Five wingsuit divers, two gliders, one remarkable stunt: how a squadron of men and machines pulled off a perfectly synchronised stroke of genius.
The day dawns over the Niedeöblarn airfield, in the centre of Austria. Picturebook weather, with only a few scattered wisps of cloud in the sky. As the first engine noises break the silence, Paul Steiner stands near the tarmac, checking the opening mechanism of his parachute. The 49-year-old seems a little distracted, inspecting each of the handgrips twice. “My head is full of thoughts. I have to be careful. Inner turmoil can make you more prone to mistakes,” he says. Steiner knows of what he speaks. He is a skydiver who has experienced free fall more than 4,200 times. Today he’s aiming to set a career highpoint with the project known as Akte (Blani)X III, which he has been working on for two years.
In a nutshell, Steiner will form, with four other wingsuit jumpers and two gliders, a diamond-shaped squadron – one skydiver alongside each glider wing and the fifth between the planes – in which the gliders fly cockpit-to-cockpit, Top Gun-style. It’s a stunt fraught with difficulties, chief of which is the water-and-oil combination of magnificent men outside flying machines. “A glider can reach speeds of up to 250kph,” says Steiner, “with a rate of descent of just a few kilometres per hour. Us wingsuit jumpers normally fly at around 160kph, but drop at around 80kph. That’s the issue here: bringing two completely different objects together in a corridor in which they can operate in unison.”
The problem: man and machine don’t really fly well alongside one another
For his project, Steiner put together a team made up of his four colleagues from the Red Bull Skydive Team and two pilots from the Blanix glider team. The seven men have plenty of experience, but a group this size had a major negative impact on planning, which Steiner found to his cost. “When you have seven people all with different ideas, it takes forever to gain some common ground. Often we spent hours in discussion, sometimes about the most banal things, like setting suitable project deadlines.” Consensus was reached when it became clear to all participants that they would all be operating at the height of their powers.
The main problem for the skydivers was how to arrest their descent while flying close to their maximum speed of 180kph. For the men piloting the gliders, their greatest concern would be finding a way to drop faster than usual, very much contrary to normal practice at a speed of around 75kph, but without exceeding that 180kph maximum speed of the wingsuit guys.
“Finding a gliding angle in which both jumpers and aircraft could operate together took months of calculations, and a lot of nerves,” says Steiner. “On top of that, we had to wait for a perfect weather window to open up. If there’s any kind of updraft, or too much cloud cover, then it’s not even worth getting into the plane.”
Read the full story in August's issue of The Red Bulletin.