'Less of a stunt, more of a sport'

Wingsuit flier aims to share joy of flight

March 20, 2014

The winter snowpack of Switzerland’s Silberhorn flashed past below as Brian Drake filmed, just a few feet away from fellow wingsuit skydiver Dan Vicary. They were in freefall, decelerated just enough by the material stretched taut between arms and legs to give them a measure of control and extend the glide a few minutes. Drake’s cameras keep Vicary in frame for the duration of the drop, and the footage has been well-received by the online community of extreme sport enthusiasts—most of those who respond to voting buttons declare it “epic.”

As it happened, Epic TV, an online video service dedicated to extreme sports, had paid for the helicopter from which the pair had jumped, on a mission to share their extreme brand of aviation with armchair enthusiasts and athletes alike.

Drake and Vicary, who is from New Zealand, have teamed up with French wingsuit aviator Vincent Descols to produce a series of adrenaline-packed videos. They have completed, but not yet published, another video shoot, darting down a glacial canyon and through a gap that narrows to about 12 feet.

Drake said there is method behind the seeming madness, and preparation that has been under way for years. While conceding there is “inherent risk,” he said the real thrill comes not from racing past rocks, inches from certain death, but experiencing “that sheer sensation of flight.”

“The danger and being scared part is something you put up with for the reward of being able to feel this freedom, soaring around,” Drake said. He also aims to make this variety of skydiving more understandable to the public at large, even those who would never dream of jumping off a cliff. Online video is helping in that regard, he said.

“We’re sort of reaching the stage, not exactly yet, when it’s becoming less of a stunt and more of a sport,” Drake said in a telephone interview from France.

Pilots rehearse and plan formation flights in exacting detail, and Drake said much the same is true for the “Black and Orange” team. Descols studied the glacier for three years, Drake said, before the recent flight was attempted. They study detailed topographical maps (and even Google Earth) to understand the lay of the land. They spend hours “dirt diving” before each freefall, rehearsing the flight path and moves in much the same way aerobatic pilots will rehearse their routines before flight.

“You just do that over and over again,” said Drake, who has about 1,200 wingsuit flights under his belt. “Once you’re in the air, there’s no second chances or guesswork.”

Throat microphones allow radio communication in flight between the cameraman and the subject, though Drake said they have worked out a monosyllabic vocabulary—in part because talking moves Drake’s helmet, to which cameras are mounted, and he hates to mess up a good shot.

Drake has aviation in his blood. The son and grandson of pilots, he grew up thumbing through the pages of AOPA Pilot, looking at the airplanes. But his own inspiration came more from the movie “Superman,” and dreams of flying that way led him to take up skydiving in 2006. Wingsuits were a natural progression from there, he said.

“It really connects with me on my desire to experience human flight,” Drake said. It is a challenging brand of flight, and difficult to master. The wingsuit itself restricts freedom of movement, making the ultimate parachute deployment a little more challenging than in traditional skydiving, Drake said. Over time, a wingsuiter builds up muscles in the arms and shoulders for steering, and eventually the skill to fly in loose formation with another, cameras rolling.

Drake said he quit working as a software developer and moved to Europe in large part because there is freedom to fly (without an airplane) throughout the continent, whereas federal authorities have outlawed the activity within U.S. national parks, home to the most scenic and wingsuit-appropriate terrain.

“Most of the really beautiful and majestic cliffs that I want to fly off of, I can’t,” Drake said, whereas in Europe, “you can land right next to a policeman and he’ll give you a high five, because you’re not doing something wrong.”

Drake said he plans to eventually hang up the wingsuit and start a family. The risks of wingsuit flying (particularly when done so close to terrain) would not sit well with him as a husband and father, he said, though he was quick to emphasize that it’s a very personal decision, and he can certainly appreciate the view of others who may feel differently.

But for the time being, he said, “we’re pushing the envelope,” and bringing the joy of flight—and the thrill of flashing past cliff faces at more than 100 mph—to a wider audience.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.