1ST APRIL 2017
Imagine this – you’re hanging in the air, there’s virtually no oxygen, hypoxia is setting in, you’re losing consciousness, in a few seconds you’ll be travelling at 120mph and all you have to look forward to is about 200 seconds of falling rapidly towards the ground. This is what it’s like to free-fall from 35,000 feet in the air, and this is what the Irish Wingsuit Team are attempting to do.
On the 9th of April, the three Irish skydivers (read: lunatics) will jump out of a plane in the California sky and attempt to break not only the record for distance travelled in a wingsuit flight as a team, but the European record for individual falling and the team record for time spent falling. If all goes according to plan, they’ll be travelling 26km through the air, and they’ll be falling for a terrifying 9 minutes.
There is virtually no oxygen to be had at that altitude, so the team (Stephen Duffy, David Duffy and Marc Daly) will be fitted with special oxygen life support systems – the same ones the military use during halo jumps. During the jump, they’ll be hitting speeds of up to 200mph. As if that wasn’t scary enough, at the top of the jump the air temperature will be around -55°C.
The FlexiTog gear as received by the Irish Wingsuit Team
To combat this, FlexiTog have developed special custom thermal gear for the team to wear beneath their wingsuits. It’s a very important base to cover; even an inch of exposed skin would become frostbitten almost instantly. To add to that, if their goggles were to come loose, they would go blind immediately. Each team member will be fitted with a thermal bodysuit and special heated, thermal gloves. These suits are the first of their kind ever to be developed.
Even with all the safety measures in place, the guys need to be able to, well, move. If their arms and legs seize from the cold, they won’t be able to steer themselves through the air currents, and it’s actually of vital importance that they travel as fast as they can through much of the jump. Too long in the air, and they’ll run out of oxygen. The other danger is that if the coldness renders them immobile, they won’t be able to open their parachutes. I don’t think I have to tell why that’s bad.
They are equipped with computers which will open the chutes automatically at 1,000 feet, but they have to be going a certain speed for that to work, and there’s always the risk that the system might fail to activate. It’s certainly not the kind of thing they want to rely on. Taking all this into account, FlexiTog’s gear is just as vitally important as the wingsuits themselves.
As insane as this undertaking is, it’s only the precursor to something even more daring. In September 2018, the trio plan to cross the Irish Sea from the Irish coast to the Scottish one. The narrowest gap between the two coastlines is 22km, so they’ll have to travel at least 26km to absolutely assure that they’re over dry land when they touch down. Parachuting into the sea is not advisable, and neither is smashing into a cliff face.
Wingsuit flying has only been popularised for a little under 20 years, although the first wingsuit flight was actually in 1912. A tailor named Franz Reichelt made one, and jumped off of the Eiffel Tower in it. He did not survive. The first commercially available wingsuits appeared in the late ’90s, and since then they’ve become a mainstay in both skydiving and BASE jumping.
This jump set hitherto unheard of challenges, though. Nothing like this has ever been attempted, and it is creating unique challenges for FlexiTog and all the other companies and sponsors. The team will actually be doing 10 jumps across their 5 days in California, knocking off several smaller records in the process, but the real thing happens on Sunday (April 9th).
Brothers Stephen and David Duffy recently spoke to Ireland’s RTÉ News, offering an insight into their record attempt and the features of the wingsuits themselves.