How Wingsuit Flying Works

Wingsuit Design

There are several different wingsuit designs on the market, but they generally follow the same basic design. Wingsuits are constructed from highly durable fabrics with few rigid parts, as the human body provides the framework for the membranous wing surfaces. The suit essentially transforms the human form into a full-body wing, which means the suit has to feature as much horizontal surface as possible to become an effective airfoil.

The typical wingsuit design accomplishes this with webbed wing surfaces between the legs and under the arms. The force of the opposing air inflates these membranes by pushing air through inlets in the suit, helping to keep the airfoil semirigid through flight. This means that the flyer doesn't have to maintain the shape of the wings through sheer physical force alone, but also doesn't suffer limited mobility due to a rigid wing structure. The suit straps securely to the flyer's body, without obstructing the pilot chute or the emergency handles on the chest that deploy the reserve chute.

Once a wingsuit flyer has exited the aircraft and begins falling, his first step is to spread his arms and legs in order to fully open the suit's wings. The flyer then straightens his spine, pushes his shoulders forward and straightens both legs. Since his entire body serves as an airfoil, the flyer maneuvers in the air by moving different parts of his body.

To cover the greatest distance, a flyer needs to roll his shoulders forward and bend his chin against his neck in order to push the wingsuit into a head-low position. The flyer must also keep the wings open, but not fully stretched out. Remember, the more lift, the slower the descent -- and a gliding object must sacrifice altitude and turn it into speed to cover greater distances.

To achieve the longest flying time possible, a wingsuit flyer must raise his head and look forward, while also bending at the hips, stretching the wings and pushing down against the wind. In this, the flyer achieves as much surface area as possible and creates more lift. This slows both the rate of descent and forward momentum.

When it comes to turning, a flyer simply twists his or her legs, hips, shoulders and feet to alter the shape of the airfoil -- any part of the wingsuit can influence a turn. The key is to make small movements, as large movements can force the flyer into a dive or spin. It's much like swimming underwater and moving one's body to change direction, except that each movement with a wingsuit can produce radical changes in direction.

So where did all this wingsuit technology come from? Far from a new invention, skydivers have been experimenting with wings for decades. Learn all about the history of wingsuits on the next page.