October 2015 will see the return of Red Bull Aces, the first-ever four-cross wingsuit competition. It’s been a long road to bring wingsuits and those who fly them to this point. The cutting-edge wingsuits worn by top athletes who speed through the Red Bull Aces aerial gates are the product of more than a century of development. Let’s take a quick look at the wild history and technological advancements of a sport that has made the dream of birdlike flight a reality, and get a preview of what to expect from Red Bull Aces 2015.
The initial wingsuits were far from sophisticated, fashioned from materials like canvas, wood, metal and even whalebone — often to make bat-like wings. The first known wingsuit attempt of the “modern” era was an unsuccessful jump from the Eiffel Tower in 1912. Two decades later, with airplanes and parachuting having revolutionized the potential of human flight, a British parachutist known as “The Yorkshire Birdman” designed wings that he could detach to avoid entanglement when pulling his parachute — and he lived to tell about that innovation to the ripe old age of 97.
When you know how to use that wing, you have a 3-to-1 glide ratio: for every 1 foot you fall, you can fly 3 feet forward.
After decades of experimentation, the real breakthrough came in the 1990s with ribbed fabric wings that could inflate with air like modern “ram air” parachutes. Inflation made the wings stiffer, and the stiffer they were, the faster and more precisely the pilots could fly. The technology and the possibilities have been growing exponentially ever since, even seeing successful wingsuit landings without a parachute on surfaces like water and a cushion of cardboard boxes.
Check out the teaser for Red Bull Aces 2015 below:
Latest suits allow for more precise control
“Basically, when you’re on the ground walking around in the suit, it’s just a bunch of big, floppy material — very two-dimensional,” explains Red Bull Aces race director Luke Aikins. “But once you jump out in the sky and you get moving, inlets allow the ribs to fill with air, pressurizing it so that it becomes a three-dimensional wing. When you know how to use that wing, you have a 3-to-1 glide ratio: for every 1 foot you fall, you can fly 3 feet forward.”
By the first decade of the new millennium, speed, time, distance and artistic wingsuit competitions had been established. But it wasn’t until Red Bull Aces was introduced in 2014 that a contest allowed athletes to demonstrate the full spectrum of their airborne skills.
A skiercross-type format in the sky, Red Bull Aces is wingsuit slalom racing in four-person heats. The contest’s premiere featured top men and women from 16 countries ripping through the air at speeds of more than 160 mph (256 kph) and was a huge success, earning raves from the participants.
Now that the concept has been proved, Aikins says that the 2015 competition is putting an even higher focus on technology to prove definitively that the winner is “not just the fastest wingsuit pilot, but the best.” The winner will be the athlete able to fly with utmost precision and agility as well as speed.
Safety and accuracy is paramount
Safety is also a primary concern. 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 his or her parachute at a predetermined safe altitude.
When Red Bull Aces returns to the skies of Northern California this October, a world-leading roster of 40 athletes from 19 nations will take part. The heats of four will jump from a civilian version of a Bell “Huey” helicopter at 7,500 feet (2,285 meters) above ground level and race through five 100-foot-long (30-meter-long) gates suspended from other helicopters at positions varying from 6,000 to 3,500 feet (1,830 to 1,065 meters) above ground level.
All the gates will be equipped with GPS positioning, and the competitors will wear a GPS transmitter to determine whether they pass through each gate’s box properly. Too low or too high, and it’s a zero for that gate. Computer systems on the ground will receive the information in real time, and the judging will be immediate. “I think it’s safe to say that we’ve never had the ability to judge a wingsuit competition so accurately before,” Aikins states. The person who is fastest and flies most precisely through the gates will be declared the winner.
“I know for a fact that athletes have been training for this since last year, and some suit designers are also focusing on how to make faster suits specifically for the Red Bull Aces format,” Aikins notes, mentioning that the thinner suit profiles in development for racing are “like a fighter jet compared to a Cessna.”
Training strategies range from using carefully positioned fellow parachutists as “gates” in the sky to repeatedly practicing exits from a helicopter for a better chance at a perfect holeshot lead.
“This really is a new era in wingsuit flying,” Aikins states, “and I can’t wait for people to see what these athletes are capable of.”
Stay tuned for photo and video coverage of Red Bull Aces soon!