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International, independent, e-magazine on skydiving, BASE & tunnel

Red Bull ACES 2015

The race begins – four pilots racing each other around a 3D slalom course — by Red Bull
The race begins – four pilots racing each other around a 3D slalom course — by Red Bull

Four-Cross Wingsuit Slalom

Streaking through an aerial slalom course above Northern California, Andy Farrington of the United States fought off a fierce challenge from an international field of 40 men and women from 18 countries to be crowned Red Bull Aces champion for the second consecutive year. The event takes the concept of snowboard cross to the skies as athletes jump four at a time from a helicopter at 8,000 feet above sea level and fly through a twisting course of five ‘gates’. These 112-foot long gates are suspended by helicopters, and positioned at descending altitudes between 6,500 feet and 3,500 feet. 

Fellow American Noah Bahnson had a repeat second place in the competition that has launched a new age in wingsuit flying, while a newcomer to the Red Bull Aces podium, Matt Gerdes, CEO of Squirrel wingsuits completed the American sweep in third. Athletes from Norway, Sweden and Australia also clinched finishes in the top 8.

 By the time the lineup of only the best athletes from five continents was narrowed down to the Final 4, the race was almost too close to call. Andy Farrington and Noah Bahnson were neck and neck. Because both pilots passed through the gates with perfect accuracy, it all came down to time, and Andy edged Noah by less than four-tenths of a second.

Flying past a gate — by Red Bull
Flying past a gate — by Red Bull

Combining speed, precision and agility, Red Bull Aces was developed to determine the world’s best all-around wingsuit pilot in a competitive environment that has inspired new training methods for the athletes as well as visionary designs for the racing wingsuits.

“This is such a unique event, and a previous win doesn’t guarantee you anything against the talent here,” said Farrington, who has logged 24,000 jumps in his 33 years. “I raced Noah [Bahnson] three times today, and if the slightest thing had changed, he could have been at the top of the podium in a heartbeat. We’re going up against the top caliber of competitors in the world and the field is only getting stronger.“

About Red Bull Aces

The world’s first-ever wingsuit four-cross competition, as well as the first with air gates, Red Bull Aces was introduced in 2014 and returned in a new Northern California location this year with all the excitement of the pioneering 160-mph race, plus improved technology besides. The goal of the contest – where athletes jump four at a time from a civilian Bell Huey helicopter to fly simultaneously through an aerial slalom course of five 112-foot – is to find the world’s best all-around wingsuit pilot. 

Luke Aikins describes the format of the Aces Race, with comments from the wingsuit pilots and race footage

Final Ranking, Red Bull Aces 2015 

1,  Andy Farrington (USA)
2,  Noah Bahnson (USA)
3,  Matt Gerdes (USA)
4,  Scott Palmer (USA)
5,  Espen Fadnes (NOR)
6,  Petter Mazzetta (SWE)
7,  Rex Pemberton (AUS) 
8,  Scotty Bob (USA)
9, Will Kitto (USA)
10, Tony Uragallo (GBR)
11, Pablo Hernandez (ESP)
12, Julian Boulle (SRA)
13, Todd Davis (USA)
14, Chris McDougall (AUS)
15, Carlos Briceno (VEN)
16, TJ Landgren (USA)
17, Spike Harper (GBR)
18, Mike Swanson (USA)
19, Sebastian Alvares (CHI)
20, Vincent Descols (FRA)
21, Gilaad Elstein (ISR)
22, Jason Moledzki (CAN)
23, Charley Kurlinkus (USA)
24, Laurent Frat (FRA)
25, Jon Devore (USA)
26, Vincent Cajiga (MEX)
27, Jeff Provenzano (USA)
28, Sean MacCormac (USA)
29, Alex Aimard (FRA)
30,Tim Hedderich (GER)
31, Jokke Sommer (NOR)
32, Roberta Mancino (ITA)
33, Michi Schwery (SUI),
34, Carson Klein (USA)
35, Sean Chuma (USA)
36, Marco Waltenspiel (AUT)
37, Katie Hansen (USA)
38, Mike Steen (USA),
39, Cliff Jordan (USA)
40, Justin Duclos (USA)

Watch the final of Red Bull Aces, a head-to-head race between Andy Farrington, Noah Bahnson, Matt Gerdes and Scott Palmer

Red Bull Aces Course Facts

Approximately 1 mile in length, the Red Bull Aces slalom course for 2015 is created by five air gates suspended from helicopters. Made specifically for the race from the same type of ZP fabric used in high-performance canopies, the unique 112-foot-long gates are printed through an exclusive process in New Zealand and assembled and counterweighted in the United States. On race day, the athletes jump four at a time from a civilian Bell Huey helicopter at an altitude of 8,000 feet above sea level, and race head-to-head. The gates are positioned at descending levels between 6,500 feet and 3,500 feet and are equipped with GPS positioning. The competitors each wear a GPS transmitter to determine whether they pass through the gates properly. Computer systems on the ground receive the information in real time, making the judging immediate. The winner is based not only on how quickly the finish line is crossed, but also on how many gates he/she correctly passes through. The athletes land their canopies back at the take-off area after finishing their run.

The field of elite wingsuit pilots entering the Aces — by Red Bull
The field of elite wingsuit pilots entering the Aces — by Red Bull

Comment – Matt Gerdes

”The entire event just seemed like a kid’s wild hallucination. It’s the sort of thing that we would sketch in the margins of our notebooks when we were supposed to be studying math at school. Weaving through airborne slalom gates with a wingsuit?! Really?!!

”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 (eight!!!) helicopters 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, including almost 10 years of wingsuit proximity flying in the Alps. 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. I am still reliving it in my head every day, almost a week later.

by Red Bull
by Red Bull

”In addition to that, it must be said that the format of competition at ACES is the most realistic and probably the fairest of any other wingsuit event. The PPC is inherently flawed because it is GPS-based, and pilots fly through different segments of air – if one load has their competition window when the sun is out (thermal heating) or the wind is slightly different (head or tail winds) and the next load is shady and slightly different wind conditions, then the results are guaranteed to be affected. When the winners are separated by tenths of seconds, and vertical/horizontal movements in the airmass can change the results by more than a second, it’s not an accurate form of competition. It’s my understanding that swoop comps are similar – you get a head or tailwind push, and it changes things. The only way to account for it is to have many tasks and many events and see who wins again and again…

”At ACES, you only advance by winning your heat. Each heat is four jumpers flying head to head. In addition to that, you have over a mile and more than 4,000 vertical feet to pass or be passed in the course. It encompasses flat sections, steep sections, aircraft exit, dives, and turns, and the course times this year were in the 60-second range. The course really tests all aspects of pilot skill and suit capability. Dual head-to-head drag races, like the 30 second World Wingsuit League straight line course where a dangerously low pull (canopy times are mandated, but penalties were not enforced) counts as much as anything, can’t compete with that. ACES is safer, more interesting, more fun, more fair, and more realistic than any other event.

The podium: 3rd, Matt Gerdes; 1st, Andy Farrington; 2nd, Noah Bahnson — by Red Bull
The podium: 3rd, Matt Gerdes; 1st, Andy Farrington; 2nd, Noah Bahnson — by Red Bull

”In addition to live feeds from the cineflex cameras, footage of athletes doing everything from exiting the helis to passing gates, Luke obviously worked very hard on the scoring software and hardware for the course. We wore special GPS units and transmitters that sent data in real time to the judges, so when we passed a gate they knew instantly (in theory) how fast we were going, how far from the gate, if it was a miss or a hit, etc. Luke is doing everything he can to make it a real competition – hopefully the event will continue and be presented to the general public in an urban venue, because if it does I imagine that it will be the biggest thing that has ever happened to skydiving. Time will tell if it (and wingsuits in general) shall go the way of the skysurfer, or not ;-)”

Comment in italics by Matt Gerdes, third place finisher and CEO of Squirrel Wingsuits

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

FFI: Red Bull Aces web page

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