We recently talked with Robert Harris, who took it upon himself to build his own homemade wingsuit. After years of motocross racing, Robert started skydiving five years ago, and since then has attained over 1600 jumps, his D-license as well as AFF and coach ratings. However, what made us want to talk to him, was having seen that he had developed his own DIY wingsuit at home. He talks to us about what inspired him, how he made it and most importantly, how it flew.
What made you want to develop this DIY wingsuit?
I have always liked knowing how things are made, when I was a kid I took everything apart to try and figure out how it worked and hopefully put it back together before my parents found out. This didn't stop as I got older, although it changed to learning, so I could make things.
Shortly after I started wingsuiting I decided I was going to make a wingsuit someday. So last year I asked for a sewing machine for Christmas and didn't get one as no one knew what kind I wanted and I didn't either. I had gotten to use a sewing machine back in middle school home ec class but didn't care about learning sewing, wish they had told me I could make parachutes and wingsuits back then as I would have paid way more attention.
After talking to my dz's rigger Sally and some other people and decided to get a singer 20u, after over a month of trying to buy one I found one on Craigslist from an old lady that really never used it for 400$. Then I started sewing. First a pillow case, then a miniature version of my Leia that I made into a traction kite, a belly band, canopy continuity bag, and weight belt. After all of those projects I finally decided it was time to start my wingsuit project.
What experience do you have in aeronautics or aviation product development?
I don't really have much, but I have started an online class on Aeronautical Engineering to learn more about designing airfoils. I hope to learn to do some equations to determine glide and speed of a given airfoils parameters and hopefully eventually learn CFD(Computational Fluid Dynamics) to push the envelope of what can be done in wingsuits I make later.
What were your expectations when starting this project?
I was told by quite a few people that I was crazy for wanting to make a wingsuit or that it was too hard and I didn't have a chance. I didn't really care about the designing process when I first started I just wanted to assemble a suit and fly it. I didn't care if it was the best performing suit I just wanted to say I had done it. Although I think I have caught the bug, now I want to make another one and try some new ideas we haven't seen in the wingsuit world yet.
Could you explain your creation process to us?
When I started I picked one of my wingsuits as a starting platform. I took measurements all over the outside of the suit, and decided to change the arm wings completely as I didn't want to outright copy the suit. I simplified some parts trying to make it out as few as pieces as possible. After all the outside pieces were made came the challenging part of making the ribs. I was originally going to make it with back fly vents so tried to make an airfoil shape that would be as good either on back or belly. I drew out where the ribs would be placed and measured how long they would need to be on the top and bottom skins and as far as thickness goes I knew how wide I wanted the thickest one and the thinnest, to figure out the rest I used some math to taper from the biggest to smallest.
After I started sewing I scraped the backfly vents but left the ribs how they where as after putting the fronts on I didn't want to deal with the headache of the backfly ones as well. I spent a couple days making patterns and writing everything down as I did it to make it easier for possibly making another one. After the patterns were all done and checked for fit against each other I started cutting them all out of some parapac I got from JoAnn's fabric with my new hot-knife my girlfriend got me for my birthday. This part went relatively quickly and only took about a day total. Then came the weekend and jumping time, it was hard to pull myself away from my project but I needed to train for the last swoop meet of the season. As weather got crappy I started the sewing. I figured it would be best to get the hardest part done first the arm wings as if I couldn't get those done there was no point in even making the tail.
I started with sewing the ribs to front or bottom skin of the suit and quickly learned the sewing the ribs and vents on together was a pain. I did every step on both wings at the same time so I could try and make it as symmetrical as possible and knew they where both put together in the same order. I felt really accomplished when I finished both arm wings and was ready to push through the tail wing quickly before my swoop comp. The tail wing went together pretty easily after making the arm wings and before I knew it I had 3 wings that needed to be put together. After missing a couple of weekdays jumping as I sat busy behind my blue Singer I had finally finished! I was so excited after 23 hours of sewing to go jump it but jumping had already stopped for the day.
And how did it fly when you took it out?
I really wanted to get some outside video of its (cough cough) first fight. Go figure, none of the normal wingsuiters where around, I eventually asked my friend Paul who has done only a handful or two of wingsuit jumps if he would try. I gave him an I-bird I use for teaching and rig to borrow so he wouldn't be jumping his velo. We talked about the dirt dive and manifested for a load. As we climbed to altitude all I could think about was my family and girlfriend and how dangerous this could be. I did a lot of practice touches of all my handles and went through my emergency procedures as I always do but did way more of them.
On the 2 min call we did all the normal handshakes and then I buckled my helmet and zipped up my arm wings. As all the other jumpers were getting off the plane my heart started racing, I used all my yoga experience to get my breathing in check as I walked to the door of the Twin Otter, I could tell Paul was nervous as well. I had him exit before me as I wanted a nice exit shot, as I hopped out from a poised position in the door all I could think was please don't let the suit blow apart! I made sure to keep all my wings shut down on exit and waited to see the tail before I ever so slowly opened my wings.
I got my wings open and started flying, I was ecstatic at this point as the suit was staying in one piece. I started my first turn shortly after and was surprised at how stable it was. It took a little bit for Paul and I to get together but around 10k we got together shortly after my practice pull to see if there would be any issues and it was the easiest one I have done in awhile. We flew with each other for a bit and then about 7k I wanted to see what I could do with it.
I started a small dive then went in max flight. I decided I would pull higher then normal as I was still jumping my normal wingsuit canopy a Jfx 84 at 4,500 feet. I came in to land with 90 degree turn for nice little swoop. Shortly after Paul landed close by and celebrated an awesome jump!
I have never been so excited and nervous on any of my 1600 plus skydives or 4 base jumps yet alone together. After I landed I had to message family and girlfriend to let them know I was ok, they were all pretty scared about me doing it. Since the 1st jump I have only done 1 more on the suit and it was a time run, I got 2 min and 20sconds out of it, which was defiantly shy of the 3-3.5 min I should have gotten out of that size suit. Turns out the fabric I used was my biggest downfall, it didnt have a coating on it like parapac used in other suits so it was constantly bleeding air out and never achieved max pressure.
What was the biggest challenge in creating your wingsuit?
The biggest challenge by far was trying to figure out what order everything gets put together in, I spent a couple days alone trying to piece it together in my head to figure it out. Although I had to unpick a few parts because of misalignment I did not have to unpick anything because of the order I put it together in.
Do you feel that your venture was a success?
In the end I feel I achieved my goals I set out for the project and learned tons along the way! I look forward to starting my next suit when I return from visiting my girlfriend in London. I already have tons of things I want to try try and do but the major thing will be a fabric that has zero porosity.
About Robert Harris (D-31584): I grew up racing motocross at a early age and after many years of racing I stopped because I was tired of breaking myself. I still rode and one day on the way from riding I got a call about getting to do a free tandem. Of course I said yes much to my parents dismay, they thought skydiving was too dangerous at the time and realize now its more dangerous then motocross. I had loved motocross for the jumps as I loved the feeling of flying through the air. Skydiving was just that pure flying and as soon as I landed I signed up for Aff. One year after I started I had 200 jumps and started wingsuiting on jump 201. My 2nd year in I had my D-license and got interested in Canopy Piloting as well. Since then I have gotten my coach and Aff ratings and am currently on my 5th year of skydiving and have just over 1600 jumps.