The 2016 Red Bull Aces wrapped up with three Americans on the podium, all wearing the same t-shirt. It was a shirt that about 30 of the 40 Aces competitors own, and it featured a blue nut with wings – you probably know what we’re talking about.
Over the past three years, wingsuit competitions have taken off. The PPC format has become FAI recognized, Red Bull Aces has gone mainstream with regular broadcast TV slots, and new formats such as WOWS have popped up. Simultaneously, manufacturers have pushed their highest performance designs to new levels and pilots around the world have begun to focus more on performance flying than ever before. It all points to a significant shift in the sport of wingsuit flying, and the general sentiment is that competition has been a huge positive for the sport.
But back to that t-shirt Noah, Will, and Andy were wearing: Three years ago, Squirrel was a newcomer to the wingsuit scene. In the 2014 Aces event, Andy Farrington took first place flying a Squirrel prototype and there were only a handful of Squirrels in the race. By 2015 ACES, Squirrel had swept the top 4 and all of a sudden the majority of pilots in the race were flying Squirrel. In 2016, Squirrel claimed a total sweep of the top 8, and had 15 out of the top 16 pilots on their suits. What happened? We spoke with Squirrel's CEO, Matt Gerdes, to find out…
In 2014 I think there were less than 10 of us Squirrels in Aces. We did ok, and Andy won, but mainly because he was so good. The suit he flew was decent. But we got really committed to developing race suits after that race, and worked much harder on it in 2015 and word travels fast I guess.
It’s sort of a domino effect, and it’s maybe not just about the one model of suit. We let Noah and Julian try the early C-Race protos and they confirmed what we knew in our testing, and everyone pays attention to them. Also, as more and more people flew our other suits, like the FREAK, they began to feel something unique (in my opinion). And finally, we tend to be pretty easy to work with, and we listen to our pilots. We don’t always give people exactly what they ask for, but they usually end up getting what they wanted.
We are always looking for that revelatory moment where we change one thing and all of a sudden we see a huge improvement in performance. But it’s never like that, unfortunately. It’s a long list of really small things, mainly profile optimization and drag reduction through making the planform and surfaces as efficient as possible. It also has to be usable – the C-Race is fast but it’s also not too difficult to fly it in a very steep race course. It takes practice, for sure, but it becomes manageable after a few training jumps.
Yes, the conspiracy is that those who follow Andy Farrington around the sky all summer end up fast. Will Kitto surprised us all, though. He has improved faster than anyone, and in a short period of time.
It was for sure massively more difficult than the years previous. We saw a few non-Squirrels as being very real contenders to do well. But the biggest factor was probably that everyone had been looking forward to this for an entire year and our guys trained the hardest for it.
The first year (2014) Aces felt like this crazy weird experiment / party that we were all lucky to be a part of. Last year (2015) it felt like the biggest thing in our sport and we were taking it super-seriously, but we could tell that we had trained the most and some of the heats felt easy to me. This year was completely different – the level was much higher and clearly almost everyone there had been thinking about it for a long time and the competition was way heavier. On a personal level, for me, what I really wanted was Squirrel on the podium. I was rooting for Andy, but I love Will and Noah too. So once we were through the semi-final and there were only Squirrel suits left, I kind of relaxed a little and stopped worrying about my performance. I just wanted to be safe and hug my family at the end of the day - sounds cheesy, but that’s what was on my mind.
Win a WOWS event or two. Also, be a veteran in the sport. People ask us for references all the time but Luke [Aikins] has a very keen eye and is super aware of what’s going on in the sport. Most of the people he chooses have been dedicated to wingsuit flying for a long time, not a short time. And most of the long time wingsuit pilots with a solid skydiving history have been in the event at least once so far. Luke also looks at other comps – this year Chris Geiler got in after doing well at US Nationals and Luke’s hunch was confirmed when Chris became FAI World Champion just before Aces.
Everyone speaks highly of the Wings For Love event, but I haven’t been to it so I don’t have personal experience with it. It is run more like a team event / show, but they did have what seemed to be a legitimate timed race there and Squirrel did well (great pilots flying our suits swept the top 3 I think). WWL is of course old news by now, and while they tried to change the format for 2016 to do something a bit more creative, unfortunately the weather forced them into another straight line race. Again, Squirrel swept up, with the top 4 all in C-Races. The FAI world champs is PPC format which means you jump alone listening to beeps – it takes a special brand of wingsuit nerd to love this type of flying, and personally I am not into it, but I have a ton of respect for the pilots who train hard and they have really learned to manage energy efficiently and time their entry into the comp window… and we’re happy to support a lot of the top guys including Chris Geiler, who took gold (watch out for that guy, he’s super driven and talented). As for Acro, I don’t know, I have no experience with that and anything which relies entirely on human judging is an instant turn-off for me! Aces is the best thing going at the moment, with [WOWS]((www.wingsuitrace.org) being second best, in my opinion.
Action & interview with ACES 'new boy' Chris Geiler, who became FAI World Champion shortly before Red Bull Aces, confirming Luke's talent-spotting.
Will, Mike, and myself are all full time on all products. For wingsuits specifically it is mainly me, with assistance from Will and using Andy Farrington as a primary reference. We test side by side and when I jump a proto that lets me fly as fast or faster than Andy, we know we’re onto something. For theoretical questions and abstract inspiration we draw on the Ozone Paragliders R&D Team’s expertise, Ozone is a sort of sister company to Squirrel. In total it makes for a pretty large team, and Squirrel definitely has more employees involved in R&D than any other wingsuit or BASE manufacturer, by a large margin.
This winter we have a few projects planned, some tropical and some alpine. You’ll see some fun videos come out in early 2017. Also we have a few new suits that we are finishing up right now, and they all include technical innovations that have come from the race suit development. One of the biggest benefits of our race suit work is discovering design features that we can apply to our normal production suits that elevate their performance and handling. In the end even our intermediate-class wingsuits end up being better thanks to the work we put into the C-RACE.
in 2017 the Colugo 3, Aura 3, and Freak 2 will all have a version of the compression inlet that the 2016 Aces suits used. We have modified our profile scaling to use an optimized thickness for each planform, and we’ve learned new ways to maintain glide performance while reducing surface area, which is very useful for more mid-range suits.
I keep reminding myself that skysurfing was too, a while back. Then it wasn’t. Now skysurfing is hot again and I want to get into it ;-) Here are some reasons why I think wingsuiting is on a path of constant growth: 1. It’s super fun to fly fast in tight formations with friends, and we are still just scratching the surface of that. Old school “flocking” is going to be replaced by high speed formation flights. 2. We are still just beginning to understand what’s possible as far as angles – in Arizona, Julian Boulle, Plamer, Petter, and Micah, were diving their race suits at steep angles, flaring up to gain altitude, then transitioning to their backs but continuing to gain altitude, then tipping it over to go head down to terminal again, then flaring up to repeat…like a split S with altitude gains thrown in… stuff like that is going to trickle down to people who will listen to us, and these performance goals that we all can look forward to will keep us interested for a while. Meanwhile, suits are getting better and better, and I personally see no end in sight as far as that is concerned.