Forty of the world’s best wingsuit pilots soared side by side over Cloverdale in Northern California Oct. 22 through 24 for a series of three-dimensional Red Bull Aces competitions. Defending champion Andy Farrington of the United States won the series, narrowly edging out fellow American Noah Bahnson in the final four.
The field for the sophomore race was cut from the 52 who competed in 2014’s inaugural four-cross wingsuit competition to 40 to keep the racing manageable.
Beginning at 8,000 feet, racers from 18 different countries sped through the air at more than 100 mph wearing specially made flying wingsuits containing pressurized ribs before navigating as close as safely possible to three 112-foot-long slalom gates suspended by helicopters. After soaring around one gate they banked toward the next air gate like a downhill snow skier. Finish line gates suspended at an altitude of 3,500 feet welcomed the winner, and parachutes allowed racers to touchdown near a cheering crowd.
“When we introduced Red Bull Aces in 2014 it was a big success,” said race director Luke Aikins in a media release prior to the event. “It was the first wingsuit competition in a four-cross format, as well as the first with air gates, and the athletes loved it. We proved the concept, so now the objective is to focus on the competition so that we’re able to crown the best overall wingsuit pilot—not just the fastest, but the best. Also, we want to bring the contest to the world and show what these athletes are capable of.”
To start the event, each wingsuit pilot jumped from a helicopter at 8,000 feet, and the pilots were tracked through the air by live GPS signals that scored points for precision and speed as they flew past the suspended air gates. Most of the human air racers avoided slamming into each other at speeds exceeding 100 mph, although Rex Pemberton of the United States and Lauren Frat of France briefly collided during a heat before separating themselves from each other well above terra firma. Groups of four navigated the trio of suspended gates plus myriad helicopter blades threatening to disrupt their flight along the one-mile-long aerial course. Each competitor was wired for sound and video with point-of-view cameras beaming every nuance of their swooping high-speed maneuvers back toward earth.
“This is truly a three-dimensional sport, and the athletes have to pass through each gate with accuracy,” Aikins said in the media release. “If they’re too low, for example, they’ll get a zero for that gate. Being the fastest while also making all the gates really tests their skills.”
Like many sports, the start is crucial to establish the best racing line before technique, aerodynamics, and experience take over. “All of us are friends, but at the same time we are competing, you know, so at the moment that we exit there’s no friends. Everybody wants to go fast,” said Chilean competitor Sebastian Alvarez in a 2014 television interview after that race.
Farrington is a natural at the sport, perhaps in part because his mother did 100 parachute jumps while she was pregnant with him.
“This is such a unique event, and a previous win doesn’t guarantee you anything against the talent here,” said Farrington in an Oct. 26 Red Bull news release following the 2015 victory.
“Farrington and Bahnson were neck-and-neck through the gates, jockeying each other for position,” according to the news release. “Both pilots passed through all gates with perfect accuracy, so the winner was decided by fastest time through the course, with Farrington edging out Bahnson by less than four-tenths of a second.”
The defending champion had previously revealed his winning secrets in a video after the 2014 event. “Get out of that airplane as fast as you can and hopefully you found some clean air through it, and once you get that clean air you just point your toes going as fast as you can. You’re just trying to pin it.”
“I know for a fact that athletes have been training for this since last year, and some suit designers are also focusing on how to make faster suits specifically for the Red Bull Aces format,” Aikins said in a news release. “This really is a new era in wingsuit flying and I can’t wait for people to see what these athletes are capable of.”
Joining Farrington on the winner’s podium were wingsuit racers Bahnson and newcomer Matt Gerdes, who claimed third place to complete an American sweep in the new sport.