Fear of flying

By Bill Coffin


Skydiving is one of those activities so hazardous as to void your life insurance and encourage friends and family to question your sense of longevity.

Actually, it’s not that dangerous compared to, say, driving a car, but when skydiving goes wrong, it goes completely wrong, so its all-or-nothing proposition for survival tends to strike a nerve among the risk-averse. Me, I’ll never do it, after hearing a story from my friend who runs a banner-plane service. One day while flying, he watched a skydiver with a failed chute hurtle past his plane. He’ll never go skydiving after that — and this is a guy who flies for a living.

Hang-gliding is actually way more dangerous than skydiving, with a reported fatality rate of one in every 2,000 flights. If you imagine that you’ll be in a fatal car crash once out of every 2,000 trips, I’d imagine you’d become a proponent of mass transit pretty quickly.

And then there is wingsuit flying, which makes skydiving and hang-gliding look like a game of canasta. Wingsuits are a kind of wearable parachute with big membranes between your arms and legs that essentially turn you into a flying squirrel. They are used most commonly by BASE jumpers (parachutists who specialize in jumping off of things like buildings and bridges) who use the suits to glide as they fall. The result is a zooming kind of flight, where daredevils in the sport hug the ground at insanely low and insanely dangerous altitudes. It’s the sort of sport that has to be seen to be believed.

Wingsuit flying made the news recently as the World Wingsuit League held its annual championships in China. The contest was a kind of timed slalom as wingsuiters flew past certain objectives as fast and as close as they could. As the world’s top flyers gathered, the week before the championships was filled with lots of test runs and publicity stunts. One of the world’s leading wingsuiters, a BASE jumper named Jeb Corliss, performed a move called the “Flying Dagger,” where he zoomed through two pillars of rock less than 20m apart from each other in what is probably the most dangerous wingsuit stunt executed to date.

Another wingsuiter, Victor Kovats, was not so lucky. During a training run for the WWL championships, he lost control and flew straight into the ground, killing himself. Kovats knew what he was doing: he had been in the sport for six years, with 1,250 skydives, 250 BASE jumps and 700 wingsuit flights under his belt. He just got unlucky once. But in wingsuiting, once is enough.
Kovats’ death comes on the heels of another wingsuit fatality a few weeks before. Remember the skydiver who jumped into the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony dressed as James Bond? That was stuntman Mark Sutton, and he died in August on a failed wingsuit flight in Switzerland. Deaths like these call into question how anybody can even do this and still value their life.

After his Flying Dagger stunt, Corliss admitted that he wept during the attempt because he knew how close to death he would be. For him, events like this are all about risk assessment: with the risk of death, how likely is that outcome, and is it worth the fame, fortune and glory that comes with running that risk? That is the thing about wingsuiters. To those of us unwilling to assume such a level of risk, what they do has no discernible reward because the risk so totally overshadows it. And yet, when you hear Corliss talk about it, to him, there is a value to be had in cheating death. For as much as it terrifies him, it gives all the more meaning to every other moment when he is still breathing. I suppose the rest of us should be lucky to feel alive without having to try so hard to reverse the condition.