For most people, skydiving is pretty high up on the adventure scale. But for experienced jumpers, it’s all about wingsuit flying, where skydivers wear inflating suits that allow them to fly through the air at up to 200 miles per hour. Although wingsuit flying is nothing new, competitions are on the rise, according to the United States Parachute Association, which held its first-ever National Wingsuit Flying Championships last year.
The 2016 winner of the acrobatic flying discipline are Connecticut-based Team Flatspin—consisting of videographer Mark Krasinski and acrobatic flyers Sarah Chamberlain and Jeff Harrigan. We talked to Chamberlain and Harrigan about why they decided to get into the wingsuit world, what it’s like being a couple at 12,500 feet and why Middle Eastern royalty is their greatest obstacle to a big win.
RED BULLETIN: Why wingsuit flying?
JEFF HARRIGAN: I did my first wingsuit jump in 2011. I saw I was improving every time and that got kind of addicting. As I started doing more of it, I got into doing things like barrel rolls and advanced manoeuvres and it started getting more and more fun to me.
SARAH CHAMBERLAIN: I started as soon as I could. [200 regular jumps are required before a diver is allowed to go up in a wingsuit.] I’d watch all my friends come down and they were talking about how awesome it is and you’re sort of counting down the jumps until you can do it. It’s just genuinely the feeling that you’re flying and so much fun.
How do you practise?
Chamberlain: We choreograph it on the ground. It’s called dirt diving. People make fun of us because it looks like we’re dancing together. Then we try to repeat it as best we can in the air. It’s usually easier in the air.
Harrigan: It takes a lot of jumps to get this stuff down. Other disciplines can go into a vertical wind tunnel indoors so they can get a lot of practise in without actually making a dive. Wingsuiting, you have to do it in the sky.
Are you even a little scared before a jump?
Chamberlain: The nervousness we get before a jump is the same that a football player would get before a big game. You just want to perform well in the jump. It’s not so much nervous for your life or that you’re going to get injured. It’s just that competitive drive.
So what goes through your head?
Harrigan: It’s a very focussed mindset when you go up and you’re in a competition, especially. You’re not thinking about the physical reality that you’re plummeting towards the ground. You’re thinking, “OK I need to make the transition as smoothly as possible and set up for the next move that we’re doing.”
Who’s going to be your biggest competitor at the championships?
Chamberlain: Dubai. The prince of Dubai actually skydives so he pours a lot of money into the sport in that country. The skydivers who come from Dubai are getting paid like pro athletes.
Harrigan: That’s kind of the challenge we’re up against as weekend warrior skydivers [Harrigan is a full-time student while Chamberlain works for a healthcare company] is to train only on weekends and compete with people from other countries doing this professionally every day of their lives.
Think that can change in the US?
Harrigan: I would be surprised. People don’t look at it and think, “Oh, yeah I could get into that.” I think most people look at it as, “Oh wow that’s crazy” and don’t think of it as a legitimate form of competition. It has a long way to go, but it’s possible.
Chamberlain: I think if the Olympics adopted it, it would have a better chance, but I don’t know that it will happen in the near future.
Any injuries or close calls?
Harrigan: No injuries. Close calls? I mean we’re doing barrel rolls next to each other in the sky and we do make contact sometimes, but it’s even if we do, it’s pretty controlled. We’re never really worried about it.
Do you ever argue over who screwed up?
Chamberlain: We try not to. Reviewing video can be a little antagonistic sometimes. We both try not to blame the other person as much as we can and just look at what you can do better yourself. I think that’s how you end up fighting when you aren’t focussing on yourself and you’re worrying about what the other person was doing.
Ever do anything romantic up there?
Harrigan: We did a night jump this year and we did kiss in freefall. That was really fun, looking over the lights of the city and sharing a kiss. Sarah, do you want to tell the naked jump story?
Chamberlain: Yeah. Two summers ago we did a naked jump, but Jeff had a hard opening and damaged his parachute.
Harrigan: It was just the two of us and a very brave friend of ours came along to take pictures. It’s not that original of an idea. A lot of people talk about it, but few people actually do it. It was just the right kind of day. It was really warm out, there weren’t any tandem customers left in the drop zone. But I had a line actually break and I decided that I needed to cut away [disconnect the main parachute in order to operate the reserve]. So that made for a really good story. Being naked and having to cut away and landing my reserve with no clothes on.