Wingsuit Diving: Too Risky to Master?

Why some can catapult themselves off giant slip-and-slides, and others get scared on roller-coasters?
Wild Pics/Iconica/Getty Images

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.”

Daredevils Through History

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.

BLOG: London Olympics' 'Bond' Dies in Wing-Suit Crash

“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.

Recommended for you