There are constant advancements in the development of human flight and over the past decade in particular we’ve seen some pretty ground breaking achievements, thanks both to the pilots who push the envelopes and the gear manufacturers that are constantly coming up with new products, and researching the way forward with regards to these items.
We had a chat with Matt from Squirrel Wingsuits, one of the new wingsuit manufacturer on the block.
On your facebook group you mention that this venture is one of a collaborative nature and that there are some 'elite wingsuiters' involved in the project. Are you able to provide names of those who are involved?
Squirrel was originally founded by Matt Gerdes, Luc Armant, and Dave Barlia. After a year of intensive work, Dave was not able to reconcile the inherent workload with his family life and returned to fun jumping. Currently the day-to-day operation is Matt Gerdes and Mike Steen, with testing and development the responsibility of us plus a list of team pilots that will be released on the website soon.
You mention on the Squirrel website that "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself". That philosophy seems to be the primary reasoning behind the development of Squirrel. It is clear that you guys felt as though something was not being done correctly by other modern wingsuit manufacturers; is there something in specific that you felt was lacking in the current market and that there was a dire need for that had to be developed?
In 2009 there weren’t a lot of people jumping “big” wingsuits in the BASE environment. Jade Tatom was the only person I had met who had ever BASE jumped a Tony suit. At that time (summer 2009) I felt that I had outgrown the suit I was flying and I was looking for something new but I didn’t want a Vampire because everyone else had a Vampire. I decided to get a “big” suit and immediately realized that it was awesome in the BASE environment. For 2009 and most of 2010, lots of people sneered at me and the other guys who were jumping these new big suits… there was an incredible amount of poop-talking that went on here at the Dropzone forum, in hindsight it’s really sad but it’s funny seeing so many of the people who were adamantly against big suits flying them now. I have to give Andy West and Dean Potter credit for being smarter than I was and basically enjoying their suits in private. I was a loud proponent of big suits and convinced as many people as I could (which turned out to be a lot) that wingsuit BASE was more fun with bigger wings… and by the end of 2011, a lot of people had figured out that more surface area is potentially advantageous in many ways. Anyone familiar with the evolution of wingsuit design in the past 3 years knows the rest of the story.
I have liked every suit I’ve owned, for the most part. Tony makes great wingsuits and his and Jeff’s designs have (in my opinion) revolutionized the sport. But in 2011 I almost died twice and decided that I either had to quit jumping, or figure out a solution to the issue. In the end, Squirrel was the solution. If I die BASE jumping, now at least it will be in my own suit ;-)
What is different about Squirrel wingsuits that sets them apart from the competition? Why would one be making a better choice by going for Squirrel as opposed to one of the other guys?
If you look at the suit and fly it and can see and feel the difference, then you will know if the suit is for you or not for you. Deciding which suit to fly is (and should be) a very personal choice. I’ve tried my best to describe some of the details that are unique to our suits on our website, but I would never claim that our suit is better than another. It’s something that each jumper needs to experience and decide for themselves.
The company is quite new, as are the products that have been released. How has reception been thus far?
The feedback has been even better than we hoped. Our main concern is delivery times at this point.
How many products do you currently have for sale, and how many are in development, with any possible release periods for upcoming products?
The Colugo will be on general sale in late February. The Aura, a slightly larger suit, will follow. The Swift, our entry-level suit, will come this summer.
How much time or effort has been spent into the research, specifically aerodynamic research for these suits. Are they going to be offering anything special with the way they fly? Anything you can tell us about the procedure that has lead up to the production.
We are very lucky to have Luc Armant on board. He and Fred Pieri were instrumental in establishing the planform and profiles. Luc and Fred work for Ozone Paragliders, which for the past few years has been widely recognized as the world leader in high performance paraglider designs (currently about 80% of the top competition pilots are flying Ozone, which is insane in a sport with almost 50 brands).
Luc and Fred are both complete and total geniuses, and their understanding of flexible airfoils is unparalleled. They have had some wild and awesome ideas, but there are major restrictions for wingsuits because we need them to be comfortable and safe (in my opinion safety and comfort come before performance) before we need them to be fast and efficient. Some of our early prototypes had massively stiff arms with reinforced tri-laminate surfaces and mostly-rigid profiles. The performance was amazing but you couldn’t even sit comfortably in the airplane. We remedied some of that with complex arm-release systems using magnets and Lycra and other things, but in the end it was all just too much going on when you’re standing on the exit point.
Simplicity is so incredibly important in our sport. The first phase of development really made clear that comfort and confidence are the main priorities. A natural flying position, very clean and easy access to the BOC and brakes, and fast start-arc* in the BASE environment are our first priorities. When you start pushing speed and glide performance too much, inevitably there are sacrifices. We’re very happy with the performance but for me the most important thing is having the maximum amount of confidence that I’m going to get a fast, balanced, and predictable start, and then be able to reach my BOC clean and clear on every jump. I think that this is what pilots will appreciate on every jump.
It’s human nature to be obsessed with performance, and I am not against that obsession, but I think that choosing suits based on their theoretical glide and losing sight of things like a fast start-arc and a really clean pull is a mistake. Nothing else matters when you can’t get your PC. In the past year we’ve seen more and more jumpers ordering the biggest suit possible – and while I agree that big is fun, I also think that we have to stay focused on ease of use and agility, especially for BASE jumping. And a lot of jumpers are not getting this point. The phenomena is like the opposite of skydive canopies, where jumpers feel cooler when they are flying something smaller; it seems like a lot of BASE jumpers want to be wearing the biggest suit they can, even though they would be able to fly much better lines in a more moderate design.
*We define the “start-arc” as the vertical distance consumed at the point at which the jumper crosses an imaginary line extended at a 45 degree angle from the cliff edge.
Your primary focus at the moment seems to be on attracting BASE jumpers, do you ever plan on expanding focus to skydivers as well?
Every BASE jumper is a skydiver, too. Or at least they should be. In my opinion, skydiving is the single most important thing that you can do to improve your wingsuit BASE jumping. One of the most important features on our suits is the Innie-Outie zip system, which allows you to zip your BASE harness inside the suit and profit from the increased wing area and reduced drag which results, or you can zip your skydive harness onto the outside of the suit which allows you to access your handles safely and easily with no funny-business. Our focus will always be on wingsuit BASE jumping, that’s just who we are, but we all love to skydive and all of our suits are designed to be skydived safely and easily.
Are there any professionals, whose names one may know busy flying Squirrel suits at the moment, and if so, who are they?
Stay tuned for the list.