It’s on! After an exciting debut in 2014, Red Bull Aces, history’s first four-cross wingsuit competition, takes to the skies again in California this October, with the best international athletes slicing through an airborne slalom course at speeds of up to 160 mph.
Race director Luke Aikins is stoked. Packing his Cessna 180 full of gear the way anyone else would load a pickup truck, he’s dusty and tired and squinting against the setting September sun in the flats of north-central California. But after a day of testing for Red Bull Aces 2015, he’s convinced that a new era in wingsuit flying is here to stay, and he couldn’t be happier.
We want to bring the contest to the world and show what these athletes are capable of.
“When we introduced Red Bull Aces in 2014, it was a big success. It was the first wingsuit competition in a four-cross format, as well as the first with air gates, and the athletes loved it,” says Aikins, who has been a driver and mastermind for the revolutionary contest. “We proved the concept, so now the objective is to focus on the competition so that we’re able to crown the best overall wingsuit pilot — not just the fastest, but the best. Also, we want to bring the contest to the world and show what these athletes are capable of.”
It’s not a sport for amateurs, but for top skydiving professionals like Aikins — whose consulting projects have included everything from work on major motion pictures to training elite military troops and preparing Felix Baumgartner for his supersonic Red Bull Stratos jump — wingsuits hold boundless possibility.
See what the wingsuit flyers will be attempting in this course animation:
While straight drag-style races have long been a part of wingsuit flying, Red Bull Aces is different. The idea: a slalom contest — like skiercross in the sky — that requires the pilots to be strategic and agile as well as fast, mastering the fastest lines to best their competitors.
When Red Bull Aces goes down in Northern California this October, the heats of four will jump from a civilian version of a Bell “Huey” helicopter at 7,500 feet above ground level and race through five 100-foot-tall gates suspended from other helis at altitudes between 6,000 and 3,500 feet. Taking the holeshot from the get-go is an advantage, but even at speeds approaching 160 mph, these skilled fliers can overtake competitors, making for breathtaking action.
In 2014, Red Bull Aces drew 52 wingsuit pilots from 16 countries. This year, the invitation-only race will host 40 top contenders from 19 nations, with the field evenly split between returning competitors (including defending champion Andy Farrington) and fresh faces who didn’t get a shot last year. Deciding on the invitees was hard for the organizers, Aikins says, because “we literally have 100 more who want to come, but we just don’t have the room.”
Keeping things manageable is a key goal in a competition that puts an emphasis on safety. Each athlete wears two parachutes, a main and a backup reserve, and every reserve has an automatic opener, just in case a pilot doesn’t deploy their parachute at a predetermined safe altitude.
Establishing the results with precision and delivering them to the ground as fast as they happen is another primary objective, which is why the test in California focused on GPS technology and live transmission of GPS data.
“This is truly a three-dimensional sport, and the athletes have to pass through each gate with accuracy,” Aikins says. “If they’re too low, for example, they’ll get a zero for that gate. Being the fastest while also making all the gates really tests their skills.”
“In our testing, we had four jumpers going through the gates with 100 percent success on GPS accuracy, and the refresh rate was so fast on our computers that we could tell without looking up whether an athlete had made a gate. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve never had the ability to judge a wingsuit competition so accurately before.”
Check out highlights from the 2014 Red Bull Aces event below:
Aikins was also pleased with the visual aspect of the test. “This cool stuff is going on in the air, but you don’t have ground features as a visual reference. So we tested cameras and camera angles, and we ended up with some amazing images. I’m very excited about what we’re going to be able to show.”
Stay tuned for full highlights from Red Bull Aces 2015.