I learn something new every day. Today, I learned that wingsuits have been around for much longer than I realized – over a century, in fact. I consider myself to be a pretty adventurous person, but reading about – and seeing pictures of – wingsuits elicited in me a giant NOPE. I admire those who are brave enough to try them, though, because I imagine it’s an incredible experience – the closest that humans can get to flying on their own, without the aid of airplanes, gliders, or other devices.
If you’re unfamiliar with wingsuits, they’re essentially special jumpsuits with inflatable arm and leg “wings” that allow the wearer to glide through the air after jumping from a plane, cliff, or other high structure. They’re also sometimes called “squirrel suits,” which I find both amusing and appropriate as the dynamics and appearance are very similar to those of a flying squirrel – who, presumably, have never thought of using their built-in wingflaps to jump from a plane, instead preferring to glide more cautiously from tree to tree.
Humans are known for being significantly braver than squirrels, though, so wingsuit flying and BASE jumping have formed a whole subculture of flying nuts. (I mean that they’re nuts about flying, rather than nuts that fly…whatever.) Like fans of any extreme sport, these birdmen (wingsuits are also called birdman suits!) are constantly working to improve their craft, while on the ground as well as in the air. Flying takes skill to master, but that doesn’t mean that a birdman can’t help himself out a little bit by adding some enhancements to his (or her) suit.
For example, a Reddit user by the name of Zymosis recently posted about an attempt to create some aerodynamic winglets to attach to the end of his wings and, ideally, reduce the drag caused by wingtip vortices. Using a basic MakerFarm 3D printer, Zymosis printed the winglets with Taulman Bridge Nylon filament in four pieces each, then pinned and epoxied them together and MacGyvered them onto the wingsuit with high speed duct tape. Then – test flight!
Performance results were inconclusive, according to Zymosis, as it’s difficult to tell if you’re flying faster without having another flying birdman to compare yourself to. He admits that these first winglets were pretty experimental, and that measuring the computational fluid dynamics of non-rigid wings was a bit more difficult than say, the wings of an airplane, so “the geometry was basically a guess.”
For a guess, it seems like they worked out pretty well. Reactions from Zymosis’ fellow Redditors ranged from “this is awesome stuff” to “I’m gonna file this under ‘Do not try this at home.’” One commenter with the delightful name of Brostafarian remarked, “you certainly trust your prints more than I do!”
I suspect this enterprising birdman won’t stop here; I’m going to keep an eye on this particular Reddit thread to see if he comes up with additional winglet iterations or manages to test them in a way that gives more conclusive results on any performance improvement. While I have no plans to ever attempt flying without an airplane myself, it’s quite a lot of fun to watch those who do.