Almost everything about wingsuit diving defies sanity. And what was once a hobby for the edgiest of thrill seekers is now a competitive sport, thanks to the existence of World Wingsuit League. Founded in 2012, the competition entails pilots leaping off China’s Tianmen Mountain, flying over 100 miles per hour down a vertical drop of over half a mile, banking a hard left on the course’s only turn, cruising under a tramway’s cable and then opening their parachutes for a mandated minimum of 30 seconds before landing.
Before this season, the sport was geared around individual time trials, but this season, which starts on October 14th, the organizers are introducing a new, more dramatic version — after qualifying runs, the 16 competitors will race head-to-head in a bracketed elimination tournament. And though around 20 wingsuit jumpers die annually, the WWL sees itself as making the sport safer.
With equipment regulations and disqualifications for flying too close to the ground, other racers, and the tramway’s cable car, the emphasis is on time, not on risk. “BASE jumping, especially wingsuit BASE jumping is the most dangerous sport In the world. There’s no way around that,” WWL President and co-founder Iiro Seppänen says. “Whether or not we organize races, people are going to go somewhere and do wingsuit jumping and there are going to be deaths.”
Just over a year ago, Hungary’s Victor Kovats died in his first practice run for the WWL Grand Prix, the only casualty in the hundreds of the event’s jumps. “It was a horrible shock for us and what we do,” Seppänen says. “After analyzing it and realizing that we can’t control human error, we decided to continue with these races.” The risks are obvious to any viewer, but it’s the jumpers who truly appreciate them and keep coming back to the closest sensation any human can get to actually being able to fly.
One of those jumpers was 33-year-old American Brian Drake, who died last April in a Switzerland crash that also claimed the lives of New Zealand’s Dan Vicary and France’s Ludovic Woerth. As a child, Drake spent years running around in a Superman costume and insisted that everyone call him by the comic hero’s name. To outsiders, Drake might seem like a predictable victim of being an adrenaline junkie, but his brother Jordan, younger by 10 years, has an entirely different perspective on it.
“It’s a sport that, as dangerous as it is, the guys who are really excellent at it are very, very, very experienced skydivers,” Jordan says. “My brother being the example, you’re looking at multi-thousand-jump professional. These are guys who study wind patterns, they’re checking out terrain in helicopters before they’re jumping. He was so methodical and so disciplined that there was never a fear that he was being reckless, unwise, thrill-seeking because that wasn’t really his behavior pattern. He was never a guy that was stealing beers from 7-Eleven when he was 18. He was really more of a disciplined athlete. We didn’t feel like the sport had finally caught up to him.”
The elder Drake can be seen in videos flying down mountains, six feet away from the ground and cliffs, somewhere around 125 miles per hour. That risky brand of proximity flying is what the WWL is steering people away from. “Because of how well I know my brother approached it and the guys he jumped with, I had a very respectful view of the sport and still do,” Jordan says. “It’s really easy to be involved in accident like that and then start making judgments about how the sport should be operated, but I’ve just heard so many stories from my brother and I’ve met so many people I respect in the sport.”
“BASE jumpers are pretty competitive, not necessarily with others but with themselves,” says Seppänen. “They tend to push themselves to the next level and the spirit of competition has always been with the sport. But I think the competition is an element that helps advance the sport — it forces the athletes to train more and the manufacturers to build better equipment. It can be something that actually helps in the longer run to make the sport safer.”