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By Bryan Schatz
Photos courtesy of Loic Jean-Albert/Red-Bull Photofile
“The airplane is not the man in the sky, it is the machine in the sky.” — Leo Valentin, 1954
On a sunny day in 2003, thousands of feet above the Swiss ski village of Verbier, French skydiver Loic Jean-Albert donned a homemade wingsuit, jumped from a helicopter and rocketed down toward earth at 100 miles per hour, skimming just 15 feet above the rocks, snow and skiers of the Alps below. He covered over half a mile before pulling his ripcord and gliding safely to the ground. When the feat hit YouTube, it became one of the first ‘video virals’ to be watched over and over again, stunning audiences around the globe and earning Jean-Albert the nickname, “The Flying Dude.”
The initial impression viewers were likely to take away from this video: Loic Jean-Albert is just about the craziest person on earth, with lunacy seeping into his brain through every neuron. What’s more, stunts like the Verbier flight weren’t enough to satiate his lust for speed, his ever-escalating need to push the boundaries of human flight. See, jumping from helicopters and airplanes got boring, so Jean-Albert moved on to the summits of formidable mountains and developed the sport of “proximity flying”⎯a BASE jump that involves following the granite contours of vertical cliff faces and navigating the wingsuit with such precision you’d think flight was next up on our evolutionary path. Thus far, Jean-Albert may be the closest thing to a bird the human species has.
“It’s like everything,” says Jean-Albert via Skype from his home in Gap, southeastern France. “When you do your first wingsuit jump from an airplane, you get a rush. Then you get used to flying from airplanes, so there’s not much rush anymore. Then you start BASE jumping and you get some rush again. It’s like starting to drive a car and then you get bored and go to a faster car⎯you just keep on pushing the limits.”
Jean-Albert’s a lanky figure with a thin but athletic build. Though punctuated with a light French accent, he has an excellent command of English and talks with a sort of modest confidence, occasionally allowing a wry grin to show when he knows that what he’s saying probably sounds like madness to the rest of us. Born to a family of skydivers on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, his destiny was marked at birth.
“I grew up seeing my parents jump, so it was pretty obvious to me that I would jump one day. There are actually a lot of high-level skydivers now that are from a skydiving family. That’s the only way you’re going to get to skydive at a young age. There aren’t too many parents that want to see their children jump from airplanes.”
He was only six-years old when he went on his first paragliding outing, which started a trend. At 18, he returned to France to join the French Skydiving Federation where he began doing 1,000 jumps a year. Eventually he pursued BASE jumping and wingsuiting, and the idea of human flight went from being just a dream to becoming a reality.
That dream of human flight, of course, is as old as storytelling itself, and wingsuits have always had their place in flying lore. In Greek mythology, we’re told of Icarus’ wings of wax that were melted by the sun. On Saturday morning cartoons we watched Wile E. Coyote jump from cliffs and crunch into neighboring sandstone mesas. The disastrous results of these two examples parallel those in real life as well. What else can be expected of madmen who jump from cliffs that stretch thousands of feet high? There are bound to be grisly consequences. Indeed, if you trace the history of wingsuit evolution, you’ll find that it’s a history marked by death.
The beginning of the first real experiments with wingsuits occurred in 1912. Austrian flyer Franz Reichelt leapt from the Eiffel Tower sporting a wingsuit of his own design only to smash against the pavement below. In the 1930s, pioneers like Clem Sohn, Harry Ward and Leo Valentin experimented with new designs. They advanced the understanding of human flight, but all except Ward, who was 97 when he died in 2000, paid the ultimate price. The toll was so high, in fact, that between 1930 and 1961, 72 of the original 75 birdmen died testing their wingsuits.
It wasn’t until the mid-90s, when a revolutionary wingsuit design was developed by skydiving legend Patrick de Gayardon, that an era of rapid design improvements allowed birdmen to regularly make it back to the nest without incident. De Gayardon went on to take flight from the cliffs of Mont Blanc, the Grand Canyon, Kjerag in Norway and even jumped out of a Pilatus Porter airplane and⎯with the aid of his wingsuit⎯flew back into the same plane at a lower elevation.
De Gayardon’s designs marked the beginning of modern-day wingsuiting, and it was with him that Jean-Albert first attempted the sport.
“I was on the French parachuting team when Patrick de Gayardon was doing his first jumps in a wingsuit, in ’96 or something like that. At the time he was the only guy doing these jumps. So I met him and I did my first wingsuit jump with him.”
Jean-Albert took the skills and knowledge imparted to him by de Gayardon and began making his own suits. “There were no manufacturers at the time, so we had to build our own stuff.”
His time flying with his mentor was cut dramatically short in 1998. De Gayardon was on a sunset jump in Hawaii with a friend when a rig malfunction sent him to an earthly end.
“He was testing a new design at the time,” says Jean-Albert. “The suit used a string to attach to the parachute, and this string went through the parachute itself. When he opened, it entangled the parachute.”
Over time, witnessing the deaths and injuries of friends would become just another element of the sport for Jean-Albert. It was just “part of the game,” and they all understood the risks. But the reward, the feeling of flight as his body screamed down toward earth like some sort of flaming comet hurled from the heavens, was enough to keep him returning to cliff edges despite the odds of catastrophe. In return for the risk, one of the rewards was euphoria, however brief.
“The feeling was as good as it can get, I think,” says Jean-Albert. “I would call it freedom. For a certain moment, a certain time, I don’t feel gravity. You feel that you are flying, you are moving around the sky and you are totally free. You move your shoulders, your arms, legs⎯any little move has an influence on your trajectory. And wow, you feel pretty powerful!”
He can’t help but grin thinking about it. It’s an adrenaline addict’s fantasy, a hyper-speed adventure-needle in the arm that perpetually needs stronger intoxicants, lest the drug turn dull. But this isn’t just about adrenaline, he assures me.
“If we were just adrenaline junkies we would push it just for the risk, which is not our first motivation. Our motivation is to enlarge our flight envelope, to enlarge the flying capacities of the human body.”
And that’s exactly what Jean-Albert has spent much of his life developing. Improving on de Gayardon’s designs, he created a wingsuit model called the mono-wing design, which encapsulates the entire body and features wings that fill with air and create lift. The airflow allows the pilot to fly instead of fall, slowing descent while allowing for aerial maneuvers and forward motion.
The glide ratio created by modern-day wingsuits is 2.5:1, meaning that you can go forward 2½ meters for every meter you fall. When you drop 1,000 meters, you can cover 2½ horizontal kilometers.
As if the sport wasn’t dangerous enough, the innovations in wingsuits have only furthered their maneuverability, making possible developments like “proximity flying” — seeing how close you can buzz along the contours of vertical cliffs without splattering against them, a form of wingsuiting that Jean-Albert revolutionized.
Because of the inherent risk, the United States Parachute Association requires that you complete at least 200 jumps and be accompanied by an instructor to jump with a wingsuit, or 500 jumps to go solo. If that seems like a lot, here’s some perspective: Over the course of Jean-Albert’s life, between hurling himself off of cliffs and out of airplanes and helicopters, he’s completed over 11,000 jumps, making him one of the most qualified flyers in the world.
But even that kind of preparation can’t always prevent disaster.
On Dec. 20, 2007, Jean-Albert was in the snowcapped mountains outside of Wanaka on the south island of New Zealand, preparing for the inaugural New Zealand Air Games to be held the following week. Near the end of a fine day with good, clear weather, he had the worst accident of his life.
“I was speed flying, which is like paragliding but you’re using much smaller sails, so you are flying much faster. The game is to follow the terrain and go down the mountain at 90km per hour or something like that. I was following the ground, and I impacted with my bum and broke my back.”
The impact ruined his fifth lumbar vertebrae, but miraculously, didn’t paralyze him. When he bounced off the ground and back into the air, he was able to maintain control and glide down to a landing zone where paramedics began treatment before evacuating him to a hospital in Dunedin by helicopter. Eventually, doctors had to fuse his lower vertebrae.
“When you’re playing these games, the margin for error is pretty small,” he says. “There’s not much room for mistakes. But we know about it, we live with it⎯and this is the game. You have some close-calls sometimes, and sometimes you get hurt.”
Jean-Albert knew all about the risks⎯after all, many of his friends had died wingsuiting, including his mentor, de Gayardon⎯but the reality of the consequences hit home only after he broke his back. With a young family, and a life of adventure to look back on, Jean-Albert finally hung up his wings.
“I think there’s a time to do these things and a time to retire,” he says, a bit sadly. “If you don’t retire, the statistics are going to catch you.”
Though he stopped flying himself, he still contributes to the sport through his wingsuit design company, Fly Your Body. In 2010, his company came out with prototypes for another new design, a commercially available integrated parachute rig and wingsuit hybrid, to add to their custom wingsuit and BASE-rig collection.
When asked if contributing to a sport that involves such extreme inherent risk makes him question his participation and motives, he says, “Yeah. Every time someone has an accident, of course I am thinking about it. But on the other side, if I didn’t do it, someone else would have done it. I’m 100% sure of that. If people don’t die with my suits, they will die with someone else’s suits.”
It all goes back to the reasons he originally started wingsuiting: the feeling of flight, the euphoria that trumps potential catastrophe. “People do it because they like it. And it’s the same for me when I was jumping. You can’t prevent people from taking risks. I think that risk is also part of life. If you live without risk it’s no more fun.”
In the years since his accident, Jean-Albert has been learning to live a quieter life, one that doesn’t involve backflips out of airplanes and jumping from granite ledges to feel the wind screaming by his face.
“For four years I have refrained from BASE jumping, skydiving, doing things like that, and it’s pretty hard moving to a life where you’re not (faced with such exposure) and getting a rush at some points.”
He takes refuge in his good health, his young family, trips to the mountains, and in new, more conventional, aerial pursuits. To remedy the potentially disastrous effects of a mundane office existence, he’s returned to the sky, but with a commercial pilot’s license for airplanes and helicopters. He likes helicopters the most, getting close to terrain, flying to the edge of a void or in abysmal weather conditions. These are the thrills that now captivate a man who believes he was “born for risk.”
“I do get that rush sometimes,” he tells me, and slowly that wry grin appears on his face again. “And every time I do it I’m super happy. I’m living 100%. When you’re always in a cocoon and there’s no danger, no difficulties … pff, life gets boring. When you have that little risk, little rush or little high speed … your life is a true life.”
Freelance writer Bryan Schatz, formerly of Santa Cruz, now makes his home in Denver, CO.