Ever wish you could leap off a building and fly? A group of skydivers and BASE jumpers do just that in the sport of wingsuit jumping.

Do you ever have that insane urge to jump when you're standing on top of something really tall? That little voice in your head that doesn't quite seem to grasp what gravity is, and is morbidly curious about just how well you might be able to fly?

We all know this little voice is crazy. Humans can't fly; we don't have wings! But, wingsuit jumpers–skydivers and BASE jumpers who have taken their sport to the next level–haven't let that stand in their way. They wear suits that resemble the skin of a flying squirrel to help them soar through the air instead of falling straight down.

Did you know? Wingsuit jumping takes training and experience. Most flyers have at least 200 regular free-fall jumps under their belts before they don a wingsuit.

When a wingsuit jumper leaps from a plane, gravity is pulling him/her down. Gravity will keep pulling the jumper down at faster and faster speeds, until something stops it. This something is air resistance (also known as drag) and it's what you feel when you put your hand out the window of a moving car. In this case, the resistance of the air is not as strong as the thrust of the car moving forward, so you keep moving. When you jump out of an airplane, air resistance is still not strong enough to keep you from falling to the ground, but the more air resistance you can get, the slower you will fall.

Did you know? Skydivers free-fall at about 50 metres per second. Wearing a wingsuit slows that speed down to 12 metres per second.

To get more resistance you need more surface area for air to push against, without adding more weight for gravity to pull down on. That’s where the wings on a wingsuit or the spreading arc of a parachute come in. The wings are made of fabric so they don't add too much weight, but they take up a lot of space and can catch a lot more air than your body does. As the wingsuit jumper falls, he and his wings are pushing down against a lot of air, which pushes right back, helping him stay afloat longer.

Technically this is not flying–it's gliding. The lift on the wings is not stronger than the pull of gravity, but it beats falling with out them!

Wingsuit jumpers generally go 2.5 feet forward for every foot they fall, which means they can cover a lot of ground before opening their parachutes. Japanese wingsuit pilot Shin Ito flew a record 23 kilometres in only five minutes! If you think that sounds fast you're right; he reached speeds of 350 kilometres per hour.

Learn More!

BirdMan--Wingsuit Flying

PBS--Lift and Drag

Wingsuit Flying and Basic Aerodynamics

Wingsuit Flying and Basic Aerodynamics 2

The Physics of Skydiving

Article first published October 11, 2011

Jalyn Neysmith

Jalyn Neysmith is a museum exhibit developer with degrees in archaeology and science communication. She loves to travel and has lived in Alberta, Ontario and Australia, and is currently at the Field Museum of natural history in Chicago. When not globetrotting she can be found running adventure races, snowboarding, or playing the fiddle.

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