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To Air Is Human BirdMen like Jari Kuosma are proving that man's potential to fly isn't pie in the sky


For decades humans have attempted to soar in the air like birds,
only to plummet to the ground like potatoes. Beginning in the
1930s a small flock of sky divers known as birdmen tried to break
their free fall with the help of homemade wings. Unlike their
wingless brethren, who parachuted straight down to earth, the
birdmen used their artificial appendages to carve a more
horizontal path across the sky before opening their chutes.
Between 1930 and '61 all but three of the 75 birdmen perished as
a result of premature landings, among them French sky diver Leo
Valentin, whose balsa-wood wings got clipped when he bailed out
of a circling plane in '56. His chute caught in the broken wings,
and he whirled like an electric fan from life to legend. Three
years ago skysurfing pioneer Patrick de Gayardon plunged to his
death as he flew over Hawaii in a synthetic suit. When the small
pillow he had sewn beneath his chute to eliminate an air pocket
got entangled in the rigging, de Gayardon turned into a
late-20th-century Icarus.

Jari Kuosma hopes to fly in the face of recent history. The
32-year-old Finn has developed a wing suit, based on de
Gayardon's design, that allows wearers to move forward faster
than they descend. His nylon BirdMan outfit has batlike webbing
that extends from wrists to hips and from leg to leg. Like a
parachute canopy, the vented fabric inflates in flight, creating
a single rigid wing. By tilting their bodies slightly upward,
birdmen achieve a lift similar to that of an aircraft wing.
Normally free fallers drop at about 120 mph before deploying the
chute. Kuosma's getup cuts the rate to 45 mph and increases
forward speed to as fast as 100 mph, allowing sky flyers to
travel up to three miles horizontally. "In flight I'm screaming
with pure joy," says Kuosma. "I feel so in control that I feel I
could do it forever. Plus, there are no sky cops to give you a
speeding ticket."

Since his maiden flight, in 1998, the Birdmaniac has made 875
unruffled jumps. He and partner Robert Pecnik have sold 700 wing
suits, from $500 to $1,000 apiece, with one fatality. "What I
used to think was flying was simply falling," says chutemaker
Chris Martin of Tennessee-based Precision Aerodynamics. Real
flying, he now says, is looping across the sky in a BirdMan suit.
"Someday," says Martin, "this product will be landable and make
ours obsolete."

--Franz Lidz


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NORMAN KENT Prepare for takeoff Past experiments in human horizontal flight have had tragic results, but the forward-thinking Kuosma has created a set of wings that allows him to zoom across the sky as fast as 100 mph.