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Catching up with Matt Gerdes and The C-Race

Andy Farrington crossing the finish line to become The Red Bull Ace 2015 — by Red Bull
Andy Farrington crossing the finish line to become The Red Bull Ace 2015 — by Red Bull
Matt Gerdes — by Red Bull
Matt Gerdes — by Red Bull

Andy Farrington won the 2014 Red Bull Aces with a Squirrel race prototype that went on to become the Colugo 2. Squirrel's R&D team released the next level, the C-Race, earlier this year. The results speak for themselves, with 2 out of 3 C-Race pilots on the podium at US Nationals and WWL, plus a podium sweep at the 2015 Aces, with Andy Farrington taking first overall for the second year in a row.

We asked Matt Gerdes, CEO of Squirrel to tell us about the development of the C-Race…

Was winning the Aces 2014 always the goal with the C-2?

Yes. If it weren’t for Aces, and for Andy, we never would have spent so much energy trying to make that suit fast. Our mission was always: comfortable, safe, dependable in the BASE environment. But the C2 development was the first time that we focused on speed in the skydive environment. In short, we didn’t want to let Andy down, and thankfully we didn’t.

How important was it to Squirrel to continue development of racing wingsuits in general, and for Aces 2015  in particular?

Very. Apart from the fact that fast is fun, the R&D that has gone into these race suits has been invaluable to the rest of our range. In 2016 we will be releasing three more suits that will all benefit from what we have learned over the past two years of race suit development.

When did you release the C-Race and how successful was it in 2015?

The first public suits arrived in Chicago the day before US Nationals at the end of September. Noah Bahnson had exactly zero practice jumps before entering the competition with it, and placing 2nd overall. Chris Geiler was 3rd overall with his. Noah and Julian took 1st and 2nd at the World Wingsuit League race in China, and then at ACES it was an all-Squirrel final round, and podium. In short, great success.

Did the first US wingsuit Nationals and/or the wingsuit world record this year also inspire R&D?

Definitely not the wingsuit record, that is almost completely unrelated to suit performance. And no, US Nationals was an aside: The PPC format is based on time, distance, and speed, and we were optimizing the C-Race for speed for ACES. But, part of speed is efficiency, and the efficient nature of the profile and planform that we used was bound to be decent in the time and distance tasks, so we sent it to some pilots at wingsuit nationals. We sent 5 suits, and 4 of them ended up in the top 10.

Matt Gerdes back flying the C-Race
Matt Gerdes back flying the C-Race

Sweet! How is the design of the C-Race different to other race suits?

The C-RACE is considerably smaller in surface area than the designs that have traditionally done well in the PPC format, and the significance of this size difference is important. For a suit with so much less surface to be competing so well in the PPC speaks to its speed and efficiency. Squirrel focused on profile efficiency and stability at high speeds, instead of increasing surface to score well in the time and distance tasks.

How is it so effective?

Some of it I can tell you, some I can’t. The mini-ribs in the leading edge are key, of course, but really it’s just focusing on drag reduction and center of gravity so that the suit is slick and balanced.

Scott Plamer, Matt Gerdes, Scotty Bob, neck and neck in the Aces, all wearing the C-Race — by Red Bull
Scott Plamer, Matt Gerdes, Scotty Bob, neck and neck in the Aces, all wearing the C-Race — by Red Bull

What is special about the Red Bull Aces?

Everything! This event is like an adolescent skydiver’s fantastical day-dream, made into reality. Luke [Aikins] is crazy, and a genius, and I can’t believe he managed to convince Red Bull to do this, but it has worked almost flawlessly twice now. This year we had eight helicopters (eight!!) orbiting around above the airfield; suspending the gates, dropping the jumpers, shooting cineflex angles, etc. It was absolutely insane. It was also just about the most fun flying I have ever done. All of us there, regardless of the comp results, just wanted to fly the course as many times as we could because it was just a dream.

This event is like an adolescent skydiver’s fantastical day-dream, made into reality

Of all the wingsuit races in the world, only one involves a mile-long slalom course involving 4000 vertical feet of turns, dives, and straightaways. RedBull ACES is the only 4-cross event, allowing multiple pilots to race head-to-head, offering the best chances of a fair result. Because of this, the 2015 ACES event was the most important to Squirrel. The team made efforts to support as many of the invited pilots as possible, and trained relentlessly for this type of competition – the mission was all-out speed, with precise agility. Four pilots diving through slalom gates that are suspended from helicopters and held taught by 150lb steel weights is not a situation to take lightly. It was critical to design a suit that would not only allow team pilots to overtake everything else, but also maintain agility and precision through a course full of very real hazards.

Only C-Race pilots made the final, sweeping the podium. 28 out of the 40 invited pilots at the event were flying C-Races. Andy Farrington defended his title as top Ace, Noah Bahnson took second flying the same suit that he flew to podium finishes in Chicago and China a few weeks before, and I [Matt Gerdes] placed third. All three podium finishers were also flying the Squirrel Epicene main parachute, which was by far the most popular parachute at the race. 

Four pilots aiming for a tight turn around an Aces gate — by Red Bull
Four pilots aiming for a tight turn around an Aces gate — by Red Bull

How much time does a good pilot need in a new wingsuit to learn how to fly it at the highest level for races?

Every suit needs a period of adjustment to dial in stability at the steepest or flattest angles in particular, but we [test pilots] know in the first couple of jumps if a new concept or new design is going to work, or not. That being said, there is no doubt that my 500-ish jumps in race protos over the past two years, most of them with Andy, were an advantage in the race. And we saw some of the world’s best pilots, such as Mike Swanson, taking their time to habituate to the differences between our design and what they came from. There is no specific number, but the more jumps, the better.

What sets Andy Farrington [winner of Aces 2014 & 2015] apart?

I wish I knew… I can only guess… and my guess is that growing up on a dropzone and having well over 20,000 jumps will make you pretty good at flying, in general. He has an incredible intuition for all things related to skydiving, not just wingsuits, but everything, and he excels in adverse conditions. Spot landing a difficult target in a new location? Trying out a totally bizarre wingsuit concept? A new parachute design? Maxing out the speed on a new prototype in the very first jump? He’s the worst test pilot because he can fly anything without trying… but he’s the best test pilot because we know that when he maxes something out, we’ve found its absolute potential and that makes it easier for us to figure out what needs to be improved on the suits we develop. 

Podium finishers Matt, Andy & Noah enjoying the moment — by Red Bull
Podium finishers Matt, Andy & Noah enjoying the moment — by Red Bull

How important is it to Squirrel to develop uber high performance race class wingsuits?

Given how much we learn from pushing performance in this class, I’d say it’s very important. But the majority of our time and effort goes to making suits for our customer base. We are super excited to be working on some beginner-intermediate designs for 2016 that use a lot of what we learned from the C-RACE R&D.

How is that relevant to other suits in the Squirrel range?

Everything translates. Once we identify factors that increase performance or handling, we can move them from suit to suit, making adjustments to increase comfort as needed.

Is the C-Race available for Joe Public?

Anyone who thinks they are qualified can order one, and we’ll talk about it.

What are we going to see for Aces 2016?

Only Luke Aikins and RedBull know.

Watch the video below of Andy's POV in the final, it's impressive!

Images by Joerg Mitter and Balazs Gardi for Red Bull Content Pool

More about the C-Race from Squirrel

Article on Red Bull Aces 2015

Cameras showing Andy Farrington's point of view in the final, a head-to-head race between Andy Farrington, Noah Bahnson, Matt Gerdes and Scott Palmer, all wearing the C-Race