Flying (Navy) SEAL Soars a World Record 18 Miles in a Wingsuit
When you think of raising awareness for a cause, does your mind first go to Greenpeace volunteers asking if you have an extra minute to protect the children? Because when former Navy SEAL Andy Stumpf wants to give voice to a cause, he throws his body out of a plane and flies record distances wearing a wingsuit.
We’re not talking about a regular wingsuit flight here, the kind where a plane takes up to 13,000 feet and you spend one to two minutes in free fall before drifting gently to the Earth. To break the absolute distance record of 17.8 miles, Stumpf had to climb almost three times higher than typical jumping altitude—up to where 747s fly—and tear through the air for seven minutes in a rigid isometric hold while enduring a 150 degree temperature swing. (The troposphere is really cold, guys.) Somehow, Stumpf finds it reasonable to downplay the new record of 18.26 miles he set this summer.
“The jumps are unique in the fact that they are singularly useless and have no meaning,” says the Navy veteran, who dove out of a plane from 36,000 feet to fundraise for the Navy SEAL Foundation, which provides support services to members of the Naval Special Warfare community.
Stumpf has spent nearly half his life in uniform, and after retiring from active duty, leaping from the lower edge of the troposphere with an oxygen mask strapped to his face was a way to marry his passion for skydiving with his commitment to serving a community he says served him so well for so long. “It was just a pin in the ground that I could use to put a spotlight on me, and then lateral that over to the Foundation.”
Remember: We’re not just talking about your standard adrenaline junkie here. Stumpf may be a skydiver, base jumper, military free fall instructor, and wingsuit flyer, but before any of that he served for 18 years as a SEAL. He got his parents to sign a consent waiver for early enlistment when he was 17, and once he hit legal age, he was right off to basic training.
When asked why he chose a wingsuit record as his platform to shine a light on the Foundation, Stumpf admits he would have juggled to get attention, but that skydiving is the only thing he’s good at. (Probably a good call; no one pays that much attention to jugglers anyway.)
The first time Stumpf careened out of a plane, it was in significantly less impressive than his recent record setting winged flight. At the time, Stumpf says, SEALs weren’t permitted to make free fall jumps until they had been on a team for about five years and logged the requisite number of drops. Instead, he and the other newer members had to strap into static line chutes while the more experienced SEALs sat across from them and laughed. “Let’s just say the experience sucks. The whole thing sucks,” Stumpf says. “The parachute is uncomfortable. The opening is really violent. You jump from low altitude. The landing is like jumping off the top of a ten-story roof.”
Skydiving to me has always been a natural thing. I didn’t feel like I was in danger or outside of my skill level, so I felt comfortable just doing it. Former NAVY Seal Andy Stumpf
To get off the static line ASAP, Stumpf sought out a civilian jump school and quickly racked up more than 500 trips through the air, allowing him to effectively challenge the military’s jump curriculum—you know, like you challenged 100-level Spanish in college.
Since retiring from the service at 36, Stumpf has served as a CrossFit trainer and professional skydiver sponsored by Kill Cliff. The energy drink company was started by a former SEAL with whom Stumpf served, so the two parties had a natural fit. And when Stumpf learned that his sponsor was also the only for-profit partner of the Navy SEAL Foundation, he knew he wanted to contribute in any way he could.
So he took that one thing he says he’s good at—falling out planes—and suggested they turn it into a fundraising platform. He would attempt to break the world record for absolute distance traveled in a wingsuit jump, which includes the distance covered after the chute has opened, and if Kill Cliff paid for the jump they could funnel attention to a GoFundMe campaign to raise $1 million for the Navy Seal Foundation Survivor Support Program.
When Stumpf started prepping for the jump in earnest this January, he had been doing wingsuit trips for about three months. The record attempt gave his training new urgency. “Most people would probably look at me doing an attempt like that as not reckless, but a little bit on the edge of moderately unqualified,” says Stumpf. “And I probably wouldn’t argue that with them. However, skydiving to me has always been a natural thing. I didn’t feel like I was in danger or outside of my skill level, so I felt comfortable just doing it.”
The challenge of preparing for a record jump at such extreme altitude is that you can’t really practice body positioning for a sustained period of time unless those training leaps happen at the same height, which is just not sustainable. Most standard skydives take place at around 13,000 feet, well below Stumpf’s 37,000-foot starting point, where the drop is two minutes compared to almost 10 from up where passenger jets fly.
This means a lot of trial and error during smaller jumps, to fine tune your mechanics. Stumpf describes his early approach to training as “playing darts with a blindfold on.” Then through a bit of serendipity, he met the CEO of Skullcandy, Hoby Darling, through a mutual friend and ended up telling him about the record attempt over tacos and margaritas. To Stumpf’s surprise, Darling wanted to get Skullcandy involved and let him make use of the company’s “Human Potential Lab” for training.
“The Skullcandy crew hooked me up with their performance lab where they started putting sensors on me during the jumps, and measuring oxygen saturation and heart rate and trying to figure out exactly what was going on inside of my body,” Stumpf says. “They really worked with me to try to target the muscle groups that seemed to fatigue the most. What they did for me was take the blindfold off. I was still playing darts, but at least now I had a systematic approach to getting them onto the dartboard.”
Since Stumpf wasn’t really able to practice at altitude, he knew that August 26, the day of the jump, would be its own unique beast. His philosophy amounted to, “Basically on game day, you’ve just gotta send it.” He was going to be exiting a plane at 36,000 feet, where the air is thin and temperatures sit around 60 degrees below zero.
The way you fly in a wingsuit depends on your body position, and going as far as possible requires holding the perfect pose for as long as possible. “From a side profile, you want to look as much like a 2×4 as you possibly can. Just like an airplane wing is super rigid, you’re trying to do the same thing,” says Stumpf. “You start the jump and think ‘I got this. This is the best body position ever!’ Well, just hold a four to five pound plate out to the side and see how long you can hold it. It’s not that heavy, but it doesn’t matter. A five-pound plate becomes an unbearable challenge at some point.”
As Stumpf fell nearly seven miles to the Earth’s surface while trying to maintain optimal form at 140 miles per hour, those metaphorical five-pound plates got really heavy. Watch the jump and you’ll notice Stumpf’s body go limp after he finally opens his chute. And if he it looks like he crumples to the ground after touching down, it’s because he does—then he lays there for about five more minutes. Since he had just traveled 18.26 miles through the atmosphere, we’ll say he earned the rest on the ground.
Ultimately, Stumpf considers the entire endeavor a failure if he can’t hit the fundraising target of $1 million for the SEAL foundation. “It’s not about me and it’s not about the jump. I’m not even gonna file for the world record,” says Stumpf, who will carry out his days as a non-Guinness certified record holder.
“It’s about me trying to give back to a community of people that largely shaped me into the human being that I am.” But no matter the outcome of the campaign, no human could say he hasn’t defied the laws of gravity and sanity to be a part of the solution.