Wingsuit Diving: Too Risky to Master?

BASE jumping and sky-diving in a wing-suit makes extreme sports even more extreme, as recent high-profile deaths make clear.

When Mark Sutton jumped out of a helicopter in a wing-suit last week, he likely knew the chances of serious injury, even death, were pretty high. It's a risk, experts and practitioners say, that wing-suit sky-divers and BASE jumpers are willing to take for the reward of soaring. Midway into Sutton's flight that day, the 42-year-old who had parachuted into the London Olympics dressed as James Bond crashed into a mountain and died.

"Mark Sutton knew the risks," said ski patroller and extreme sport expert and blogger Kim Kircher. "No laws or education would have changed his choices. I do believe that these athletes assume the risks and take the responsibility for their actions. Wing-suit flying allows no equivocation. BASE jumpers absolutely understand the risks."

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While the fatality rate for wing-suit jumping is hard to calculate (the number of deaths are tracked, but not the number of jumps), a 2012 study of BASE jumpers reported that 72 percent of jumpers "had witnessed death or serious injury of other participants in the sport, 43 percent (of) jumpers had suffered a significant BASE jump injury, and 76 percent had at least one 'near miss' incident (an incident which would most probably result in serious injury or fatality but was avoided)," study author Dr. Omer Mei-Dan, a BASE jumper and sports medicine doctor wrote in his textbook, "Adventure and Extreme Sports Injuries."

It's a sport dangerous enough that some areas ban it. While BASE jumping and skydiving in regular clothes are both risky, wing-suit jumping steps up the danger level a notch. That's because the suit actually makes you fly faster, said Mick Knutson, editor/founder of the online BASE jumping magazine, BLiNC, who has logged almost 1,000 BASE jumps, including 500 in a wingsuit.

Think of a wingsuit as a spoiler on a racecar, Knutson said, changing air flow to accomplish a certain goal.

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"We're trying to modify the air to redirect our body more horizontally across space so we don't hit the ground and get a longer flight," he said.

Wing-suit jumpers either jump from a fixed object, like a building, antenna, bridge or cliff, in which case they fall into the BASE jump category, or any type of aircraft, in which case they fall into the skydiving category. Either way, the idea of the suit is to position the body to fly horizontally. A parachute slows the landing.

When engaging in a wing suit, a jumper can slow their vertical fall rate to 60 to 120 seconds of free fall, compared to 8 to 15 seconds of free fall without a wing suit.

"It's the most minimal appendage you could add to the body to reconstruct a human flying," he said. "It's completely different from BASE jumping. Wingsuit flying is its own element; it's the beautiful realization of flight that's impossible to explain. I try to explain it and I show videos, but you won't ever ever understand until you do it yourself."

The heightened danger is probably due to multiple factors. The increased speed, for example, means that there is less time to correct any errors that occur at the outset of the jump, Knutson said. Without a wingsuit, a jumper may have eight to 10 seconds to correct an error. With a wingsuit, it's more like two to five seconds. That may seem insurmountable, but an experienced jumper becomes hyper-aware of every detail during a jump, Knutson said.

"It's not an unacceptable amount of time," Knutson said. "There's a phenomenon where time starts slowing down for people who train in this way. I can feel the hair on my pinky waving because of the air velocity."

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Accidents may also occur when the jumper misjudges distance to the ground or other obstacles, like rock formations or mountains, Mei-Dan wrote. Some wingsuit jumpers fly as close as possible to cliffs or trees in a practice called "proximity flying," further narrowing the margin for error.

Emotions can also play a role, Knutson said.

"I don't (care) if you've got 1,000 wing-suit flights -- if all of a sudden that morning your girlfriend left you, you should not go wing-suit jumping," Knutson said. "I've seen people die in front of me because they were not paying attention to the mental anguish they were dealing with."

Pressure of recording flight for video, which has increased with the popularization of both the sport and social media, can also affect the mentality of the jumper, Knutson said. Jumpers may find it hard to ignore such pressure when doing a risk analysis of the conditions, he said.

BASE jumping deaths have been tracked since 1985 in the "BASE fatality list," which describes accidents with the intent of improving safety within the community.

"If someone does die from making a mistake, the most disrespectful thing would be to not take what's happened to have something beautiful come out of it -- which is learning from it," Knutson said.

While wingsuit flying is relatively new, risk-seeking is not, extreme sports experts point out.

"Every extreme athlete does his or her own risk/reward calculus," Kircher said. "I do not agree with legislating risk. Only through exploring our own edge do we grow as people. The reward for these sports are varied and many -- from self-efficacy to confidence to the dopamine hit. Risk-taking is part of evolution. Early humans took risks to broaden territory and find new mates. This is part of our nature."