While modern wingsuit flying has been around since the mid-'90s, the number of jumps and stunts are proliferating as fast as, well, leaping from a cliff. Last month, there was the first ever wingsuit BASE jump off Kilimanjaro and the first ever wingsuit flight over the Egyptian pyramids. The first wingsuit flight over the Grand Canyon is planned for April.
While the videos that go viral may look spontaneous, highlighting the most adrenaline-pumping minute or two of flight, they rarely mention the days, months, even years of preparation that go into the leap.
But research on each jump is meticulous, said Mick Knutson, editor/founder of the online BASE jumping magazine, BLiNC, who has logged over 500 wingsuit BASE jumps. As in skiing, each potential jump-off location has several routes, or lines. But unlike skiing, you can’t take it "nice and easy" the first time down, Knutson said.
"There are lines people have been looking at and researching for years and still trying to get right," he said.
Although pilots use Google Earth and topographic maps to scout a new route, "sometimes it takes an old-fashioned walk-it-from-the-ground-up, which could take days," Knutson said.
That's partly because the area a flight covers is so large, and partly because the research requires scanning everything from geographic outcroppings to the color of the rocks in the area. Dark-colored rocks, for example, absorb thermic heat and generate thermic lift, Knutson said. And even if you're not flying near outcroppings, they can create turbulence in certain meteorological conditions.
After all those details are known, a wingsuit pilot may take the first flight of a new line at a higher-than-usual altitude to further scope the course, Knutson said.
"It forces the person to become more like an aeronautical pilot, studying where you’re going to fly," he said.
All the research in the world, however, doesn't compare to experience in a sport that leaves no room for error. Before potential wingsuit BASE jumpers even start thinking about taking their first leap, they're encouraged to do at least 200 BASE jumps and 200 wingsuit flights from an airplane first.
Before he started wingsuit BASE jumping, Jimmy Pouchert had done 800 BASE jumps. Now, the co-owner of Apex BASE teaches first-time wingsuit BASE jumpers.
"Before they jump, we talk about everything that could possibly go wrong and how to solve it," he said.
Certain locations are ideal for first jumps, Pouchert said. The “exit point,” or jump-off point, needs to be very tall and very overhung.
"The difference between an airplane and a BASE jump is in those first five to eight seconds you really have to be careful not to flip over," he said. "It can get insane immediately."
Experience also helps develop intuition, said Knutson, who has been on top of cliffs that took hours to climb only to turn around at the top. If he's not feeling right, that's his cue to pack up the suit and hike home to have breakfast, he said. When the feeling is right, however, he becomes hyper-aware and vigilant.
"When I'm flying, I am so in tune to what's happening that I can feel the individual hairs on the tops of my hands," Knutson said. "I'm processing data in quarter-second increments. And if I didn’t have that speed and attention, I wouldn't do it."