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“Sam, you can hear me ok? My ears aren’t working, you need to speak up!” says Robert, his voice coming down the line from a hotel room in Italy.
Robert Pecnik has been out testing the Onesie Power and Rafale wingsuit that will soon be in production. At 51 years old there is still nothing that will slow him down. With over 5,200 skydives and 1,700 BASE jumps and some highly impressive world records under his belt, Robi has been skydiving longer than I’ve been alive.
He completed his first skydive on July 4th 1982, his first wingsuit BASE jump on May 10th 1999. Not surprisingly, designing and manufacturing wingsuits has been his passion for the last 20 years. Testing is an important part of that proces.
Someone needs to see if the suits work, if they fly, understand the flight characteristics and overall feeling. Someone needs to put in the hard yards in development, and this is exactly what Robi’s been doing for the last two decades while making wingsuits and tracking suits for the public.
Birdman, the original wingsuit company, was created by best friends and flying partners Robert Pecnik and Jari Kuosma in 1999. That year they designed 1 wingsuit named ‘The classic’ followed by the GTI and Skyflyer in 2000 and invested in their dream. “It was 1999 and we loaded up the car with 60 wingsuits, all different shapes and colours and hit the road” Pecnik said. At that time there wasn’t internet (weird right) so the only way to showcase products was to visit dropzones and talk to jumpers.
At that time there was no internet (weird right) so the only way to showcase products was to visit DZs and talk to jumpers
The boys went on the road for over 2 months visiting different dropzone locations. “We drove through Austria, Germany, France, Netherlands and England… we had so much fun!” Pecnik said as he relayed the stories. Fun, but challenging. Because wingsuiting was new to the world of skydiving most drop zones kicked Robi and Yari out and they weren’t accepted by many places.
“People thought we we’re mad or stupid, they simply just didn’t understand the wingsuit” Robi explained. When they arrived at the Quincy boogie, USA that was the turning point. People were very interested. “They watched as I jumped the suits, flying around the air doing barrel rolls and steep turns, they just couldn’t believe what they we’re seeing and wanted to have a go!” Pecnik shared.
Robi was in charge of WS design. From a young age he built jumpsuits and rigged at his home dropzone, and his interest and skill in design grew. In 2004 Robi and Jari decided to part ways and in March 2004 Robi established an independent human flight innovation company, Phoenix Fly. Since then Phoenix Fly has successfully been designing, developing, and selling wingsuits. The factory is located in Skofja Loka, Slovenia, close to the capital of Ljubljana. Robi spends a lot of time designing and working within the factory and oversees a small team of cutters, suppliers, seamstresses and more . Each order is custom built. “The first suit we ever made was the Phoenix Fly tracking suit and at Heliboogie, Norway people were wrestling over who was going to jump it next as it was the first in history” Robi explained.
“I am most proud of the Vampire series suits. The V1, V2, V3, V4, V5, MIG and Sukhoi have grown and become better in each step.” Robi explained. The newest suit on the market in the Vampire series line from Phoenix Fly is the Sukhoi 3. “It’s simply a very different suit. The feeling is incredible and the design was hard to make… The hardest design part of the SU3 is the geometry of the deflector because it has the most amount of parts” Robi says.
This suit is built up with over 145 parts that include zippers, grippers, material, pockets and inlets whereas the Havok is a small acrobatic suit made up of 60 parts. The time frame of building a SU3 is around 23 hours, cut to assembled, while the Havok is about 11 hours. “The seamstresses are very talented and every suit is manually cut by hand and very precisely measured to fit the flyer perfectly” Pecnik explains. It’s truly amazing what’s happening in this small factory located in the Slovenian countryside. As a first time visitor it actually blows my mind and makes me feel like Harry Potter going to select a magical wand.
“I am also very proud of the acrobatic suits too. The Strix is so easy to fly on all angles but this was another can of worms all together in design” he said. The company offers a huge range of suits that have all undertaken the same steps of process in manufacturing, testing and enhancements, but the original tracksuit has had the same design for 14 years. With the company’s anniversary, this suit will undergo a ‘revamp’ in summer 2018 amongst a few others.
Even as an experienced wingsuit BASE jumper, I still struggle to understand where the ideas for design come from. Robi explains to me that “The hardest part of my job is getting an idea because you can’t force a design to just come.” It’s similar to being a painter, musician or product designer, you have good days and bad days.
“My new found passion is the Onesie but it took me 2 years to get into the flow of design for it, I wanted something original, something different. I remember going to bed and suddenly having a vision, running downstairs to my basement and putting pencil to paper. I stayed up all night designing the suit and creating this idea” Pecnik explained. When new ideas and visions come to him it feels as though he can’t rest until it’s made perfect, he’s like an artist and further explains that his job has no timeframe. “It doesn’t matter what time it is, I am always thinking of ways to improve suits with new designs for flying, I’ve been like this since I was a child.”
And so I pause to ask “If you could sit down with anyone dead or alive, who would it be and why?” After a long pause (I actually thought the connection went down) he replied simply with “My Dad”.
We all want to make our parents proud, to show them our achievements and Robi was lucky to have had a very supportive father. He said his Dad was worried at one point when Robi (aged 10) was found throwing his hamster off the balcony with a parachute he built attached to it (that hamster actually successfully completed 10 BASE jumps in 1976) but nonetheless his Dad and Mum supported his creativity through everything, even if he was ‘lost in the clouds’ at some points in time.
“I returned home from school when I was 14 and told my Dad I wanted to jump out of a plane. He slowly pulled down the newspaper and peered over the top of the page, looked me dead in the eyes and said… you know this is dangerous?.” Robi found himself at the dropzone assuring them he was 16 and old enough to jump out of the plane, and that’s when it all started. In truth he was only 15. Rigging and working at a dropzone in Zagreb, Croatia and just about to do his first solo skydive. You gotta love eastern Europe.
Robi explains “I had problems from the beginning to purchase materials and ended up making them myself. I improvised and found that actually this was very helpful for future development in my life. Improvisation is something you learn and it boosts creativity.”
“Wingsuit flying is not hard to do, but what is hard to do is being patient in gaining the prior experience within skydiving. It’s best to not rush from AFF to BASE and expect to be good right away, instead, take your time and enjoy the process of learning.”
Just. Go. Slow.
“Robi, if you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?” I asked.
“I am 51 now and still every day I am learning. I think it would be to not rush and take more time, take more time on everything. To have a clear mindset on how we live and to react with a realistic view.”
Expectations might suggest Robi knows everything, but he reminded me that’s not the case. Humbleness can be taught, but not mastered and perhaps that is often part of ‘surviving the game’ of wingsuit BASE, as Robi has.
I stupidly asked Robi the question of “Are you still BASE jumping?” and he replied with a simple “Yes, of course!” but as simple as that reply sounds, it’s not the case…
Slovenia is the stomping ground for Robi’s close friends, and a place to embark on the biggest adventures. My first year going there was 2014 with Douggs, and I was scared shitless. Even when living in Chamonix, with Brevent and Aiguille Du Midi on my doorstep for breakfast it made no difference there. The exits are like potatoes on the top of hills, remote and extremely hard to get to, but this is his playground where the suits have been tested and jumped for the past 20 years. For me it feels like when I jump there even now, I go there a boy and come back a man. The rock drops are tiny, the terrain is rugged and we’re always fired up to charge!
when I jump there even now, I go there a boy and come back a man
So when Robi says “Yes, I am still jumping!” it REALLY means he is still jumping. Opening exits, bush bashing and spending time with friends. “My number one passion is being in nature and spending that [time] in my home country with people I like.” Robi says.
“If you could have had a different career, what would it have been?” I asked Robi.
“Really, I always wanted to be a jet pilot, but couldn’t pass the medical exam because of my eye sight” I could tell that he really wanted to do this by the speed and excitement he answered with, but Robi explained to me that “True human flight is with the head leading first, just like a bird, just like a wingsuit.”
After knowing and working closely with Robi over the past four years, I can honestly say that he is one in a million and interviewing him was really fun. It’s amazing to hear someone’s life story from the beginning, and for him to share very personal moments with me about the evolution of Phoenix Fly was incredible.