May The Wind
and Sustain You
So You May Fly My Love
So You May Be Free as Sky
Dreams of flying.
An old, old archetype of human consciousness,
—- representing the liberation of man from self, and his earthly tether.
As long as man has been able to observe the birds of the air, man has wished for the gift of flight.
But his physiology is not well suited for taking wing….
The desire is too strong to accept this limitation, though.
So he has used the power of his creative mind —
– through much pain and death –
to reverse this cruel trick of nature —
The Wingsuit changes everything.
I know this conjures up all kinds of collective memory in regards to man’s long search for a way to emulate the birds.
You might be thinking about the Wright Brothers at this point…
How they were able to construct an aircraft that could take a man into the air, and return him safe to terra firma.
Or even before that —
to the Montgolfier Brothers and their hot air balloons.
You might even be remembering that great inventor Leonardo Da Vinci himself took a great interest in flight.
He drew out designs for a wings,
even a mechanical powered flying machine.
Such as the tale of Icarus and his wax wings —
…. whose ambitious curiosity carried him too close to the sun.
And Icarus isn’t the only one who has been destroyed by this obsession.
Several striking examples from more recent times come to mind–
Being an early aviation pioneer often was a very deadly vocation.
The first fatal accident in a powered aircraft came soon after the Wright Brothers first flight —
The Wrights had taken to carrying passengers, and on September 17, 1908, Orville crashed their plane — killing his passenger, Signal Corps Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge.
Or, take the case of Franz Reichert– who, in 1910 had developed a relatively lightweight silk parachute suit for aviators.
The Aéro-Club de France rejected his design, and refused to test it.
So, in February 1912, Reichert got permission to test it himself, from the top of the Eiffel Tower.
The film of his very daring jump—
…………. as well as his very sudden demise ,
was filmed for all posterity.
And despite the fact that Reichert had been working on a parachute, the concept of the human airfoil that he shared with many others throughout history—
… one that would catch the air and thus defy gravity, is one that is still very being actively experimented with today.
It’s the idea of making the body the main element of flight, as opposed to using an external machine or device.
One way we can come close to this concept is “Wingsuit Flying”.
While still dependent on a either an elevated point or an aircraft for launching, and a parachute for landing,
…. a wingsuit can give the wearer the sensation of free flight for up to 9 minutes.
starting in the 1930’s with men like Rex Finney, Leo Valentin, and Clem Sohn —
Men who would put their lives and fortunes on the line,
…. to prove that such unpowered human flight was viable.
Clem Sohn was a pilot and aviation daredevil who developed a wingsuit made of zephyr cloth ( a type of waterproof wool ) and would regularly fly around in it at air shows throughout the world.
His technique involved launching from a plane at 20,000 feet, use his wingsuit to glide until he dropped to around 1000 feet, and then he would deploy his parachute to land.
He had great success with the suit throughout the 1930’s, until one air show in Vincennes, France on April 25, 1937.
That one didn’t go to plan.
The wingsuit worked perfectly, as it always did.
His parachute failed to open…
100,000 spectators watched him plummet to the earth that day.
Clem’s last words, when asked if he was nervous about the flight, sum up the kind of courage that the pioneers of aviation have always had:
“I feel as safe as you would in your grandmother’s kitchen”
… and this daring extended to the development and exemplification of a remarkable looking wing suit….
Valentin was an experienced parachutist, glider pilot and adventurer —
A jumping technique, still used, called the ‘Valentin Position’ was named for him.
In 1956, he was experimenting with different configurations of flying suits and the techniques involved in controlling descent.
One, using wooden wings, caused his death when it failed after making contact with the plane upon exiting.
Despite that, it might be said that Valentin’s approach to a stable, hardened wing system is still seen in cutting edge wingsuit technology today.
The name best remembered for early wingsuit development is Rex Finney.
Finney was the first man to demonstrate the viability of wingsuits–
… and to develop a series of techniques for controlled descent and aerial stunting.
Using a tail fin and body position, Finney could complete amazing mid-air maneuvers , including increasing his altitude.
He was featured in many technology oriented magazines in the early 1930’s, including Popular Science,
…and his influence was very important in popularizing the concept and the development of future technologies.
Modern wingsuits have come a long way in terms of materials and reliability,
….. but it’s still a very dangerous sport.
Refinements to the design of wingsuits often have to be tested under actual gliding conditions–
And the weak point of all the wingsuit systems —
— the parachute for landing — hasn’t really undergone the kinds of improvements that the wingsuits have.
There are some interesting wingsuit innovations in the works….
especially in the area of solid surface wings.
A ‘wingpack’ is a powered wingsuit —
…. usually a rigid wing, made of extremely lightweight material like carbon fiber ….
For example, the “Gryphon” system (above) which is designed for covert use by the military.
I personally find the seemingly low-tech versions of the wingsuit to be the most appealing.
This is when a man can really soar like a bird…
No bulky hard wing to worry about,
no heavy motorized apparatus to weigh you down.
Using strong but lightweight materials, and advanced flying techniques developed over the last 80 years….
An experienced parachutist can acquire a new wingsuit,
and be flying it with relative proficiency in no time.
You can fly.
“He rode upon a cherub and flew;
He sped upon the wings of the wind. “