It almost seems dubious to say, but zipping through the air like Superman is nothing new. For years, wingsuit flying has allowed humans to realize the age-old dream of personal flight. And pilot skill and wingsuit technology have grown immensely in recent decades, enabling Red Bull Aces to once again crown the world’s best all-around wingsuit pilot. (For more in-depth knowledge about wingsuits and a glossary of terms the pros use, click here.)
Since 2014, Red Bull Aces has presented an innovative format that features wingsuit pilots racing head-to-head in four-person elimination heats. And this November, it’s on again with a fresh location and new wildcard format that should boost the high-flying action to the next level.
Being the first-ever wingsuit-cross competition, as well as the first to incorporate slalom-style gates in the sky, Red Bull Aces launched a spectacular new era in aerial sports. Featuring 40 athletes from 18 countries and five continents, the event draws the world’s best pilots with personalities and flying styles as varied as their nationalities.
In just two short years, the event has spotlighted a headline rivalry between Americans Andy Farrington and Noah Bahnson, who took first and second place respectively at both comps. Plus, the racers who previously claimed third-place spots — South Africa’s Julian Boulle and USA’s Matt Gerdes — will be back in the mix in 2016.
What's new in 2016
For the first time, the event is being held outside of California. Neighboring state Arizona, with its vast, breathtaking landscapes, will play host to the 2016 edition of Red Bull Aces. Another addition this year is the wildcard format. A roster of 16 athletes — half of them entirely new to the event — will battle for eight available slots in the final, where 24 pre-seeded top contenders will await them.
"The wildcard format is going to make things even more exciting," explains Red Bull Aces Race Director Luke Aikins. "Having brackets that are largely determined by the pilots’s previous standings will ensure that the top seeds don’t go up against each other in the early heats of the finals. Plus, the new athletes in the wildcard group will bring fresh blood to the event and make the outcome even more unpredictable."
"This is the future and the buzz about Red Bull Aces in the flying community is huge," two-time winner Farrington adds. "The skill set is improving for sure. Last year the scoring margins were down to a couple hundredths of a second.”
But how does it all work?
Each heat of four pilots will jump from a civilian version of a Bell “Huey” helicopter at 7,500 feet above ground level. They’ll race through a twisting course of four gates suspended from other helicopters at descending altitudes between 6,000 and 3,500 feet. The winner is based not only on how quickly the finish line is crossed, but also on how many gates are correctly passed through. All the gates are equipped with GPS and the competitors will wear a transmitter to determine whether they pass through each gate properly. Computer systems on the ground receive the information in real time, making the judging immediate.
"Being the fastest while also making all the gates really tests the skills of the pilots," says Aikins, whose own aerial skills were tested recently when he successfully landed a skydive from 25,000 feet without a wingsuit or parachute. "Last year, we could see how seriously everyone was taking the competition and their skill sets will only be more elevated this time. It’s going to be intense."
To ensure maximum safety, each athlete will wear two parachutes — a main and a backup reserve. Every reserve has an automatic opener in case a pilot doesn’t deploy his/her chute at a safe altitude.
Stay tuned for photos, video and results from the event.