Imagine finding yourself soaring tens of thousands of feet above Earth, gliding through the stratosphere at a rate of speed so unimaginably fast that it contradicts any semblance of reason. Above you, the dark blue sky remains mysteriously out of reach and, below you, the world looks incomprehensible as you seem intent on defying all limits of what it means to be human.
Fraser Corsan, holder of the world record for the fastest speed flown in a wingsuit, knows exactly what this feels like.
His record, by the way, clocks in at 249mph. To put that into perspective, the fastest NASCAR speed ever recorded had been 216mph; the world's fastest bullet train, currently in the midst of its testing phase in Japan and not set to actually operate until 2030, is expected to reach a top speed of 224mph. Then there's Fraser - no propulsion, just a man in a wingsuit.
"I can see in every axis - the sky is a brilliant dark blue above me and crisp bright blue towards the horizon. People are commuting into work in their cars doing 60mph, oblivious to the man in a suit overtaking them at over 200mph from 3 miles above. It's a huge privilege to be able to fly like this."
I had the privilege to pick Fraser's brain a bit - to try and understand the mind of someone who, in such a dramatic way, defies all standards of human limitation. Ironically, what I had found above all else was that he's a man steeped in pragmatism - something you'd certainly expect from a military jet safety engineer.
Rightfully so, safety and preparation are emphasized by Fraser above all else, blended with qualities like patience, resilience and passion that all create a subtle key for anyone interested in shattering the kinds of world records that Fraser already has.
In trying to find out why Fraser does what he does, it all boils down to a common denominator that's weaved through the philosophies of many thrill-seekers: to gain perspective, not only visually and not only mentally, but comprehensively - on risk, on decision-making, on rewards, and on life itself.
Q: You're putting yourself into a position whereby you're completely and totally at the mercy of your environment - zipping through the sky at speeds up to 150-200mph. They say that a lack of control over situations is the source of all anxiety but you seem to be putting yourself into a situation where control is no longer an option but a blessing. What's it like - to find yourself looking down on the world, racing through the sky in ways that most humans never imagined they could do?
A: People and the media often portray skydiving and wingsuit flying as being out of control and incredibly dangerous - ironically this often attracts more participants, but what it does not do is reflect reality.
Skydiving is highly regulated and there are multiple qualifications and rigorous training programs to complete before you can don a wingsuit. We teach flyers on small docile wingsuits to start out and they progress to larger suits as they gain the appropriate level of experience and qualification. So when we make a wingsuit skydive, we are not out of control, we can fly where we want to within the glide path of the suits range.
In the case of my high altitude jump from 35,508ft, I had a detailed map of the area and was aware of air traffic, flight plans and the areas of controlled airspace. On jumps such as this, there is a huge amount of pre-planning. For example, I know the direction that I'll be flying, but winds change at different altitudes and glide paths change, so I'm constantly assessing my options, based on my pre-planning of known land marks and any areas of dangers, major roads, power lines, lakes, forests etc.
I can fly as slow as 80mph forward and descend at 26mph average or I can fly up to 240mph - depending on the angle I choose to fly the wingsuit. When flying like this you have complete control of your body but you are also aware you are going very fast forwards and relatively slow downwards.
Q: You've completed all sorts of tremendous jumps - over mountains in New Zealand, over lakes and forests in Sweden, with numerous friends as though you had all been a flock of birds. Is there one particular experience that stands out as a favorite?
A: I have lots of fun memories and certainly flying from a C-130 Hercules [military aircraft] in Sweden with 26 other wingsuits was pretty special... Immediately after exit, climbing above the C-130 as it flew level was pretty fun.
However another jump that was amazing was jumping in Florida whilst the space shuttle launched on my 25th birthday. We were jumping about 7 miles from the launch and we exited the aircraft as the shuttle fired its rockets, and we saw the huge balls of flame from its base, like a flower blooming, as its climbed spaceward on a thick stem of smoke. We completed the skydive and those astronauts went into space - it was pretty humbling, as I deployed my parachute all you could see was this immense tower of smoke in the distance, then after about 30 seconds the pressure wave from the launch hit the parachute and gave it a gentle rock.
Q: Why do you never lose that rush, that sense of adrenaline or find yourself bored with the wingsuit - in other words, what do you think it is about the mind that keeps you embarking upon new challenges?
A: Here’s a little secret: the “rush” changes. The adrenaline of the early days dissipates to a heightened level of awareness, so think less adrenaline more perception. This switches back to more adrenaline if you're doing something new or pushing yourself. For example, recently I have been doing XRW (Extreme Relative Work), which consists of flying my wingsuit next to an already open canopy and taking a grip or dock with the parachute canopy pilot - this is at the edge of what's possible for now but it's a visually, and mentally, bizarre situation.
No two jumps are the same, whether teaching a student or flying with a group their is never repetition. We're always learning more and have only started scratching the surface of what is possible - it never gets dull for me because of this.
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Q: Wingsuits are notoriously sensitive to incorrect deployments and you spend a lot of time practicing safety drills and emergency procedures. Nevertheless, things can go wrong - lines can get twisted, chutes can fail to deploy. Vaguely speaking, what's it like to be wholly and completely vulnerable to so many forces at play - wind speeds, temperature, humidity, etc. as well as human error? Do you ever get discouraged or intimidated after hearing of a tragedy or having had a close call yourself?
A: The belief that wingsuits are super sensitive to incorrect deployments is correct, however hype often talks of failed parachute deployments and line twists, all of which can be negated by appropriate training, equipment selection, and practice.
I have had 1 line twist in the last 400 jumps - this is not luck, this is practice and appropriate equipment selection. Its like the old adage: 'train hard, fight easy'. When I deploy, it's muscle memory and drill learnt on much smaller suits that enables me to safely deploy, along with the correct equipment. I read fatality reports and accident reports and, 99% of the time, they occur due to jumpers' flying wingsuits that are too advanced for their experience level, poor flight technique, and/or inappropriate equipment.
The last time I used my reserve parachute was 2001, as I had severe line twists that I couldn’t resolve. Having deployed at 4000ft, however, I had plenty of time to deal with the issue - to release my main and open my reserve. Incident reports are an opportunity to learn not to induce fear, though most of the time they are genuinely human error and, rarely, actual equipment failure.
Q: What was your very first time like - what went through your mind as you took a leap of faith into the unknown? Did it seem unnatural for a human to be doing this or did it feel more natural than anything?
A: You're generally taught skydiving is dangerous from an early awareness of the sport. However the equipment is very safe, but that does not remove the fact that you are leaving an aircraft to land under a parachute...
The feeling of tranquility, once under canopy, was amazing - the aircraft engine noise and slipstream was all gone, just replaced with a faint breeze as I glided down to the drop zone. It felt entirely natural to me and has ever since.
Q: You do a lot of physical training to prepare yourself - burpees, pull-ups, suspension training systems - as they're necessary to deal with potential threats like hypoxia or having to deploy chutes with freezing limbs. Do you ever find that you have to prepare mentally? If so, how do you do it?
A: For normal wingsuit flying from 15,000ft, I keep a good standard of training up with 2-3 times a week in the gym. When I made the 35k jump, I spent a year pushing training to another level to become leaner and stronger. I trained in an altitude chamber for Hypoxia training, to ensure that I and my team were aware of potential onset rates and visible symptoms to look out for. I also underwent pressure breathing training - unlike the movies, where they just strap on the O2 thank and off they go, it's a bit more complex at 42,000ft, where the ambient pressure is around 14% - meaning there is insufficient pressure for your lungs to work properly on their own, even with O2.
Cold is managed by way of heat pads for key elements of my equipment: O2 exhaust valves, GPS batteries and cameras. The suit is made of compressed microfibres designed for workers in freezers.
As for mental preparation their are multiple scenarios I run through, basically thinking of all the worst things that could happen and then visualize them playing out. The mental game consists of being honest about risk and how you are dealing with it. Having started my career as a safety engineer with military jets, I have a fairly meticulous approach to anything new - it might sound dull but it keeps us all alive and allows us to do extraordinary things.
Q: What mental qualities do you find are absolutely necessary (and what qualities do you feel are hazardous) when it comes to wingsuit jumping?
A: A few key qualities that are essential:
Patience – It's a marathon not a sprint, too many new flyers are in a rush to fly big suits and be the cool guy (it's always guys) on the drop zone and on social media
Resilience – You need to be mentally tough when things go wrong so you don’t panic when you have a scare or set back
Humble – Be prepared to take advice and learn from your mistakes - we all make them, treat them as a learning opportunity
Passion for knowledge – Always seek to learn more, we are in the very early stages of unpowered human flight, so keep learning to become better and safer
Committed – If you want to progress you need to be committed to put the hours in
Risk aware – Don’t get sucked into making jumps that you're not comfortable with
A few qualities/behaviours that could get you killed:
Arrogance/over confidence – Believing you are somehow special. You're not, we are all human and egos get people killed. Too many times I have observed others and predicted that they will likely die within 6-12 months; you can talk to them, but some you get through to some you don’t.
Narcissism – Linked to the above, but particularly dangerous when coupled with social media. People are talking themselves up just for the attention rather than to further the sport or teach others, getting into a cycle of trying to out-perform their peers. See the BASE fatality list for a whole raft of them and a few in skydiving but the key fatality cause is guys flying in high-performance canopies impacting due to poor landing technique.
Q: I'm curious to know if you have a different experience with time itself during a jump - if your relationship with time changes or if you feel that there's somewhat of a perceptual distortion due to either the increased adrenaline or serotonin/dopamine levels in the brain?
A: I have not seen any formal studies, but on some flights, time does seem to stretch out, admittedly I am talking about flights that are 3-4 minutes long already, but I can be in a very aware but relaxed state and the flight seems more like 10 minutes than 3-4 minutes.
In the early stages of training this phenomenon appears reversed, so a high adrenaline jump with limited experience appears to take seconds rather than say a minute. We generally refer to this as sensory overload and find when debriefing students in this area they can remember very little from the jump itself - hence why video debriefs are so useful as training aids.
Q: Lastly, why do you do it? What's the ultimate reward for Fraser Corsan in undertaking such an extreme hobby?
A: I jump and fly because it is the most beautiful environment, its puts the planet and our lives in perspective, it enables you to take decisions on risk which are normally out of your hands, which is very rewarding.
For a small fraction of time I get to fly, typically 3-4 minutes on a normal jump before deploying my parachute.. I am lucky to live in an age where that is possible, and sharing that with others, whether friends or students, is a privilege.