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."
"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?"