"And caused a sensation."
"It hit the front pages worldwide. At Daytona Beach, February, 1935, Clem Sohn flew for 75 seconds, looping the field back and forth three times. There is footage of him doing this, circling the crowd. The batwing phenomenon began with him. It wasn't as big as pole sitting, but it was similarly popular in the 1930s and '40s. He also fantasized the penultimate -- a chuteless landing, where you'd just use your wings to land."
"They all look like Elvis imitators in those batwing suits. And why was it batwings particularly?" I ask. "Why not, oh, nightingale wings?"
"The canvas wings employed spars to give them rigidity so they could actually deflect air. They just looked like batwings, is all."
"These first 'personal flyers' were secretive; they kept their tricks to themselves. They remind me a lot of the ex-moonshiner who founded stock-car racing. What is it in the American culture or character that is drawn to the slightly illicit and totally dangerous? You see it in the extreme sports that have grown out of improvisation, combining some simple piece of technology with speed and nature. There's surfing, stock car racing, skateboarding, hang gliding, wingsuit flying, skydiving, skyflying? If there is a super-dangerous sport and a slightly sleazy surrounding culture to be invented, invariably Americans will dream it up and rally round. The birdmen and batwing fliers too are mischievous, and they're incredible characters. Like Robert Leeds, who makes Indiana Jones seem like an Eagle scout."
"Yes," the author agrees. "By the time he was 20, Leeds had fought in three wars, smuggled diamonds out of Sierra Leone and guns into Madagascar. He was shot down in Soviet airspace, taken prisoner in South Africa, been a soldier in the Nationalist Chinese army, and found himself in front of a firing squad as a Communist spy. In 1948, he trained paratroopers in Israel and then commanded their first airborne brigade."
"I thought Charlie Laurin and his sidekick, Art Lussier, were even wilder yahoos."
"You may be right. They once both jumped out of a plane, leaving only a teenager aboard to land it. Laurin also became the first jumper to ever be struck by an automobile while in the air. Often they jumped without reserve parachutes or without folding their chutes. They just held them in their laps and threw them open like skirts as they exited the plane. One time they bought old, worn military chutes to save money, and blew out panels on the canopies as they plummeted, inadvertently inventing the so-called blank gore parachute, which steers exceedingly better than its predecessors. They started flying batwings and terrified thousands. At an air show they kidnapped a heckler and tossed him out of an airplane for his first skydiving experience."
"Tommy Boyd was fun, too," I add. "His father deserted him to be a teacher in a leper colony. His mother ran off. He was raised by both sets of grandparents. So he takes up flying airplanes and solos at 12. Then becomes a batman. He flies for 20 years. His wings are in the Smithsonian. But a real giant among the wing flyers was Leo Valentin."
"Who gave us the Valentin Position, which is the basic, spread-eagle posture in the air, with your arms extended. It seemed to take people forever to figure out that this worked, that it would allow you to maneuver as you fell through the air. Others before him had figured it out, too, but this knowledge was closely held and not passed down."
I sum up: "So, at first you had tower jumpers -- birdmen. These were followed by batwing fliers in the '30s. And today you have the skyflyers experimenting not with wingsuits but with wings. What are the new technological innovations in the sport?"
"One is the parachute. People don't realize that the round parachute is strictly for military use today. Parachutes are square now. In essence, they're wings that you fly. The other is the introduction of the airfoil. Making the wing rigid, yet light."
"That was the big one."
"Absolutely. In the 1990s, a Frenchman came up with the idea of donning such wings, and various skyflyers have been developing concepts of them. The prototypes have reduced the descent speed to something like 40 mph from 120, and yet the flyer has a forward speed of a hundred miles per hour. Three years ago, Loic Jean-Albert, 23, wearing a wingsuit he had designed, managed the impossible. He landed without a parachute on a snowy mountainside in Switzerland."
"What is a low exit?"
"Most guys flying wings open their chutes around six thousand feet. But in the batwing-air show days, people jumped out at seven thousand feet. It's simply the altitude at which you leave the airplane. Low opening is the altitude at which you pull the ripcord and open your chute. The lowest exit is probably a Russian method. You trail your chute out at 300 feet and let it pluck you out of the plane. There were rivalries between jumpers to open at the lowest possible point and still have your canopy fill. A considerable number of jumpers' chutes failed to fully deploy before they crashed into the ground. There are regulations governing when you must do it or be kicked off a drop zone."
"If you are still in free fall at a thousand feet or less, you will quickly see the world sort of widen and rush up at you. Where your vision was filled with sky before -- and you don't have a strong sensation of hurtling downward -- now suddenly all you see is the ground and it's rushing at you. Some people describe it as the earth spreading out beneath you. And whenever that happens, you should pull your chute open because you have just seconds remaining before you will impact."
"A great many birdmen and wingsuit flyers crash and perish. All the famous ones: Clem Sohn at 26, Leo Valentin, Patrick de Gayardon, and many more."
"Yes," Abrams adds, "more than half of the batmen, I would say."
"At the gliderport on the bluffs at Torrey Pines in San Diego, you can go for a tandem ride in a paraglider for $175. The pilot just inflates the elliptical canopy, and you and he sort of trot and cakewalk, tethered together, off the cliff into the thermals. It amazes me how available and commonplace such sports now are. Just step this way and you're in the sky, flying."
"Did you go up?"