Wingsuit pilots soaring through the sky—the closest thing to human birds. (Photo: Richard Schneider/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.0)

This weekend in southeastern China, the world’s top 16 birdmen will suit up to fly in the fourth annual World Wingsuit League Grand Prix. They’ll be soaring off Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie National Park, the real-life inspiration behind the floating mountains in the movie Avatar. Hundreds of millions of viewers, and some 15,000 spectators, will watch wingsuit competitors whooshing through the air at up to 125 miles per hour.

Wingsuits are a special kind of jumpsuit with material stretching between the arms and legs, somewhat like the connective membrane of a flying squirrel. They allow wearers to use their bodies to travel through the air like gliders, soaring three feet forward for every foot downward. There is massive Chinese interest in the competitive human flight: last year the Wingsuit Grand Prix reached 390 million viewers in greater China, and this year it’s being broadcast on at least 10 of the country’s networks. 

Not until 1998 were wingsuits commercially manufactured and made available to the public. Iiro Seppanen, president of the World Wingsuit League, was one of the first test pilots for these initial wingsuits. The Finnish former magician and professional BASE jumper watched the sport develop; around 2005, wingsuit pilots began to fly close to mountainsides, rather than away from them—something that’s now known as “proximity flying.” 

Wingsuiting is growing more popular and more competitive fast. Over the past three years, Seppanen says, they’ve been learning “the first steps and ABCs of the sport.” At the moment, the WWL has minimum requirements for competitors and processes all sorts of approval waivers. They recently had qualifiers for the first time, selecting from 36 pilots at Norway’s Extreme Sports Week in June. Earlier this month was the first ever USPA National Championships of Wingsuit Flying, held in Illinois. Seppanen says the athletes know the risks, and as crazy as wingsuiting may seem, safety is their top priority.

Pilots at the Grand Prix race through the air over Tianmen Mountain. (Photo: Ian Webb/World Wingsuit League (WWL))

“No one wants to see anything happen—but if anything happens, everyone wants to see,” he says. He adds that no matter what, people will continue jumping, even as they lose friends within the tight-knit community–which they do with relative frequency. Jhonathan Florez, the 2014 Grand Prix winner from Colombia, died in an accident this July; a Hungarian competitor died on a practice run due to a pilot error at the 2013 Grand Prix; and of the 36 pilots at the June qualifications, they’ve already lost two.

Seppanen doesn’t wingsuit anymore—a combination of getting injured and seeing lots of carnage. “Now it’s for the next generation to take on.”

Okay, so it’s a bit grisly, but before jumping to conclusions about the sport, it’s worth gaining a basic understanding of how wingsuit flying actually works. Maybe all these folks are reckless daredevils, but also, maybe they’re not. At least consider a few facts.

Grand Prix competitor Sam Hardy swooping through the air in his wingsuit. (Photo: Sam Hardy/Facebook)

There are very different forms of wingsuit flying. You can jump out of an airplane, à la skydiving, or jump off a building or cliff à la BASE jumping. You can fly away from immovable objects, or you can try to fly as close to them as possible, even threading stone needles or hitting actual targets. When you’re flying close to the ground, there’s zero room for error (or anything else). When you’re flying from a plane, it takes a lot more to truly screw up. 

Seppanen sometimes worries that certain people are wingsuiting for show, rather than for love of flying. Thanks to wingsuiting’s increasing popularity, some novices are skipping out on necessary prep, hungry for YouTube hits and Facebook likes.  

One might assume that all wingsuiters are 20-something men estranged from their families. However, it’s not true—there are women like 28 year-old Ellie Brennan, older folks like 60-something year-old Tony Uragallo, and husbands and wives with children. Wingsuiting also takes a lot more than guts (and as many would argue, insanity): it takes hundreds of hours of practice, experience, and commitment. It’s a lifestyle that brings with it the best community imaginable, says Sam Hardy, one of this year’s competitors.

Iiro Seppanen, President of the WWL, hangs out on the starting platform at the top of Tianmen Mountain. (Photo: Ian Webb/World Wingsuit League (WWL))

Hardy, a 26 year-old Briton, says that people are misled about the time and dedication wingsuiting takes. “More than anything, people are really confused by it,” he says—which is understandable, since successful human flight is a fairly new concept. Wingsuiting is like “air yoga” for Hardy. He’s approaching the Grand Prix as an opportunity to have fun, rather than as a source of stress. “That’s secretly my plan of attack for racing as fast as possible.”

Hardy, a co-founder of Project: Base (motto: human flights for human rights), started skydiving at age 17 and has close to 1,400 wingsuit jumps under his belt. He supports himself doing skydiving tandems, running skills camps, and doing stunt and documentary-style work, but now wants to focus on earning money from wingsuiting. It took a little convincing, but his parents are now on board with it.

You should do upwards of 300 skydives before even putting on a wingsuit, kind of like getting your driver’s license, says Hardy. Then you work your way up to bigger, more advanced wingsuits. Different designs completely change the flying experience, and the suits are continuously modified and improved.

“No matter what country or upbringing you’re from,” says Hardy, “it’s everyone’s dream at the end of the day to taste actual human flight.”