Why were wingsuits invented?

These special suits enable people to glide through the sky at hundreds of kilometres per hour

(Image by Jonathan Francis/ Unsplash)

The human body is built to match our physical needs, but as a species we have the drive to push our physical limits even further. Taking inspiration from the majestic flying squirrel, wingsuits are designed to provide extreme sportspeople with a new body shape: one that allows them to maximise their flying potential.

The ability to jump from a cliff edge or plane and soar through the sky was once deemed to be a possibility only for winged creatures and fantasy superheroes, but these specially designed outfits give those who are brave enough the chance to join native sky-dwellers.

Wingsuits are designed for BASE – building, antenna, span and earth – jumpers and skydivers. Skydivers leap from helicopters and planes, while BASE jumpers take off from fixed objects, such as cliffs or tall buildings. It was Finnish BASE jumper Jari Kuosma who invented today’s modern wingsuit as he stood over a cliff top in Italy. What could he do to improve his sport and make the adrenaline- fuelled act of succumbing to gravity even more exhilarating?

His answer has proven popular with stunt performers around the world. Since the first wingsuit jump in 1930, people have continued to risk their lives for this boost in speed, the feeling of excitement and a lengthier flight. While the average wingsuiter will fall at 160 kilometres per hour, manipulating the fall by adjusting their body position can create a terrifyingly rapid descent at speeds of 250 kilometres per hour.

In global competitions these jumpers are judged on a variety of elements, from speed and distance competitions to acrobatics. The mental and physical skills demonstrated by these freefallers taking to the sky, controlling their fall and concentrating on their synchronisation, is made even more impressive by the underlying element of peril.

Uplifting physics

Gliding animals make it look simple, but the ability to soar in the air in these wingsuits has been manufactured using carefully applied physics. After observing the wings of flying animals, humans worked out the ideal shape for flight. This shape, called an aerofoil, has been applied to the wings of planes as well as wingsuits. The large, sheet-like design of the suit gives the wearer an increased surface area, which in turn increases the lift. With more material to trap the air rushing past, the fall is slowed down. Meanwhile it is the air travelling from the person’s head along their body that is used in the aerofoil. 

When air hits the suit, the stream splits, with some of it moving along the curved top and some below the flat bottom. Air travelling over the top moves much quicker, reaching the end of the material first. As the air above travels down the curve of the wing and off the edge, it continues travelling downwards, changing the flow of the air travelling below it. This effect slows air and deflects it downwards, pushing the person up and backwards and giving a skydiver the sensation of flight as they glide.


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