Wingsuiting moves from science fiction to reality in the skies above Dubai, and the city has become the one of the top destinations worldwide for the sport.
Why wingsuiters in Dubai are at the cutting edge of a growing sport
Sailing through the air in winged suits has moved from science fiction to everyday reality in the skies above Dubai. John Henzell meets some of the wingsuiters who have put the UAE at the cutting edge of the burgeoning sport
Wingsuits don't look like much when they're worn on the ground. The panels of fabric that link the arms and legs make them resemble something a flying squirrel might wear to an Elvis tribute concert.
But up in the air, they're the closest thing yet to achieving the human dream of sailing through the sky like Superman.
In the 15 years since the first modern wingsuit went on sale, the UAE has emerged as one of the sport's global epicentres, with wingsuiters flocking to the Emirates in search of the experience of flying against the backdrop of the Palm Jumeirah.
Just ask Noah Bahnson. He used to live in Zephyrhills, Florida, which is rated as one of the top wingsuiting destinations worldwide, but moved to Dubai a year ago and is now teaching the latest generation of wingsuit pilots at Skydive Dubai.
"Dubai is one of the top five places for wingsuiting because of what we have here - the facilities and the views, of course," he explains.
"It's become a centre for wingsuit flying. Wingsuits have been growing in popularity across the world. In the last five years, it's just exploded."
Like most people, the 29-year-old came into the sport through conventional skydiving, but he was not initially taken by wingsuiting when he tried it in 2005, preferring to continue with the edgier activity of base jumping: leaping off cliffs, buildings and bridges, with a parachute.
But wingsuiting added a new dimension to base jumping, which is why he returned to it, three years ago.
"Basically, base jumping without a wingsuit means you're going straight down," Bahnson explains.
"You can glide at a slight angle but, with a wingsuit, you can get a 3:1 glide angle."
That means for every metre of elevation lost, a wingsuiter can travel up to three metres horizontally. The wingsuit also slows the pace of descent from around 200kph down to about 90kph, making for a longer flight before the parachute needs to be deployed.
The glide angle suddenly opens up a new world to base jumpers, who can soar through canyons or even between city skyscrapers before opening their parachutes. The jaw-dropping footage of such exploits on YouTube goes a long way to show why wingsuits have suddenly boomed in popularity.
Wingsuits have been around in a primitive form since 1930, when a 19-year-old American skydiver by the name of Rex Finney fitted strips of canvas between his legs and under his arms that could be used to steer himself in the air.
"The tail fin," the September 1930 edition of Popular Science gushed, "acts like an elevator on an airplane [and] enables a jumper to perform startling feats. When he arches his back and flexes his knees, after he acquires enough falling speed, he actually zooms upwards."
But it also required a huge amount of strength as well and featured a poor glide ratio. Finney's innovation was copied by others in subsequent decades but did not really catch on until the 1990s, when others incorporated into the design the technology that makes paragliders work.
The crucial innovation was the air-ram, where air passes over the wing, inflating pockets within the fabric. This makes it semi-rigid and improves the aerodynamics while diminishing the work required to keep the wing spread.
The first of the modern wingsuits was unveiled in 1998 by the French skydiver Patrick de Gayardon, who died six months later while testing a modified version of the suit.
The "BirdMan", the first wingsuit available to the general public, was launched by Jari Kuosma and Robert Pecnik in 1999 and came complete with an instruction programme to improve safety.
There were other innovations, involving rigid wings and even jet propulsion, but the wingsuits in use over Dubai now are largely all variations on those late 1990s designs.
Instead of conventionally clad skydivers' glide ratio of less than 0.5, wingsuiters had a glide ratio six times better. By comparison, the actual flying squirrels of North America, which use flaps of skin to glide between trees, manage a glide ratio of only 2:1. Then as now, wingsuiting isn't for those who are recent converts to skydiving. Skydive Dubai imposes a minimum of 200 skydives before an enthusiast can attempt a wingsuit flight, and that's only at its desert campus at Margham, on the Dubai-to-Al Ain highway.
To try a wingsuit at the Skydive Dubai's base in the Marina - the usual destination of choice for any pilot visiting the UAE, because of the Palm Jumeirah background - requires a minimum of 500 jumps because of the added risk of landing in the Gulf. It helps restrict the numbers, as fewer than 20 wingsuiting students and instructors live in the UAE, although a few dozen visitors arrive here each year to try the flying scene.
One of those visitors is Jeff Nebelkopf, a videographer and chief test pilot for the US-based Tonysuit wingsuit company. He says Dubai is a fantastic place to skydive.
"The views there are pretty much unlike anything else. You have the Palm Jumeirah, which is very close to the drop zone and which is right on the water," he says of his extended visit last year.
"The visuals here are absolutely stunning."
Even with the minimum-jump restrictions, Dubai has become not just a place to get your photo taken while flying a wingsuit but also a place where the cutting edge of the sport is pushed further and further out.
Much of the development is being driven by Skydive Dubai's professional staff, who Bahnson describes as "some of the most talented staff I've seen".
Those talents were demonstrated when several of the Skydive Dubai staff joined overseas skydivers last year to form Project XRW Dubai, an international group aiming to create record-breaking formations involving paragliders and wingsuiters flying together.
Because paragliders tend to have a much better glide ratio than wingsuiters, the paragliders used much smaller and sportier canopies. To further decrease the glide ratio and to ensure all the paragliders descended at the same pace, the lighter canopy pilots found themselves being weighed down with lead bars.
Combined with the best-gliding of the latest wingsuits, the two modes of flight found a glide speed they could all achieve and sustain.
Taya Weiss, the project XRW founder, is a Harvard and Princeton educated analyst who turned her back on her conventional career to become a professional wingsuit pilot, writer and charity fundraiser.
As the head wingsuiter for Project XRW, she had to find highly-skilled and compatible colleagues to prevent potential disaster.
"Wingsuiters in this kind of discipline are essentially gravity powered missiles," she explains. "We launch from the plane and we look to the target - the canopy pilots - and we dive towards them at very great speeds."
When she pulls up out of a dive, she has to have complete faith that those behind her will also do so.
"Know[ing] that the people behind me are also going to pull up and slow down out of that dive just in time is the difference between us being able to fly together and a possibly catastrophic collision with the canopy pilots," she said.
Another of the Project XRW pilots, Jeff Nebelkopf, says it is "absolutely critical" the canopy pilots are equally precise.
"It's very difficult to find the right pilot because you can't just rely on the skills of a good competition canopy pilot, you also have to have those who are comfortable flying in very close proximity with other canopies and with wingsuits as well.
"Having that kind of experience is very rare. You have to be comfortable flying very quickly and reacting to small changes in flight mode and changing glide angles and things like that, all on the fly."
Weiss says the key attribute of the pilots they chose, both from within the UAE and from overseas, "is that we're not selfish risk takers. We might take calculated risks but we do so as a group and we understand about team dynamics".
Mike Swanson, one of the Skydive Dubai pilots who participated in Project XRW, says the combination of overseas pilots and the support of Skydive Dubai is crucial.
"What they are doing here in Skydive Dubai is they are getting ready to take the sport to the next level," he said during Project XRW.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just coming here and being able to see what's going on and just getting a glimpse of what up in the future."
The end result, Weiss says, was a huge success.
"We achieved our biggest flying goal, which was flying a mixed wingsuit/canopy flock over the Palm Jumeirah and broke every record for mixed canopy/wingsuit flying that had ever been done before," she says.
The Project XRW team managed an 11-pilot formation made up of five paragliders and six wingsuiters flying in formation. In another move, they completed what was known as a Mister Bill rodeo transfer, in which a pilot hangs from a paraglider and jumps onto the back of a wingsuiter who swoops in underneath and then flies away.
All of this raised the bar for wingsuiters around the world and also raised both money and awareness for Weiss's charity, Raise The Sky, which helps underprivileged South African children.
So what's the next big stunt for wingsuiters in Dubai? Bahnson admits he is working on something but doesn't wish to provide details for fear someone else will take the idea and complete it before him.
If and when he achieves it, the result should be another gobsmacking YouTube video to confirm that Dubai really is at the cutting edge of the sport.
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