Better than being Batman: Wingsuit pros cruise at 200 mph

Joe Ridler's colorblindness prevented him from fulfilling his childhood dream of piloting a fighter jet like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," but now he’s got the next best thing.

For the past two years, he’s been routinely jumping out of planes while wearing a wingsuit, a high-tech device that turns his body into a makeshift aircraft capable of high-altitude stunts Batman could only dream of.

"I found this and it’s helped bring my dream of flight back in life,” said Ridler, a 35-year-old Pilsen resident. "To fly around the sky without an engine or anything beneath it is like nothing else."

Ridler is just one of dozens of skilled skydivers from all over the country converging at Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Rochelle, Ill., this week to take flight in the first National Championships of Wingsuit Flying.

The puffy suits certainly don’t look like much when they’re earthbound. Travis Mickle looked ridiculous walking around in his cherry-red wingsuit while gearing up with his three-man Wicked Wingsuit team for a practice jump recently. It was as if he were wearing a Snuggie crossed with a camping tent.

But after being dropped out of a small plane from 14,000 feet, his suit inflated and transformed him into a human glider who sped horizontally through the Illinois sky at speeds reaching nearly 200 mph.

"My ex-girlfriend got me into it, and I didn't enjoy at first, especially since I’m a little heavier. But now I can’t get enough of it," said Mickle, 29, who now works as a professional wingsuiter and lives onsite at the Rochelle airport. "Clouds are my favorite thing because you can fly around them and it gives you a reference for how fast you’re going. You really feel like you're an airplane."


NASA successfully completed a risky test of the Orion spacecraft’s parachute system on Wednesday, August 26. A test version of Orion touched down in the Arizona desert after a planned failure of two of its parachutes used to stabilize and slow the spacecraft for landing.

But not even the most nimble of airplanes have the dexterity and control of wingsuit pros. They can gently glide or zip across the sky and perform front flips—all during the same jump.

"Imagine being on a roller coaster without the rails and restriction," Ridler said. "Think of the suit as an energy retention device. You can change your body position and harness that potential energy to do all sorts of things."

During the Performance half of this week’s championships, participants must contort their bodies to achieve three goals; there are separate jumps for longest flight, farthest distance and fastest horizontal speed. GPS units plugged into their helmets record precise data and tell judges how fast they're going and how far they’ve gone.

The Acrobatic discipline of the championships asks teams of two flyers to perform various formations and tricks while a videographer captures the footage to play for judges. The winners will be crowned national champions and qualify for a future world championship.

The creation of an annual competition by a governing body (the United States Parachute Association) is further proof of the skyrocketing popularity of the still-young sport of wingsuit flying, which was first developed commercially in 1999.

"Wingsuit flying is the fastest-growing discipline in skydiving right now," said Nancy Koreen, director of sport promotion for the USPA. "Skydiving has always been a cutting-edge aerial sport, and this is just another example of skydiving pushing the limits of human flight."

Sometimes those limits are pushed even further. A segment of extreme wingsuit fliers engage in illegal terrain flying, or the art of gliding in close proximity to cliffs or tree lines at speeds exceeding 150 mph, often while wearing helmets equipped with cameras.

The footage of some of these dangerous stunts racks up millions of YouTube views, which has in turn encouraged more daredevil stunts. Two dozen wingsuiters died in 2014, according to one unofficial count, a number that has steadily increased as more people are attracted to the sport. Two famous fliers—Dean Potter and Graham Hunt—were killed in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite National Park in May.

Ridler said he's lost friends to terrain-flying crashes.

"The injuries you get doing that, you die. There is no second life," he said. "That’s a problem in that discipline because people want to get the closest without dying."

The brand of wingsuit flying on display at the National Championships of Wingsuit Flying is much safer. In Mickle’s hundreds of jumps, the worst injury he’s received is a burn on his leg from hitting the grass too fast.

"You're adding a suit to the mix, and every time you add another piece of equipment, you’re adding another complication," he said. "But we’re taking extra precautions to make sure it’s safe."