Wingsuit flying is the art of flying the human body through the air using a special jumpsuit, called a wingsuit, that shapes the human body into an airfoil which can create lift. The wingsuit creates the airfoil shape with fabric sewn between the legs and under the arms. It is also called a birdman suit or squirrel suit.
A wingsuit can be flown from any point that provides sufficient altitude to glide through the air, such as skydiving aircraft or BASE jumping exit points.
The wingsuit flier wears parachute equipment designed for skydiving or BASE jumping. The flier will deploy the parachute at a planned altitude and unzip the arm wings, if necessary, so they can reach up to the control toggles and fly to a normal parachute landing.
Wings were first used in the 1930s as an attempt to increase horizontal movement. These early wingsuits were made of materials such as canvas, wood, silk, steel, and even whale bone. They were not very reliable. According to wingsuit lore, between 1930 and 1961, 72 of the 75 original birdmen died testing their wingsuits. Some of these so-called "birdmen," most notably Clem Sohn and Leo Valentin, claimed to have glided for miles and inspired dozens of imitators.
In the mid-1990s, French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon (nicknamed "DeG") developed a wingsuit that had unparalleled safety and performance. Unfortunately, de Gayardon died on April 13, 1998 while testing a new modification to his parachute container in Hawaii; his death is attributed to a rigging error which was part of the new modification rather than a flaw in the suit's design. Despite his tragic end, de Gayardon planted the seeds for a new generation of birdmen.
In 1998, Jari Kuosma of Finland and Robert Pecnik of Croatia teamed up to create a wingsuit that was safe and accessible for all skydivers when they established BirdMan, Inc. BirdMan's Classic, designed by Robert Pecnik, was the first wingsuit offered to the general public. BirdMan was also the first manufacturer to advocate the safe use of wingsuits by creating an Instructor program. Created by Jari Kuosma, the instructor program's aim was to remove the stigma that wingsuits were dangerous and to provide wingsuit beginners (Generally, skydivers with a minimum of 200 logged jumps) with a way to safely enjoy what was once considered the most dangerous in the skydiving world. With the help of Birdman Chief Instructors Scott Campos, Chuck Blue and Kim Griffin, a standardized program of instruction was developed that preprared instructors. Phoenix-Fly, Fly Your Body, and Nitro Rigging have also instituted an instructor training program.