Wingsuit racing is an aerial race in which skydivers wearing specialty suits launch out of helicopters thousands of feet in the sky and race head-to-head or slalom style. Like skydivers, they have to depart from an aircraft and land by parachute. For safety, they are required to jump with two parachutes: a main and reserve canopy for emergencies. They also wear safety devices like helmets and altimeters.
The sport of competitive wingsuit flying was officially recognized by the International Skydiving Commission in 2015. It is governed by Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the commission for air sports recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
Wingsuits are typically made out of nylon and create a webbed surface around the body that produces aerodynamic lift. The suit utilizes fabric and pressurized cells to decelerate the rate of freefall by elongating a flyer’s glide. Wingsuit pilots reach horizontal speeds between 100 and 200 miles per hour. The world record of 246.6 miles per hour was set in 2017. In one single jump from an altitude of 13,000 feet, wingsuiters can travel several horizontal miles.
In some competitions, wingsuit pilots are judged individually for their style and technique. The FAI format judges pilots on three performance parameters: best lift, least drag and best glide ratio. All measurements are recorded with a GPS logging device within a specified competition window of between 10,000 feet and 6,500 feet above ground level (AGL). Feeding into results are the pilot’s highest average horizontal speed over the ground. Each pilot has three separate skydives to improve their performance. The further they fly in the shortest time, the better.
A newer popular racing format features many athletes competing in the sky simultaneously and attempting to reach the finish line first. Red Bull ushered in this new era of human flight in 2015 with Red Bull Aces and dubbed the competition format “four cross.” Athletes depart from helicopters four at a time at around 8,000 feet above the ground and fly head-to-head through a twisting course of gates positioned at descending altitudes between 6,500 and 3,500 feet. In 2016, the Wide Open Wingsuit Series (WOWS) launched with a similar four-cross format. WOWS currently eschews the slalom-style format on Red Bull Aces, and is a Point A to Point B race based on speed and distance. The first to fly through the wall, an invisible vertical GPS wall extending up over a landmark at a dropzone, wins.
Bold adventurers have been attempting human flight for more than a century. In 1912, a tailor named Franz Reichelt built his own flying suit but died after a test jump from the Eiffel Tower.
The first wingsuit was used successfully in the U.S. by a 19-year-old named Rex G Finney, who was tailoring suits with materials such as canvas and wood and attempting to increase horizontal movement and maneuverability. The first modern wingsuit was developed by French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon, in the mid-1990s. He died in 1998 while testing a new modification to his parachute container, though his fatal accident was believed to be a rigging error and not a flaw in the suit’s design. In 1999, Jari Kuosma and Robert Pečnik, of Finland and Croatia, respectively, established BirdMan International and released their first commercial wingsuit, the BirdMan's Classic, before the turn of the century.
Today, a number of prominent wingsuit manufacturers are further advancing the technology. The sport has also benefited from the professionalization of wingsuit training.