The Excruciating, 200-MPH World of Wingsuit Racing
Joe Radler has jumped out of an airplane nearly 700 times in his life, but when he makes the leap later today, the goal will be about more than reaching the ground safely. It will be to fly through the air faster, farther, and for longer than anyone else in the sky.
Radler’s competing in the National Championships of Wingsuit Flying in Chicago, also known as wingsuit racing.
Radler’s loved the idea of flying since he was a kid in northwest Minnesota, looking for a way to get away. Barred from a commercial or military flight career by eye problems, he was intrigued by BASE jumping, but abandoned the idea it was too dangerous. So now he jumps out of planes and races through the sky at 200 mph.
Radler’s first wingsuit flight was two years ago. It would have been sooner, but the US Parachute Associate requires you complete 200 skydives before allowing you to exit a plane dressed like an amped up flying squirrel. “The one thing I was the most nervous about,” he says, was “strapping myself into a straight jacket and throwing myself out of a plane.”
That seems like a good place to focus anxiety, especially since Radler says he’s still afraid of heights. But now that he’s competing in the air, not just enjoying flight, he he worries more about winning. That means staying in shape, both mentally and physically. Radner’s work on the ground includes lots of core workouts, yoga for flexibility, and meditation to hone his focus and “slow down those moments that are flying by.”
The real practice, though, requires jumping as often as possible. Those flights are all about playing with different inputs to max out whatever kind of flight he’s working on.
The championships, hosted by the US Parachute Association, test competitors on three disciplines, each measured in a window between 3,000 and 2,000 meters of altitude: average speed, distance covered, and time spent aloft. Each flyer gets three jumps in each category, and is tracked via a GPS module on their helmet. They’re rated on a curve—whoever goes fastest, farthest, or stays in the window the longest gets a 100, everyone else a percentage of that—and scores are averaged to find an overall winner.
The three disciplines are related, but each has its own challenging aspect, Radler says. Time’s about falling as slowly as possible; it’s “the most physically excruciating,” Radler says, because it requires stretching out as far as possible in the wingsuit, to increase surface area. Distance is more than a function of how long you’re aloft, since going faster takes you farther. Speed’s about more than how fast you can Icarus your way back to Earth, because what matters is horizontal speed—so you need some distance to score well.
Competitors also need to account for the behavior of the wind, and hope there’s no rain, which Radler compares to being sandblasted in the face. At least they don’t encounter any birds or bugs while flying at speed, since they pull their chute around 1,000 meters, above most critters’ range.
The wingsuit is a super sensitive instrument. How far out you stick your chin, or whether you push your toes outward, can drastically change how you move through the air. “You’re performing little scientific experiments every single jump,” Radler says, “trying to find out what is working best.” It effectively makes whoever’s wearing it into an airfoil, allowing them to exceed normal terminal velocity.
It’s also an expensive instrument, running for $1,500 to $2,000. Then there’s the helmet, the GPS module that tracks position and speed, and, of course, a couple of GoPro cameras—about $2,000 of equipment, on your head alone. But the real cost of this sport is paying for the jumps themselves. That’s why Radler holds down a full-time, regular job at a design agency in Chicago, and spends his weekends and vacation time in midair.
Apart from the occasional frustration on the part his girlfriend, Radler doesn’t have any problems putting his time and money into the sport. “I wish everybody n the country could do this, because I have a feeling there wouldn’t be many angry people out there,” he says. “I think everybody would be really stoked on life overall.”
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