Human flight with wingsuits traces its history back to the 1920s and 1930s, when “bat men” tried to fly using suits made of canvas, whalebone and wood. About 90 people in the early part of the 20th century were documented as having tried to fly, more than 70 died in their attempts to be a ‘flying man’. The materials used were very archaic and didn’t fly well but with construction of the wingsuits becoming safer in the 1990s the popularity and reputation of this extreme sport has gained a momentum that will only gather pace.
In the United States there are less than 10 wingsuit flying academies, Scott and Chris Gray operate one such academy at Skydive Orange,in Virginia. Wingsuit pilots need to have extensive parachuting experience. At The Brothers Gray, people need to have completed at least 200 skydives and hold a current skydiving license to try wingsuit flying. Scott Gray said some people with more than 500 skydives are legally allowed to don a wingsuit and jump without instruction, but it isn’t recommended because the suits require more skills to fly. After jumping out of the plane, wingsuit pilots spread their arms and legs at a certain time and immediately begin to fly. As they float around at speeds in excess of 100mph altimeters keep them aware of how close they are to the ground. The level of a wingsuit pilot’s license determines how low they can go before deploying their parachute.
The Brothers Gray Wingsuit Academy has pilots with experience from a few wingsuit jumps to more than 1,000 jumps. Although the owners have traveled elsewhere to teach new pilots how to fly, they call Orange their home base. Twin Otter planes are considered desirable for skydiving because the light craft can take jumpers to full altitude in about 10 minutes. The brothers decided to open up their own school after doing about 30 wingsuit jumps. Scott said they noticed there weren’t many wingsuit pilots in Virginia or Maryland, and decided opening a school was the best way for them to create that community. The Grays’ wingsuit school operates every other weekend, and the brothers travel to other drop zones when they can. Scott Gray said he is part of a group of wingsuit pilots who are going to try for a new world record. The attempt, which will happen this November in California, will involve 71 pilots – two more than the last world record.