Wingsuits, Rocket Boots, Jet-Powered Finns

Public Domain photo by the ominously-named "The.Eleventh.One."

You know those women in Virginia who beat the world record for an all-female head-down formation skydive? I know…how could you forget? I was pretty excited, too. So excited, in fact, that I hit that pesky “like” button and get invitations with some frequency from Skydive Orange, the group that hosted that record-breaking, to come skydive with them. Hey, we’re all still figuring out this social marketing thing, right?

In any event, one of their Facebook messages tipped me off to an event I can’t possibly attend (because it’s on the other side of the country). But it let me know about the ultra-cool sport of wingsuit flying. It may look weird, but do you think that stops Batman? Hellz no. The suit may be called a “squirrel suit” or a “birdman suit,” and it’s bad-ass. Wingsuit flying can be performed any time you can get enough altitude to fall for a while, and when wingsuiters jump from, you know, planes and stuff, they also wear parachutes,and end their glide by pulling the ripcord. Apparently Burt Lancaster wore an early wingsuit in the 1969 film The Gypsy Moths.

The Wikipedia article on this sport tells me:

The main difference between the squirrel suit and a flying squirrel is that the real squirrel can use its tail as a rudder and is able to slow itself down while in the air, whereas the wingsuit base jumper still needs a parachute.

Er…yeah. That, and a flying squirrel is roughly the size of a big-ish person’s forearm, giving it lots and lots of wind resistance. A human is roughly the size of a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup, and that’s what said human will look like if he or she forgets that as an organism gets bigger, mass increases much faster than surface area. A cockroach can fall without hurting itself because it’s little; it has lots of surface area in relation to its guts. You? Not so much.

The function of a wingsuit, therefore, in grossly oversimplified terms, is to make your surface area much bigger. Wingsuit flyers are able to glide long distances; horizontal-to-vertical ratios of 2.5:1 are said to be common — in other words, if you jump from 3,000 feet you could cover 7,500 feet horizontally.

But wait…it gets better.

In May of last year, a gent named Visa Parviainen made the first powered birdman flight in Lahti, Finland. The information about it refers to jets, but I”m pretty sure these boots have to be rockets, not jets. (Jets have air intakes; rockets provide their own oxidizers). In the Lahti flight, ascent was accomplished by balloon:

The launch platform selected for the day was provided by the famous Finnish Balloon Bros, who graciously offered their services for this historic event. Visa had designed a unique launch platform to hang outside the balloon to avoid ‘cooking’ the balloon occupants during the ascent to altitude from the exhaust gases of the jet engines.

Once Visa had adorned his birdman suit and rig on the ground, it was time to test the rocket boots. Each jet engine provides around 16kgs of thrust, and is primed with a mix of butane and propane. Once ignited, the engines rely on a steady supply of kerosene (JetA1) fuel. This fuel burns at around the rate of 0.5 litres per minute, on full power, for each jet engine. The combined thrust of both power plants was calculated to be enough to sustain level human flight in a wing suit for an average weight skydiver.


Yup, yes, uh-huh. They said “rocket boots.” But don’t take my word for it. Check out the video; between the clever headline and the first comment (“It’s like squirrel had sex with Ironman”) I’m, like, seriously busting a gut.

Anyway, if you’re in the Baltimore/Washington/Virginia area and want a little wingsuit instruction (presumably sans rocket boots), check out Skydive Orange’s Facebook Page. The wingsuit first-jump instruction is taught by Andrea Olea on May 14, costs $35, and you have to have at least 200 jumps under your belt. “In addition to the first jump course she will be providing wingsuit organizing throughout the weekend. The in-air coaching and load organizing is no cost to the student other than the cost of the student slot compliments of Skydive Orange.”

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