Pilot in Command – Take Control!
Flying a parachute confidently is far safer than being timid...
A spectacular new sport premiered over California with 52 of the world’s best wingsuit racers flying down a slalom course set up via flags dangling from helicopters. Andy Farrington of the United States won the world’s first Red Bull Aces Wingsuit 4 Cross Race over Oakdale on Thursday 18 July, beating three other rivals in the final.
The race format is in essence ski cross in the sky with four wingsuit racers flying against each other at a time, in a test of skill as they navigated the slalom course. From the start at 7,000 feet, the racers descended at accelerating speeds to the first of four gates, at 6,500 feet, and through the subsequent gates to the finish line at 3,500 feet. The racers then deployed at the safeish altitude of about 3,000 feet.
Andy Farrington set a course record of 40:16 seconds in the final and won the race for USA. Noah Bahnson, also of USA, took second, and Julian Boulle of South Africa was third in a field of the world’s best wingsuit racers, from 16 countries. American Katie Hansen was the best of five women in the race, which included both male and female pilots.
First: Andy Farrington (USA)
Second: Noah Bahnson (USA)
Third: Julian Boulle (RSA)
4th Jhonathan Florez (COL)
5th David Covel (USA)
6th Sebastian Alvarez (CHL)
7th Jason Moledzki (CAN)
8th Charley Kurlinkus (USA)
I’ve been doing all the base race events so learning how to fly the suit fast in that environment was useful. Also, flying really dynamic lines in the sky with clouds was really valuable as well as in the base jumping world, flying next to mountains.
On the base races you usually race with somebody else but it is two people going in a straight line most of the time, head to head like a drag race. It’s quite a bit different to have the course with so many twists and turns in it and changing on the angles. You start off and it’s really steep, then at the middle of the course it’s very flat and at the end it goes steep again. Those kind of changes are really dynamic and made it super fun and exciting.
It’s hard to prepare yourself until you actually got there. You have to do it first hand and know what it feels and looks like … the gates are one thing but having them connected to a helicopter with a big spinning rotor definitely plays on your mind – knowing there’s a very dangerous object up there that you have to be wary of.
Luke [Aikins] from Red Bull Air Force, who was also the chief rigger engineer on the Red Bull Stratos project made it in the beginning. He prepared the course and flew it a number of times on his own in preparatory settings. Luke watched all the practice jumps for 2 days, and listened to everyone’s experiences and opinions. Then he really took everybody’s thoughts, and worked it together to make a course that was challenging and competitive but everyone felt that they could actually fly. Luke did an amazing job of being a leader as well as being able to listen, adapt and make changes where necessary.
The thing about the course that made it really challenging was that, as much as the gates were in the same place every time, it was always a little bit different. A lot had to do with where exactly the airplane was when you got the exit command. If you were a little to the left of the course when you exited then it would almost be in a straight line.. but if you’re a little bit to the right you have much more dramatic turns to enter the course.
Straight downhill to the fourth and final gate, it was incredible. It was a thousand feet lower than the second to last but was very close to being almost on top of it, so there was a very steep run .. you made about a 90 degree turn off the third gate that made a straight downhill for the final straight. It was very exciting for everyone whether watching or participating to see everyone build up all that speed and go like crazy for that final gate.
Absolutely! It’s a fairly similar concept. I think we might see the gates transform to be more like those for the Air Race, like a tube in the sky, a bit easier to pick out. This race is definitely well suited to Red Bull with their whole ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ campaign and the fact it’s people flying the wings, totally unpowered.
We did a couple of days of practice jumping and everyone pretty well unanimously agreed the best way to get four people in wingsuits out of the back and keep everyone on heading in such a small space is to do a gainer exit… to do a back flip. What that does is powers you up and puts you into position for the first gate. If you did a more normal poised position, you would then have to turn around to find the gate but when you do a gainer, because of the line of the course, your visual is clear.
The pilot of the Skyvan would fly up the course in reverse. When we’re in the airplane standing on the tailgate we would see the last gate first, then the third gate, then the second and then finally the first gate… moments after seeing the first gate we would get the start gun and exit.
It was very good vibes. It was very hot. Very quiet. People were getting their game faces on. Everyone was very focussed. But there was a lot of handshakes, great atmosphere, lots of high fives, wishing each other good luck. But when you get on the tailgate it was different, especially for the final couple of rounds. I’ve been competing for a long time but on the ramp it felt like a really serious competition. Like the start of a horse race, everyone ready to charge… just waiting for the start signal to blast out of the gate and try to get in the lead immediately.
It was fair play. Your shoulders are wide in the door, there’s not a lot of space. There’s a little bit of nudging, I wouldn’t say pushing or shoving – but it’s important to own your own space. If you’re not pushing hard to make sure that you get what you need you’re not going to get it.
Absolutely. There is no way you’re going to avoid that. On exit there was definitely some bumping. Not intentional but everyone’s trying to get out and looking for the gates and it’s a small space. My final round I got spun around and knocked completely off axis. That was the first time that happened to me. It makes it very confusing because you’re trying to go hard for a target and, when you’re knocked off heading, you have to re-acquire the target.
Once you are flying and everyone’s charging for that pylon, the optimum line is going to be somewhere from middle to the bottom as far as speed. You’re going somewhere hard and you want to be aiming a little bit high.. you can always drop down a bit as that’s much easier than going back up. It was pretty easy to see where there would be turbulence from other jumpers when we had smoke canisters on … without smoke you couldn’t see but you still had to stay out of each other’s wake if possible. It was noticeable also that there was a downdraft from the helicopter, so sometimes if you were a little high on the gate you would get a bump from that.
There was a long flag on the top of each pylon, and then a line of flags with a square Red Bull flag in the middle and then a long flag at the bottom. Each of those long flags had a transmitter in it that determined whether or not you made the gate through the sensors we were wearing on helmets and chest strap. They had custom-made equipment that had obviously just been designed for this purpose. The chest strap and helmet mount electronics had 3D printed housings with electronics that showed exactly where the people were, relative to the gates.
Phoenix Fly definitely performed well. I was wearing the Phoenix-Fly Vampire Race, which is the latest offering for this kind of flying. But all three manufacturers Tony & Squirrel had suits that were performing very well.
There was definitely a lot of suit-switching when we got there during practice, with people changing suits to determine which model would be best for this type of flying… like choosing what type of canopy to use for a particular course or selecting the tyres for the weather conditions in a Formula 1 race. What you needed was a good all-round suit; something that would glide when needed, or dive, that could be really tight and aggressive on the turns and handle changes really well.
In the beginning I didn’t feel much similarity apart from the fact of flying through gates… that was a very familiar feeling so I recognized it right away, the idea of knowing where you are in the sky relative to something else. Maybe that’s something that the wingsuiters hadn’t had before.
When you’re on the start line, or in the race, it feels like motorcycle racing or motorcross because you’re flying lines and turns that make it like being on a track. Having to cut around people, over and under them, you don’t get that in canopy piloting
The competition experience I have, I could feel that mindset, that way of thinking and preparation happening while I’m in the plane on the way up During the runs I can hear myself thinking in a way that is related to that experience… Keeping the thoughts only to those which are beneficial to you.. trying not to think or feel too much, just go with the flow and fly.
I was so stoked every time I got to the ground. Every time I landed I was just totally fired up. I’d be just jazzed for the next hour, still excited about it. It was the most fun I’d had for – like – ever!
The majority of people were really excited and happy every time, especially when they had a good run. So when people had a bad run or missed a pylon, then their emotional state was affected by their performance. But definitely when people were performing well or just getting to fly the course, everyone felt the same, the energy level afterwards was incredibly high, everyone amazingly positive and really excited. I haven’t seen people getting so excited about something for a long long time. Everyone, the spectators, the competitors, the staff,… everyone around was just totally jazzed.
Based on the success of this event there is a high likelihood we’ll see more of it.
I don’t know if this is going to make it safer. I think this is going to be really dangerous! [laughs] The high speeds we are flying at and the closeness of everyone, the potential for collisions is quite high.
I think we’re going to see the sport progressing in both areas. The base race is incredibly visual, it puts the spectators right there in the landing area, and able to access the exit points, whether on the mountain or from gondolas. There are points along the course where people can see the action, participate and have a really close connection with what’s going on. The wingsuit cross race is further from the ground so it’s a little harder to see… the people are smaller, and the smoke is absolutely necessary to show the race. But this brings it to the public, wherever they are. So we could bring it to San Francisco Bay or Sydney Harbor or someplace like that, whereas Base Races need mountains.
To me they are equally attractive. I am very excited about both. I think the base races are going to get big very quickly. It’s already evident with the successes of the World Wingsuit League and the World Pro Base tour. I’m going to China for the World Wingsuit League; I can’t wait, it’s going to be great. The Red Bull Aces brings this concept to the United States, where we don’t have many options for wingsuit races from mountains in a setting that would allow for spectators. I’m stoked about both. I hope that this Red Bull stuff kicks off in the next couple of years and really gets rolling, it's brilliant.
Definitely a huge thanks to Luke Aikins and Red Bull and all of his staff for putting this on. We are very excited about the future.
Watch Highlights video, Red Bull Aces