The Wingsuit Pioneers Who Shaped the History of Wingsuits

A lone bird soars gracefully against a backdrop of a bright blue sky, punctuated by fluffy, white clouds.
Wingsuit Pioneers Wanted to Fly Through the Sky Like Birds

Watching wingsuit pilots soaring through the air and performing incredible stunts is astonishing and often leaves people wondering how people came to conquer the air. Modern wingsuit flyers thereby benefit from the developments of the past – developments that often came at a high cost for the pioneers.

The following list of wingsuit pilots can be considered the pioneers of the sport:

  • Franz Reichelt – the first known wingsuit pilot and pioneer
  • Clements Son – the Batman who sought through the skies
  • John Carter – the Birdman who started the wingsuit movement
  • Patrick de Gayardon – the visionary who laid the foundation for modern wingsuits
  • Jari Kuosma – the father and inventor of modern wingsuit
  • Glenn Singleman – the physician who brought wingsuit to media attention
  • Dean Potter – the climber who enabled new wingsuit exit points
  • Gary Connery – the man who landed without a parachute
  • Uli Emanuele – the daredevil who performed the most incredible wingsuit stunt

In the following, I invite you to join these pioneers and read more about their incredible stories and contributions to the world of wingsuit flying. Without their courage, innovation, and relentless pursuit of human flight, wingsuit flying would not exist in the way it does today.

Franz Reichelt Was the First Known Wingsuit Pilot

Franz Reichelt, a French inventor, and tailor, earned the distinction of being the first known wingsuit pilot and the first person to die from the sport in 1912. His pioneering efforts in parachuting marked significant strides in the early development of wingsuits.

Creating a wearable parachute that resembles modern wingsuits, he ventured to test his hand-sewn parachute suit by even throwing dummies from his flat window as part of his design experiments. Even though his dummies did not achieve satisfactory results, he announced publicly to test his suit by jumping from the Eiffel Tower.

Due to the coverage in newspapers, a crowd came to witness the jump. Unfortunately and expectably, the jump tragically ended in a parachute failure, making Reichelt the first wingsuit pilot to lose his life during a wingsuit jump.

One of the problems of Reichelt’s design – among others – was the use of normal fabric which did not create enough air resistance to fly. Modern wingsuits have long overcome this problem by using specialized fabrics. If you want to learn more about this, make sure to read my article about the different designs and materials of wingsuits.

Clements Joseph Sohn Resembled the Batman

Clements Joseph Sohn, also known as “Batman” due to his wingsuit’s resemblance to bat wings, was a pioneering skydiver who perfected the art of gliding through the air with his homemade wingsuit.

Born on December 7, 1910, in Fowler, Michigan, Sohn made significant contributions to the development of wingsuit flying. He crafted a unique technique for tracking through the skies, using Zephyr fabric fixed on steel tubes to form his wings, while each arm was wrapped in a wide web fastened to his hips.

Unfortunately, Sohn died during a show jump in April 1937 in France with a crowd of 100,000 people watching him. During this jump, his reserve parachute failed to open and Sohn fell to his death. Back in the day, parachute problems happened more frequently and claimed the lives of many pioneers.

If you want to learn, how likely a double parachute failure is today, feel free to read my blog post about the likelihood of a double parachute failure.

John Carter Was the Birdman Who Inspired Countless Others

John or Giovanni Carta, also known as the “Birdman,” was a pioneering figure in wingsuit flying and base jumping. His daring stunts, including parachuting onto the World Trade Center and jumping from bridges, captivated audiences worldwide.

Carta’s primary contribution was his fascinating wingsuit stunts, inspiring many to develop this thrilling sport. Sadly, his life was cut short in 1990 when an aircraft he was in crashed during an aerobatics display. Despite his untimely death, Carta’s legacy lives on as he continues to inspire the spirit of adventure and exploration in the world of extreme sports.

John Carta was also an honored veteran of the Vietnam War, who received the War Cross for Military Valor. However, he did not receive his medal for wingsuit missions as wingsuit missions were not common in the Vietnam War. If you want to know, whether wingsuits play a role in modern warfare, make sure to read my blog post which demystifies the use of wingsuits for military missions.

Patrick de Gayardon Laid the Foundation For the First Commercial Wingsuit

Renowned for his pioneering work, Gayardon made significant contributions to the development of wingsuits. He played a key role in creating the ram-air wingsuit, a revolutionary design that allowed jumpers to experience controlled horizontal flight during freefall. This breakthrough opened up a realm of possibilities in wingsuits.

Beyond wingsuits, Patrick was instrumental in introducing skysurfing, a novel sport that involves performing aerobatic maneuvers while using snowboard-like devices during skydives.

Tragically, Patrick’s life was cut short on April 13, 1998, during a jump in Hawaii. While testing a modification to his parachute container while wearing the wingsuit, a rigging error led to his unfortunate demise.

Patrick is a great example of why people love to go skydiving and wingsuit flying. It allows to freestyle and to invent many subdisciplines such as skysurfing. If you want to learn more about skydiving as a hobby, read my article about the reasons why you should pick up skydiving as a hobby.

Pioneers Who Shaped The History Of Wingsuit Flying
Overview of the Most Important Pioneers in Wingsuit Flying

Jari Kuosma Invented the First Commerical Wingsuit

Jari Kuosma invented the first commercial wingsuit in 1999, making him the father of wingsuit flying as a sport. He also founded BIRDMAN and kick-started the commercial era of wingsuits, which allowed for safe wingsuit jumps.

Kuosma’s journey to this incredible invention began with a dream to make wingsuit flying safe. He studied the abovementioned pioneers and their stories, wanting to avoid the dangers many people faced while testing their homemade wingsuits. Up until Kuosma’s initiative, skydivers would create their own wingsuits, often leading to malfunctioning suits.

With the help of friends, Kuosma successfully developed a safe and easy-to-use wingsuit. His first test flight in 1999 was a huge success, inspiring him to start a wingsuit manufacturing business.

Jari’s wingsuits soon became popular worldwide, and he created the first wingsuit training program for skydivers and instructors. Through his dedication and creativity, wingsuit flying became a thrilling sport for thousands of skydivers. If you want to learn more about his incredible story, feel free to read my post about the incredible invention story of wingsuits.

Glenn Singleman Brings Wingsuit to Public Media Attention

Glenn Singleman, born on October 12, 1958, in Australia, is a physician, professional wingsuit pilot, and BASE jumper. He is considered one of the pioneers of wingsuits due to setting different world records and creating documentaries about wingsuit flying and base jumping.

For example, his movie “BASEclimb” captured the record-breaking BASE jump from Pakistan’s Great Trango Towers, earning 21 international awards. Glenn’s adventurous spirit and contributions to the world of wingsuits have left an indelible mark on the skydiving community.

One of Glenn’s most incredible jumps includes an unofficial world record for the highest wingsuit jump at 37,650 feet, which he accomplished by leaping from a hot air balloon over the Australian outback. If you want to get to know more incredible jumps, make sure to check out my post about the most mind-blowing wingsuit stunts ever performed.

Dean Potter Combined Wingsuit Flying With Rock Climbing

Dean Spaulding Potter, born on April 14, 1972, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was a remarkable rock climber and wingsuit pioneer. Dean introduced the concept of “freebasing,” a combination of free solo climbing without ropes and a BASE parachute rig. This innovation allowed climbers to convert a potential fall into a BASE jump, providing a chance for survival.

The new concept also allows people to perform BASE and wingsuit jumps from new exit points that are only accessible through rock climbing. Through this, many new exit spots were discovered, widening the range of potential wingsuit locations.

Dean’s climbing feats, itself, were awe-inspiring, with numerous solo ascents and new routes in Yosemite and Patagonia. Tragically, Dean passed away on May 16, 2015, in a wingsuit crash in Yosemite National Park, which is considered one of the most amazing wingsuit spots worldwide.

Gary Connery Was the First Wingsuit Pilot to Land Without a Parachute

Gary Connery, born on June 18, 1969, in Hertford, United Kingdom, is a remarkable wingsuit pilot, BASE jumper, and professional stuntman. He made history by achieving the world’s first parachute-free landing from a wingsuit jump. Gary jumped from a helicopter at 2400 feet and safely landed without using a parachute, wearing only a wingsuit.

In case you wondered, Gary did not land in water but in a special net that absorbed his impact. If you are curious whether water landings are possible, check out my post “can you land a wingsuit on water”.

Uli Emanuele Performed the Most Daring Wingsuit Stunt

Uli Emanuele, renowned for his extreme wingsuit stunt and proximity flight in 2015, flew straight through a narrow rock formation in the Swiss Alps known as the “needle’s eye.” He trained for three years to perfect his approach and executed the insane flyby successfully.

Uli’s daring feat brought him immense fame, with his video receiving over 7 million views. Tragically, Uli passed away a year later, at the age of 30, during another wingsuit BASE jump in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley. The skydiving world was deeply saddened by the loss of this well-respected and talented wingsuit pilot, who filmed his own death during a Facebook live video.

As you can read, many of the wingsuit pioneers died while pushing the boundaries of the sport. This can leave the impression that the sport is extremely dangerous. If you want to learn the truth about wingsuit safety, feel free to read my article about the surprising risks of wingsuit flying and the life expectancy of wingsuit pilots.

Due to these incredible pioneers, wingsuit flying has emerged as a spectacular sport. So the next time you put your wingsuit on, enjoy your free fall in memory of the pioneers!

Kai Schmidt

Hi, I'm Kai. The first time I jumped out of an airplane and experienced free fall was one of the most amazing moments of my life. For me, skydiving does not only stand for freedom and independence but being present in the moment and being respectful to others and oneself. Now I want to share what I’ve learned with you.

Recent Posts

The image shows the most important pioneers, who shaped the history of wingsuit flying.