Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them

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9781400054916: Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them

The Wright Brothers were wimps.

Or so you might think after reading this account of their unsung but even more daring rivals—the men and women who strapped wings to their backs and took to the sky. If only for a few seconds.

People have been dying to fly, quite literally, since the dawn of history. They’ve made wings of feather and bone, leather and wood, canvas and taffeta, and thrown themselves off the highest places they could find. Theirs is the world’s first and still most dangerous extreme sport, and its full history has never been told.

Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers is a thrilling, hilarious, and often touching chronicle of these obsessive inventors and eccentric daredevils. It traces the story of winged flight from its doomed early pioneers to their glorious high-tech descendants, who’ve at last conquered gravity (sometimes, anyway). Michael Abrams gives us a brilliant bird’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly with wings. And then, inevitably, to fall.

In the Immortal Words of Great Birdmen...

“Someday I think that everyone will have wings and be able to soar from the housetops. But there must be a lot more experimenting before that can happen.” —Clem Sohn, the world’s first batman, who plummeted to his death at the Paris Air Show in 1937

“The trouble was that he went only halfway up the radio tower. If he had gone clear to the top it would have been different.” —Amadeo Catao Lopes in 1946, explaining the broken legs of the man who tried his wings

“One day, a jump will be the last. The jump of death. But that idea does not hold me back.” —Rudolf Richard Boehlen, who died of jump-related injuries in 1953

“It turned out that almost everyone from the thirties and forties had died. That just made me want to do it more.” —Garth Taggart, stunt jumper for The Gypsy Moths, filmed in 1968

“You have to be the first one. The second one is the first loser.” —Felix Baumgartner, who in 2003 became the first birdman to cross the English Channel

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About the Author:

Michael Abrams is a writer based in New York City who has written for Discover magazine, Wired, and Forbes FYI among other publications. He has jumped out of a plane twice, neither time with wings.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

One Small Step for Man = One Giant Step for Man

For those of us who fly in our dreams, rarely is there any flapping of the arms, nor are there hidden jets or superhero capes. No air, really. The means of propulsion, even for daytime nihilists, is some kind of faith–just a matter of knowing it can be done–that keeps the body suspended and moving. And as that faith wanes, maybe from some creeping knowledge that it must be a dream, instead of plummeting to the ground there’s just a slow, soft descent. Sometimes there’s only enough faith to hover a few inches or feet above the ground. But those inches are miles when compared to how high we expect to fly after our morning cup of coffee. In the waking world we are utterly certain that any step off a mountain, roof, or table will have the same result: blind obedience to the draconian laws of physics.

We can fantasize that if we could just muster up enough faith, we could launch ourselves off some precipice and hover there like Wile E. Coyote before he notices the earth’s no longer beneath him. But to go any further with the fantasy is to feel gravity’s tug. No one will ever persuade us to jump–without a parachute–from anything much higher than the kitchen counter. Fasting, lashing the flesh, walking on coals: these are the limits of what the faithful are asked to do. What religion or cult has ever suggested to its followers that with enough faith they could fly?

And yet every century has had its birdmen, people with enough faith in the possibility of humans taking flight–and enough faith in whatever accoutrements they had devised–to take the literal plunge. Had they heard of a leading edge? No. Was angle of attack a part of their vocabulary? Less than unlikely. Lift and drag? Forget about it.

The tower jumpers of centuries past had a kind of faith that separates those who dream of flight from those who try it.



It’s hard to talk about humans trying to reach birdy heights without first touching on the Greek myth of Daedalus and his young egg, Icarus.
But the tale has more bearing on our story than it might first seem.
Daedalus, a metalsmith and inventor of great talent, and Icarus were incarcerated by King Minos, on the island of Crete. To escape, Daedalus assembled wings of feathers, wax, and whatnot and learned to fly. He made another set for Icarus and, before they took off, advised his son not to fly too near the sun, lest the wax melt. “No fancy steering by star or constellation, follow my lead!” as the poet Ovid puts it in the Rolfe Humphries translation. And so they flew, dazzling farmers and boatmen below, who thought them gods. Needless to say, Icarus was having such a heady time that he couldn’t resist flying sunward–the wax melted and he plunged to a watery death.

Despite the unhappy ending, the tale seems to inspire flight-minded people of all kinds. Ballooning, aviation, and bungee-jumping companies have named themselves after the wax-winged hero, and Icarus Canopies is perhaps the best-known parachute manufacturer in the world.

The fact that these companies are unafraid to use the name of a figure whose fearless adventurism led directly to his death can only be explained by the fact that those attracted to flight tend to be (or want to be) fearless adventurers. Leo Valentin, whose jumps (and death) in the 1950s inspired a slew of imitators in the second half of the century, did not read the tale of Icarus as a cautionary one. Instead he saw it as “amplified and glorified to strike the imagination, to satisfy the taste for the marvelous.” The same stores that sell Icarus skydiving gear also sell bumper stickers that say no fear, no limit.
You might think a skydiving company could just as easily name itself after Daedalus, who did, after all, manage to fly and live, but it seems that for those who take to the air, the name Icarus resonates more with the drive to greater extremes than that of his more confidence-inspiring father. Perhaps the school-marminess of Daedalus’s warning displeases them. (The Daedalus drop zone in Germany is the exception. Its owner, Christoph Aarns, who flies the rigid Skyray, is safety-obsessed and extends the bumper sticker by two words: no fear, no limit: no brains.

The Greeks certainly didn’t have a monopoly on such tales. Myths of human flight abound in almost every ancient culture. The Aztecs had their eagle-knight; the Incas spoke of Ayar Utso, who flew to the sun; and the Hindus have the birdman god Garuda, as well as the story of Jatayu, whose flight closely parallels the story of Icarus. The tomb of Ramses II shows him wearing wings–to what end we’ll never know–and the Norse had another flying tinkerer in Wayland, a blacksmith who slapped together some wings, again for the purpose of escaping, only to wind up in a Wagner opera. But the story of Daedalus, in its more complete form, does more for our history of flight than just express the human dream of soaring and warn against trying to make that dream a reality.
One subplot of the story more precisely demonstrates what would happen to the first men who tried to fly.

How was it that Daedalus came to be imprisoned in the first place?
Well, he was taking care of his nephew Talos, who one day noticed the usefulness of a jawbone for sawing things in two. Talos forged one in iron, thus inventing the saw. Daedalus, who claimed to have invented the tool himself, was either worried that Talos would become future competition or just plain jealous. He led Talos to the Acropolis, ostensibly to show him the view, and there shoved him off the roof of Athena’s temple. There was no flying for Talos, just a deadly drop–though some say he turned into a partridge after his death.

What better leaping-off point, as it were, for this history than that of a mortal fall from some high, stationary place? For most of human history, those who tried to fly experienced something similar.



Sorting out what in our written history is pure myth, what is myth based on fact, and what is plain old fact is a notoriously difficult task, and so it’s impossible to say who was the first person to make an attempt at flight. But the first possibly plausible account comes from those most ancient of the ancients, the Chinese, and may also tell us of the first use of a parachute. According to the Bamboo Annals, the Emperor Shun, as a boy, was imprisoned by the enemies of his father. Somehow he managed to cobble together a bird suit and either leapt out of a tower and flew to freedom or flapped his way over a prison wall. His interest in air travel apparently extended into adulthood, when he stepped off another tower and, with the help of two large, conical hats, made it to the ground without injury.

As with the printed word, explosives, and pasta, the Chinese were centuries ahead of the rest of the world at putting men in the air. Sometime in the sixth century a.d., the emperor Kao Yang began experimenting with the power of large kites to lift the human body. With the typical wisdom of a monarch, he did not use himself as a subject, as Emperor Shun had, but used his subjects as subjects–his imprisoned enemies, to be exact. The emperor forced these kite-accessoried captives to jump from a high tower on the outskirts of the city of Yeh. The kites proved unhelpful, except for one made in the shape of an owl, which placed its payload, the prisoner Yuan Huang-t’ou, on the ground unscathed. For his pains he was locked up again.

The pairing of wind and royalty remains intact across centuries and continents. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” rails King Lear against the storm, according to Shakespeare. Perhaps, though, Lear was echoing words shouted with more sincerity, and urgency, by his father, the historical King Bladud, in the early years of the ninth century b.c. (The king was also known as Lud Hubibras, which has nothing to do with the etymology of the word hubris, but it would make sense if it did.) Bladud was educated in Athens, built the city of Bath, England, and supposedly dabbled in black magic. His own parents banished him when they discovered he was a leper, and he roamed the countryside till the day he chased a mad pig into a pond of muck. The muck cured the prince (as well as the pig), and he was soon accepted at home, where he eventually ruled for twenty years. He built the baths of Bath so that others might enjoy healing similar to his. Whether it was with the assistance of necromancy or science that the king hoped to fly from the Apollo tower in what is now known as London, we will never know. And so we will never know what it was that failed him when he made this jump with wings never described by his contemporaries: the wind did not crack its cheeks quite enough to keep the sovereign aloft–’twas his neck that cracked instead.

English historians tended to use Bladud’s tale as an admonishment and a warning to those who strive to outdo God. Some centuries later, Percy Enderbie, the author of Cambria Triumphans, or Brittain in its Perfect Lustre, a history of England, felt free to describe Bladud’s wings as made with wax and blamed the lord’s downfall on his nearness to the sun–“a just reward for his temerity.”

In ancient Greece and Rome, flights to the death were not always made by choice. In the first decade or two of the first century a.d., Strabo described in his Geography an annual ritual that took place on the island of Leucas. To honor Apollo, the Leucadians would take a criminal to a precipice some 2,000 feet above the sea for the purposes of sacrifice/setting him free. (Sappho, the poet, supposedly leapt from this same cliff, as did many others, to cure her love.) Should the offering survive the fall, fishermen would pick him up and take him to other lands. Having learned from repetition, one guesses, that merely attaching wings or feathe...

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