge of getting to a takeoff point — in this case, on Mount Eiger in Switzerland — and then the thrill of flying down.

Much more from Robert's conversation with Mei-Dan is due later Monday on All Things Considered. We'll add the as-broadcast version of the conversation to the top of this post. To find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the slow, click here.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This is what flying sounds like.

MARK SUTTON: Three, two, one, see you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRONG WIND)

SIEGEL: Almost a year ago, Mark Sutton climbed to the peak of the Eiger in Switzerland and jumped. Instead of falling, Sutton glided. He was wearing a wingsuit that expanded, making him look like a giant, flying squirrel. After several minutes, he landed among friends in a field far below.

SUTTON: Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, my God. These suits are just amazing.

SIEGEL: Mark Sutton was an experienced sky-diver. He was also the stunt man who flew into the Olympic Stadium in London during the opening ceremony dressed as James Bond. Sutton died earlier this month on a wingsuit jump from a helicopter in Switzerland. Since then, at least two more men have died in wingsuit jumps, Mario Richard and Alvaro Bulto. Clearly, this kind of wingsuit jumping is an extreme sport. But just how dangerous is it?

Well, Dr. Omer Mei-Dan is an orthopedist who specializes in sports medicine at the University of Colorado Medical School. Dr. Mei-Dan, welcome to the program.

DR. OMER MEI-DAN: Hey, how are you?

SIEGEL: You've addressed this question of how dangerous it. How common is death in a wingsuit?

MEI-DAN: Unfortunately, very common. In the past month or so, we've seen more than 10 fatalities. The majority, nine out of 10, were using wingsuits.

SIEGEL: You actually have written a scholarly article about this and looked at 39 deaths of people who were using wingsuits. And I gather that death was as often caused by hitting a cliff or, in one case, a building on the way down, as hitting the ground at the end of the jump.

MEI-DAN: That's correct. And one of the main thing with proximity flying, meaning jumping off a cliff with a wingsuit and trying, as opposed to fly away from the cliff, fly next to the cliff and trying to out-fly various geographical features, you have to judge the flight path way before you're actually getting there and trying to out-fly that specific feature. And if you have, like, the smallest mistake you can actually impact the cliff quite easily.

SIEGEL: How faster people falling in that descent?

MEI-DAN: Anywhere between 90 to 140 miles per hour.

SIEGEL: I should say here BASE jumping, the BASE here is an acronym which describes the fixed points people jumped from. BASE is buildings, antennas, spans and the Earth. You've done this?

MEI-DAN: Oh, hundreds of hundreds of times.

SIEGEL: And how would you describe the sensation of doing it?

MEI-DAN: Oh, it's almost indescribable. It's something that you really have to try - even so, you know, it's very hard - to understand what the feeling you get once you're free-falling just next to a cliff or next to a building in the middle of the night. And the problem with BASE jumping, specifically with proximity flying with a wingsuit, is there is no second chance. There is no margin for error at all, whatsoever. So the slightest mistake would be a death.

SIEGEL: In one of the YouTube videos about BASE jumping in these wingsuits, or squirrels suits, a jumper named Jeb Corliss has a near fatal accident jumping off Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. His friend and fellow jumper, Joby Ogwyn, says and I'm quoting, "All of our friends are dead from climbing or BASE jumping or wingsuit flying. They've all been wiped out. It's kind of just a few of us left."

Does this story fit into the category of when bad things happen to crazy people who are taking ridiculous risks?

MEI-DAN: It's very hard for me to relate to crazy people or ridiculous risks. And Jeb Corliss is one of my best friends. We've been jumping together for almost 15 years now. And the thing is that most of these guys are guys with a lot of knowledge and experience. But sometimes, like every extreme sport out there, they're trying to push the envelope. And when you push the envelope and you don't have, again, margin for error, you pay for it.

SIEGEL: You can stay comfortably inside the envelope in this sport, and still be doing something incredibly dangerous.

MEI-DAN: Well, you know, everybody obviously perceive it to be differently. You can find BASE jumps which are more casual and less put you into a position where you can actually die. And we usually, when we look at a new jump, we look at the percentage - how we perceive that percentage of surviving that jump. Jeff and myself jumped the Eiffel Tower and it was a very dangerous jump, but we both managed to survive it because we planned it well.

SIEGEL: When we speak of Mark Sutton and Mario Richard, as people who died doing this, are they two out of thousands of people who do this sort of thing, or two out of a couple of hundred people who do it? How many people are engaged in this?

MEI-DAN: We don't have, like, an actual registration of how many people are doing it. But we assume, you know, with personal communication with the guys who are actually manufacturing these wingsuits, that there's about 3,000 BASE jumpers. And I would say that maybe out of these, less than 10 percent actually utilize wingsuits to jump off cliffs.

SIEGEL: You're talking about, about 300 people or so...

MEI-DAN: Yeah. Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...of whom there are commonly deaths.

MEI-DAN: Yeah, we lose about six to seven percent a year.

SIEGEL: You're a father of three.

MEI-DAN: Yeah, I'm a father of three.

SIEGEL: Have you push the envelope as far as you care to push it? Or would you still try to make your jumps higher, faster, farther?

MEI-DAN: I've definitely modified my jumping regime since I had my kids. I keep one jumping but, yeah, I can definitely say that having a family, having kids made me look at things a little bit differently.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Omer Mei-Dan, of the University of Colorado Medical School, thanks a lot for talking with us.

MEI-DAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.