How I Built My Own Wingsuit
There I was, in the middle of a Utah winter, dreaming about jumping again. I’d recently finished editing a couple of instructional DVDs regarding wingsuiting, and those videos had sparked a new interest for me: I wanted to learn wingsuit flying in the upcoming jump season. My budget was tight, and the cost of a new wingsuit seemed high. “Why not build my own suit?” I wondered. My sewing skills were adequate for patching canopies, but that was the extent of my expertise. I’d been planning to work on sewing projects this winter… projects that would expand my knowledge of sewing. This was a logical step, I ventured. Surely building a wingsuit would help me in the seamster department, provide a suit for me to use in springtime, and keep my budget intact… it all appeared to be a fantastic idea.
I went through a list of resources I had available:
1) A great DZO (Jack Guthrie) who would allow me use his sewing machines.
2) A good friend (Douglas Spotted Eagle) who would let me borrow a wingsuit for a while. Note: Neither Douglas nor I expected that “while” to be 4.5 months.
3) My girlfriend’s mother (Jane) works at a fabric store, and has extensive knowledge of available fabrics and parts such as zippers, snaps, etc.
4) A Wingsuit manufacturer (Tony Uragallo, of Tonysuits)
Tony Uragallo of Tonysuits who was willing to answer some questions I had about wingsuit design and assembly. Tony’s input was key during a few points in this project. The first thing I did was take the borrowed wingsuit to Jane at Hi-Fashion Fabrics, in Grand Junction, CO. She inspected this Tonysuits Mach1 and helped me create a list of fabrics and parts necessary to build a replica. That day Jane was able to provide me with all the Parapac, Supplex, and Cordura I’d need, for about $225. Some parts, such as zippers, binding tape, snaps, and thread were purchased from other stores.
Next step was creation of a pattern. I laid the borrowed Mach1 out flat on the floor and inspected the design. It became apparent that this design could be easily broken down into three main pieces: Right wing, Left wing, and body piece. Jane had donated some white basting material, which she thought would work well for the large pattern pieces I’d need.
I started copying the body piece first: tracing the front skin and rear skin onto my pattern material. Much like the top and bottom skins of a ram-air parachute, these front and back skins would have ribs connecting them: providing an airfoil shape when inflated. The two skins were easy to trace and cut, but adding the ribs required some planning. Because these ribs were inside the model suit and therefore out of sight, I decided it was time to reach out to Tony Uragallo, designer of this suit.
I explained to Tony that I desired to learn more about sewing, and this was a project for my learning. Tony said if this was the only suit I’d build, and if I’d promise not to begin manufacturing more of his design, he’d help me out. Tony provided key information about size and shapes I should use for ribs in all three wings: Tail wing, right wing, and left wing. I wish I could say that the project was a breeze from this point on, but there were two key points of sewing that I needed to learn. First: Thread tension in the sewing machine.
I’d purchased 210 denier Parapac, and when I began sewing two layers of this light fabric together, the stitches would bunch together, causing each of my seams to shorten, thereby slightly changing the size of my pieces.
You can see bunching in these seams, more severe in some areas than others.
The thread tension needed to be very loose. I was nearing completion of the main body piece before I finally understood how to correct both top and bottom thread tensions in the sewing machine precisely. Second: Patterns must be laid out horizontally or vertically on Parapac material in order to make them hold their shapes symmetrically. I’d been thinking of how to maximize number of pieces that I could get from my pieces of Parapac, and so I’d placed the parts at odd angles on the fabric. Oops.
This pattern should have been rotated such that it pointed straight up the
What did this mean for my project? As I neared completion of the main body piece, and began attaching zippers from foot to throat, I saw the body was leaning hard to one side. It took me a while to figure out the issue. I knew all my pieces were cut symmetrically because I’d folded the front and back skins in half when cutting them… why were they no longer symmetrical?
The body piece warped into an asymmetrical shape
Finally it dawned on me that if I pulled one side of the body, it would stretch several inches. Pulling on the other side however wouldn’t yield much at all. This was because the threads of this fabric were not running straight across my pattern. The only way I could deal with this big error: wad up the body piece and start from scratch. At this point I was approx 25 hours into the wingsuit project. With these lessons in mind, my second body piece was built much faster. My patterns were already made, so the parts were quick to cut and mark. Since I was still relatively new to sewing, assembly did take me another 12 hours til completion of the main body piece. Thankfully this body piece was symmetrical after completion, and proper thread tension had been used throughout. Now for the arm wings. Tracing parts for the arm wings wasn’t nearly as simple as it had been for the body piece. There are quite a few curves and angles, which were difficult to duplicate when using a pre-assembled wing as the model. Another difficulty in the arm wings: Each rib shape and size was completely different from the others.
You can see that each wing rib is unique. Creating these pieces takes time
My leg wing had used identical ribs, because each rib was approximately the same length and height, creating a uniform symmetrical shape. Arm wing shapes for the Mach1 are much more complex than the leg wing, and use of CAD software would be necessary to create truly accurate patterns for this. After much painstaking measurement and pinning of my patterns, I was satisfied that I’d created a suitable set of patterns for my arm wings, close enough I believed to provide a fully functional wingsuit.
The wing ribs are first sewn to the bottom skin, then top skin is attached at gripper
Assembling of both arm wings took about 25 hours. There are air locks, zippers, inner sleeves, elastic, snaps, and binding tape involved.
Next step is sewing top edges of wing ribs to the top skin, essentially “zipping up” from outside in
With the right wing, left wing, and body piece assembled, I figured I was very close to completion. Then I learned how difficult it can be to create correctly sized booties, and to attach them in appropriate places on the legs of a suit. My first attempt at booties took 10 hours and failed to fit me. Those booties found their way to the trash can, and the second set took another 5 hours… these fit much better.
Booties need to be made wider than the shoe, so that the shoe can slide in easily.
After the booties were finally finished, I had only minor trim parts to finish, and final connection of all three pieces. Tony’s Mach1 design made it quick and painless for me to mount the wings: Tops of the wings zipped on (up and over the shoulder), and bottom of the wings required a simple straight seam, one running down the side of each leg. I tried the suit out while wearing a rig, and it fit quite nicely. However, I still needed a bit of training before I’d feel comfortable jumping out of an airplane with these wings attached.
The suit fit, but I needed some more instruction before taking it to the skies.Photo by Dru Poma
I’d already been through a First Flight Course with Scott Gray, and a refresher course with Scotty Burns, but both those classes had been several months ago. First I sat down in my living room & watched the FlockU DVD that I’d edited, Wingsuits 101, to refresh my memory. Next I called on my WS instructor friend, Douglas Spotted Eagle, and requested that he run me through all the ‘what-ifs’ (ie: what if I go upside down, what if I start spinning, what if I can’t find my handles). Douglas put me through all these scenarios, and finally I felt comfortable that I could handle any of these situations. The following day was gorgeous, with blue skies and warm weather over Skydive Utah. Douglas came along with me for my initial jump in this suit, and took a few photos.
Boarding the plane requires some concentration when your feet are inhibited by a leg wing. Photo by Dru Poma
Riding up in the plane reminded me of a night jump: all the training had been covered in detail on the ground, yet still I was nervous. A few minutes after takeoff, we were at altitude, with an open door awaiting our exit. I hopped out of the plane and counted “Jump one thousand, Wing one thousand”, then opened my wings.
I could feel the positive pressure inside the wings.Holding my arms in place required little effort. Photo by dse
All three wings inflated evenly, and the suit felt stable.
Photo by dse
Photo by dse
I didn't keep my tail wing collapsed during deployment, resulting in line twistsPhoto by dse
Douglas and I flew a left-hand box pattern, and I deployed at 5,000 ft. My giant grin was evidence to those who met me on the ground that my Mach1 replica had flown well and had provided great enjoyment.
I’m looking forward to jumping this wingsuit many more times this summer so that I may learn more about the exciting discipline of wingsuiting. There are quite a few tricks I need to learn through practice, such as keeping my leg wing closed throughout deployment of my canopy.
photo by Dru Poma
When all was said and done, I’d spent over 100 hours planning, researching, buying parts, and building this wingsuit. Also, I’d spent about $350 on parts and equipment for this suit. A little math made me realize that if I’d worked a minimum wage job and spent 100 hours working it, I’d have been able to buy a new suit from the manufacturer with all options, would’ve received it much quicker, and would’ve spent the same. Would I recommend this project to anyone else? No way. Go buy a suit from a manufacturer and realize what a deal you’re getting! They may seem expensive at first, but once I understood the amount of R&D that goes into each design, and the amount of customization required for each individual suit, to fit each owner’s body, I realized that the MSRPs for these suits are actually very reasonable compared to parts and labor combined, for building my own suit. Cost and time aside, I’m glad I built this wingsuit. My ability to sew improved exponentially as I worked with this project, and my understanding of how wingsuits function increased drastically.
Chris Warnock is a TI, AFFI, Rigger, Canopy Coach, and videographer at Skydive Utah. Chris produced the "Canopy Control" DVD with Chris Gay for VASST. See him fly at the FreeFlock Utah Boogie in July, 2009.
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