“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.”
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.”