MARINA, Calif. -- There he was, high above Monterey Bay, a yellow speck rocketing across the gauzy sky. Birdman was tracing a line due east, maybe 100 mph, following the braided shoals of the Salinas River. The ground was approaching at about 60 mph. Graceful from afar, close-up he looked like a flying squirrel in an Elvis get-up. Mark Lichtle had jumped out of a plane at 12,900 feet and was trying to soar two miles inland before deploying his parachute. For a minute and a half, the 42-year-old skydiver kept gravity at bay, moving forward much faster than he was descending toward that famous dark soil of Steinbeck country.
Mark Lichtle: Featured Photographer
Lichtle is one of a growing flock of jumpers who wear wing suits. Designed by BirdMan International, the suits keep humans aloft with nylon wings that extend from the wrists to the hips and inflate as air starts to rush into them. Another wing, like a bird's tail, connects to both legs.
"It's like slow-motion skydiving," Lichtle said. "You can stay up longer and go farther. The wing suit has allowed us to feel as close to flight as possible."
Since they became commercially available in 1999, BirdMan suits have given skydivers a new rush, and provided a new impetus to base jumping--hurling oneself off buildings, bridges and cliffs.
Lichtle is a retired mortgage broker from San Jose who films other people enjoying such adventures, often while jumping himself. Recently he leaped off a tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in Mexico he jumped 1,200 feet into a cave called the Basement of the Swallows, which itself could swallow the Empire State Building.
Wing suits are for experts only. The company recommends that a skydiver perform at least 500 parachute jumps and then take special bird-flying instruction before putting on wings. Although there is an emergency mechanism to cut away the wings, the diver's arms are very restricted while flying. "It's like skydiving handcuffed, and your head is your first point of contact with anything else," Lichtle said.
Vladi Pesa, a BirdMan dealer and wing suit instructor, said that once students learn to control the suit, it revolutionizes their diving. They can do loops and barrel rolls and carve across the sky as if it were water or snow. "It completely changes the flight path," Pesa said. "You can do formations, flying like a flock of birds. You can double your free-fall time."
Skydivers have long experimented with artificial wings and were called birdmen. In the mid-20th century, the practice was akin to jumping from a plane in a cheap Batman costume. From 1930 to 1961, according to Birdman International, 72 of the 75 people known to have tried such stunts died.
The problem was, and still is, that skydivers need to be stable when they deploy their chutes. If some homemade wing has you spinning like a fan out of control, you're history.
In the 1990s, skydivers began experimenting again, this time with wings that had no hard parts and were easier to keep in control.
A Frenchman named Patrick DeGayardon got it right--for a while. He performed successful wing jumps until 1998, when he tried to sew a little pillow beneath his parachute to get rid of a pocket of dead air behind his derriere. Unfortunately, he sewed the chute itself to the pillow and didn't try to deploy it until too late. He plunged from life to legend.
About that time, a Finn named Jari Kuosma came up with the idea of a commercial wing suit. A Croatian friend designed it, and BirdMan International was born in 1999. It has sold about 1,000 suits, ranging from $600 to $1,000. Kuosma has been trying to tinker with designs to slow down the speed of descent even more, allowing birdmen to swoop up and for a moment, maybe, achieve zero vertical velocity.
"We are getting very close to zero," he said. "I am going to land this thing without a chute one day."
Hopefully, not like the 72 others.
Kuosma said he slowed the downward speed to 10 mph on one flight, whereas a normal skydiver falls at about 120 mph before throwing the chute. Others say birdmen haven't gotten much slower than 40 to 60 mph.
On a cool summer day, with a briny wind coming off the bay, Lichtle suited up at the Marina Airport, an aging corrugated affair with old barracks and ragged windsocks. He harnessed himself into the six zippers and shuffled like a penguin to the runway. He wore a helmet--aptly designed by the Bonehead company--shaped flat like Frankenstein's skull, on which he mounted his camera.
"Birdman!" an onlooker shouted, as an instructor explained the wing suit concept to curious students.
Soon after the plane lifted off, the other skydivers on board jumped out right over the airport. Lichtle told the pilot to drop him a couple miles away at the coast. He wanted to see if he could get back to the airport on his own wings.
He has to get used to his new suit, which is for advanced divers and "a little twitchy." Still, because he is more streamlined through the air, the sensation is a lot smoother and more liberating than regular skydiving. "You don't have the hard wind on your body," he said.
He leaped alone over the beach and, at first, fell like a rock. Then in several seconds, the air went through the vents of his wing, and floom, they inflated. He was aloft, aiming roughly for a rusted water tower at the airport.
But up at 12,000 feet, a strong head wind was blowing off the land. Lichtle was going about 100 mph into the wind and hurtling down about 65 mph. He watched his altimeter and studied the oaks and artichokes below. Flatbed trucks tooled along the farm roads.
He realized he was not going to reach his goal and threw his chute at about 3,500 feet, still a quarter mile west of the airport. He drifted east with the wind and spiraled down with the other divers, undaunted. An eagle he wasn't.
Still, Lichtle was unruffled. "This is really the closest you can get to a bird."