Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them by Michael Abrams. Harmony Books, 2006, $23.95, 304 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
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 history of winged flight from its doomed early pioneers to their glorious high-tech descendants, who've at last conquered gravity (sometimes).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From bookgasm.com : "[P]rofiles more than 30 members of an elite club of oddballs -- definitely men more ballsy than you or I -- who no doubt inspired more famous pop-culture risk-takers from Evel Knievel to the boys of [the TV series] Jackass. Birdmen is part history discussion, part cautionary tale, and part nail biter.... Man's desire to fly had been percolating for centuries, and the book details -- hilariously, I'm ashamed to say -- early, all-unsuccessful efforts by Italians who jumped from castles, and some idiot who jumped off the Eiffel Tower believing a giant overcoat would carry him through the clouds. He left a messy spot on the ground below, of course."
From Discover magazine : "Michael Abrams chronicles mankind's many attempts to defy gravity's grasp -- not in airplanes but with wingsuits, parachutes, and a not-insignificant dose of insanity. As Abrams relates in this witty and well-researched book, the impulse to leap off a cliff or soar into the sky with homemade wings stitched together from feathers, leather, bones, canvas, or wood stretches far back into history."
From Publishers Weekly : "The tales of flight range from the silly and mysterious to the inspiring and unbelievable. Abrams's brief biographies are deep enough to convey how serious these birdmen take the notion of flight, but lighthearted enough to capture the carefree way most of these skyflyers face possible death."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael Abrams has written for such publications as Discover, Wired, Spectrum , and Forbes FYI. He lives in New York's East Village with his wife and brand new daughter, Alita.
CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"Your book is about winged men who jump from great heights in the hopes of not just descending gracefully to the earth but of actually flying. Given the technological challenges and complexities involved in such 'personal flight,' there developed a highly specialized terminology. What, for instance," I ask author Michael Abrams, "is a whuffo?" "A whuffo is a first-time skydiver who hasn't taken the plunge as yet. Legend has it that a batwing flier named Lyle Cameron landed in a field and was questioned by the farmer as to why he had jumped from a perfectly safe airplane: 'Whuffo you jump?' And from then on whuffo also became the word for non-skydivers."
"And a burble?"
"A burble is a thing that has haunted skydivers from the beginning, and continues to. When you fall, you create a bit of a vacuum behind you. These days a small pilot parachute pulls the main chute out behind you. Except that vacuum you're creating may impede it and keep it from deploying and pulling the large parachute open. And when you're in a winged suit, it creates even more of a burble and problem."
"And what is a jellyfish?"
"It's a deception. You jump and open your regular parachute as you fall, then collapse it in mid-air so it streams behind you, as if you're experiencing a disaster. Thereby terrifying everyone on the ground as you hurdle down. Then you refill the canopy and settle to earth and revive the watchers who've fainted."
"The desire to fly seems a longstanding fixation. In the 6th Century A.D., the Emperor Kao Yang experimented with flight, using large kites strapped to the body."
"Yes. Being the emperor, though, he attached them to prison inmates and had them hurled off a tower to see if the kites worked. Results were disappointing. Until a prisoner was attached to one shaped like an owl. That outfit worked. He flew, or glided."
"The early attempts were made with suits that imitated birds. Some experimenters actually denuded birds and used the feathers to replicate wings for themselves."
"Yes," says Abrams, "which they attempted to flap."
"They fell like stones," I observe.
"Like crated pianos. But a few added canvas or taffeta and worked on giving the wings rigidity. And they fared better."
"Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi among them," I mention.
"Yes, he was a Turk. In 1638, he read Leonardo da Vinci's treatise on birds and built a set of wings. Hezarfen stepped off a tower in downtown Istanbul and flew across the Bosporus. The city's airport is named after him. The theory developed that the curvature at the top of a wing creates a vacuum, and the wing is pulled up by it. That undoubtedly helps, but how you actually fly is by deflecting the air and pushing it down. And you can't do that unless you have enough power going forward or enough lightness and rigidity to push the air down. Man wasn't strong or light enough to do that. Which is why the feathery wings didn't work."
"WWI introduced the parachute, and in the 1930s planes and parachutes allowed people to literally reach new heights in their attempts to fly on their own."
"Yeah, the higher the altitude you jumped from, the farther you glided," says Abrams, "and the harder you fell."
"One high-flier was Clem Sohn of Michigan. He developed the static line to open chutes automatically, and developed free falling."
"He was internationally famous on air-show circuits. Watching daredevil Spud Manning, Sohn saw you could maneuver in the air by positioning your limbs. You could flip, turn, even glide. Sohn did his skydiving holding a large bag of flour to mark his trail through the sky: a terrifying sight. He would open his chute at the last possible moment, too. To further heighten the drama, Sohn made a set of bat-like wings. The wings weighed 8 pounds; the parachute, 75. He wore them in jumping from 12,000 feet, roughly two miles up. They slowed his rate of descent from 120 miles per hour down to 60 mph."