Credit: Richard Schneider
Meet the Canadian who wants to fly farther than any other human has ever flown beforeOn June 9, Pascal Coudé, a 40-year-old skydiver from Quebec City, rode a de Havilland Twin Otter utility plane to 18,000 feet over the farm country north of Montreal, and dove out. It was a nice bright day for an aerial lookabout. Skydivers are usually pleased if they get 60 seconds to take in the sights before deploying their chute and popping to vertical. Coudé was after a more meaningful tourist experience. He free-fell for four minutes and nine seconds—llonger than it takes to soft-boil an egg. When he landed, he was 12.5 horizontal kilometres from where he'd jumped.
If you're doing the math now—distance and time and the speed of falling objects—you've realized the numbers don't add up. Either Coudé has discovered a way to slow time, or he's grown wings. In a way, both are true.
What kept Coudé aloft was a wingsuit—one of those things you've seen on YouTube that has webbing between the arms and legs, and turns a falling human into something like a very large and fast flying squirrel. Wingsuits have been around since the early 1990s, but only in the last few years, with tweaks and advances, have they caught on as a sweet new addiction among a certain kind of extreme adventurer who enjoys travelling at autobahn speed sans auto. Wingsuits are the technological missing link between parachutes and nothing at all—in the words of one wingsuit adopter, they're "the closest thing to nonpowered human flight you can get."
Coudé says that when he's zooming through the air in his wingsuit he feels like Superman.
And now, like any superhero, he has an ambitious goal ahead: to fly—really fly—longer than any human ever has before.
Pascal Coudé likes the feeling of the different ways you can parry gravity. When we first spoke, he had just paraglided off a mountain in Quebec and stayed aloft for almost an hour. But Coudé initially made his reputation as a BASE jumper. Indeed, he is known as one of the godfathers of this sport of jumping off stationary things, instead of out of moving ones. Coudé thinks he may have logged more BASE jumps-1,250-than anyone else in North America. He has jumped from bridges and cliffs and radio towers. He has cut himself loose from paragliders and once launched himself from the largest multiple-arch-and-buttress dam in the world, the Manic 5, in Quebec's Manicouagan Valley. (To avoid detection and arrest, as he often does while BASE jumping, he did that one at night-toppling from the 520-foot dam lip into pitch blackness.) While a certain kind of adventurer seeks to jump from the highest height (think of Frenchman Michel Fournier's perennial efforts to successfully complete his "jump from space" over Saskatchewan), Coudé normally prefers to go unprecedentedly low. He has jumped from 125 feet. That's almost not enough space for a parachute to deploy—which is the point, and the rush.
Coudé considers himself an adrenalin hound. (Either that or he believes himself to be an Afghan hound. I can't be entirely sure. He was explaining all of this in French.) So it's not surprising that he was one of the first Canadians to step into a wingsuit back in the summer of 2003. Coudé remembers that it felt weird. Not heavy, exactly, but really constricting. Like wearing an accordion. Coudé wasn't sure he liked it at all. And then he jumped. His feelings turned. As "imprisoning" as the suit felt on the ground is exactly how liberating it felt in the air. At first "there's no feeling of falling at all," he says. The suit basically inflates. (A Swiss insurance adjuster and competitive wingsuiter named Ueli "The Sputnik" Gegenschatz likened the sensation to "racing down a mountain on a bike with an open anorak.") The impression of movement is all horizontal. Which explains the feeling of being Superman.
Flying is the stuff of human dreams, the closest we might come to bliss. But for Coudé, the biggest appeal of wingsuiting isn't the thrill of it, it's the technical challenge. "The hard part," he says, "is maintaining your position in the air." As he got good at keeping a rock-stable arch, becoming a flesh-and-blood airfoil, Coudé graduated to trickier, more voluminous suits. The better he became, the slower he could go. His fifth and current wingsuit is, by surface area, the "biggest" wingsuit in use in the world, he says.
And it's in this $3,000, American-made suit that Coudé is gunning for the new flying record. Well, two records, actually.
The longest "flight" ever is six minutes, 47 seconds-by a team of Spanish wingsuiters called Proyecto Ales, who fell last year from 30,000 feet. Meanwhile an American wingsuiter named Ben Borger, who jumped from 32,000 feet in April, flew 18.5 kilometres. As soon as Coudé landed from his four-minute flight in June, he felt that, given his flight-to-altitude ratio, he could hit seven minutes and 20 kilometres if he jumped from 30,000 feet. No problem.
Well, not quite no problem.
Here's the thing: Wingsuiting looks relaxing. But the required posture-elbows pinned tight to the ribs and arms akimbo, an "It-wasn't-me-officer!" kind of gesture—becomes very tiring very fast. After even a minute of flying in a wingsuit, "you start burning," Coudé says. Whatever the upper limit of wingsuit flying is, it's going to be determined not by time and distance and technology, but by brute human stamina.
What Coudé will be attempting is like bench-pressing the atmosphere, bearing the weight of the world, for seven minutes. The worry is that he'll gas out, and lose his stable position in the air and start tumbling. That's when things could get dangerous, because you can get tangled in your chute. Or worse: Coudé acknowledged the possibility that his arms and shoulders could become so spent that he would not be able to reach across and pull the pin of his chute.
Wingsuiting may be the closest a human being can come to knowing what it feels like to be a bird, but of course, it's not quite the same. One of the things that's different is that birds can land on their own, while wingsuiters need a parachute. "The next level," Coudé says, "is not only being able to fly, but being able to land."
It sounds whimsical. It calls to mind the kid in Maurice Sendak's classic In The Night Kitchen, tumbling "through day and night" until he builds an airplane out of bread dough and zooms away without ever hitting ground. But in fact the "landable wingsuit" is a real conversation in the skydiving community, and an arcane but furious race is underway to produce the first working model. In terms of man's extraterrestrial ambitions, pulling it off would be as singular an achievement as "summitting Everest for the first time," in the words of one observer.
Is it even possible?
The question has divided the wingsuit community. Some say physics simply precludes it. There's not enough surface area in a wingsuit, no matter how cunningly you design it. And even if you could somehow manufacture enough surface area, the human body couldn't handle the load. "There is a reason the biggest bird is only so big," wrote a poster to a popular website for skydivers.
One BASE jumper called Brian "Lurch" Caldwell joined the discussion with a personal story. He had built what he believes may be the biggest wingsuit ever made, nearly seven feet from collarbone to tail. (Yes, "tail." He built in an exoskeletal tail extension.) The verdict? "It doesn't work. I retired the design before I joined the ranks of all the other dead wingsuit pioneers."
But there are plenty of believers. One guy proposed a Kevlar chest shield with an inch or two of padding, with which you'd come down over water and make a "seaplane-type landing." Or maybe, ventured another, we have to accept this is not a sport for everyone. Just dwarfs. Or paraplegics. Or, you know, someone who has "a severe eating disorder and is therefore very lightweight."
Some of the believers have actually given it a go. They seem to be privately vying for one of those Darwin Awards, or perhaps the Wile E. Coyote Memorial Anvil. One gentleman wingsuiter described his descent from a very low-flying helicopter. The rotor blast "drove me into the ground before I could even get my arms out fully extended." He bounced, and "slightly altered the shape of my nose."
Everyone agrees on what the big bugbear will be. The problem isn't how fast you're falling down. There are already wingsuits that slow descent to almost the rate of a small parachute. (Coudé's vertical speed, were he to try landing in his wingsuit, would thump him to the ground as if he'd jumped from the roof of a barn. He might break something, but he'd live.) No, the problem is how fast you're falling forward. Coudé estimates his horizontal velocity at between 200 and 250-plus kilometres per hour. "It's truly a flight at top speed. A lot of wind is hitting you." A wingsuit turns you into a plane.
Coudé's own best guess is that we will see a landable wingsuit—a genuine one, that would work anywhere, for anyone (i.e., not just dwarfs). But it won't be for maybe 15 years.
A few times a year wingsuiters from around the world hook up, literally, in events called wingsuit "bigways"-—in which dozens of wingsuiters kaleidoscope together in changing formations. But Coudé is never among them. He is in a sense too good now, too slow in his billowy high-tech suit, for most other wingsuiters to really stay with him for very long. So he flies solo, training for his grand saut.
Coudé has been ready to go for the record on several occasions in recent months. But the cold and rain that met him on his jump days forced postponement. It's not Coudé's call: Transport Canada forbids jumping in those conditions. (For record-chasing extremists, the two most feared words in the English language are "weather advisory.")
So Coudé waits patiently for his chance to put a capstone on his career. And afterwards, who knows?
The sky's the limit.