Float on

Wingsuiting, a slow-motion variation on skydiving, is taking off with thrill-seekers

A flock of wingsuiters (above) led by Jeff Nebelkopf journey back to earth after leaping out of a plane in Pepperell (below, right).

A flock of wingsuiters (above) led by Jeff Nebelkopf journey back to earth after leaping out of a plane in Pepperell (below, right). (scotty burns/sky2productions.com (above); wiqan ang for the boston globe)

PEPPERELL – Excitement was building among the 31 wingsuiters waiting to board an airplane on the grass landing strip. Jumpers in bright red, orange, purple, and blue nylon suits milled about and strapped on their parachutes. Once in the air, they would jump out of the plane and float with their arms and legs outstretched for much longer than the typical skydiver does. At the last possible moment, each wingsuiter would release a parachute and descend to a field.

Wingsuiting, a younger cousin of skydiving, is the closest a person can get to feeling like a superhero, flying through the sky while covering miles of land. The sensation it provides has been described as everything from an intense state of calm to the ultimate rush. On this day in August the group practiced for a competition that will be held in November in Elsinore, Calif., in which participants hope to set a world record by having 71 people fly in formation.

Wingsuits are aerodynamically designed jumpsuits that allow the human body to become part of an airfoil that creates a lift. The peculiar-looking birdlike suits, with fabric wings under each arm and between the legs, are made from various types of nylon. When the arm wings and leg wings hit the air and inflate, they form a stable structure providing an extraordinary amount of control. The sport has grown in popularity over the past decade with the advent of safer, higher-performance suits.

“We fly in very tight formations together, only inches apart,” said Justin Shorb, the 27-year-old founder of Flock University, a wingsuit school he opened in here in 2006. “We can dock and hold hands, pass a baton, and fly within inches of a cloud and never touch it.”

Skydivers fall at a rate of 120 miles per hour, Shorb said, which means that if a parachute opens at 3,000 feet, a jumper will get 50 to 60 seconds of free-fall before pulling the ripcord. A jumper wearing a wingsuit can cut about 100 mph off the descent rate and float for more than 3 minutes. Shorb’s personal best, he said, is 3 minutes and 24 seconds – enough time for him to float for 7 horizontal miles before he had to open his parachute.

The zeal for the sport is palpable in the Pepperell parking lot. By 8 a.m. several families with children had already arrived. Five of them had spent the night camped out in tents to avoid a long drive, and were frying bacon and eggs on their Sterno stoves. Tricycles and skateboards were strewn about, only a few hundred feet from the “drop zone” where their parents would soon land. (In order to wingsuit, a jumper must be over 18 years old and have logged 200 skydives.)

Jeff Donohue, 37, took up skydiving to get out of a personal rut. Working long hours at a large Boston law firm, Donohue said, he was paid well but felt as though his life were ticking by without much to show for it other than an accumulation of material stuff and a resume. “At that point, I went through what I like to think of as an early midlife crisis,” Donohue said. “I left the firm to work for a biotech in Cambridge, got into a daily exercise regimen, and lost 30 pounds in the process, and actively sought out inspiration.” A friend mentioned skydiving. What Donohue encountered, he said, was utter sensory overload. He was hooked.

“I suppose it was the sort of endorphin, serotonin, and norepinephrine neurotransmitter soup that it stirred up,” Donohue said. After 200 jumps he decided to stick to wingsuiting. “The intensity of my focus and concentration when I’m wingsuiting is incredible. It’s almost like meditating, although most people don’t meditate 5,000 feet above the ground.”

Darin Ninness, 41, a skydiving coach who is an information technology director for New England College in Henniker, N.H., said he is attracted to wingsuiting as much for the technical aspects as the thrill, which for him doesn’t surpass that of skydiving. “You have to nearly retrain yourself in terms of what you have to do to fly in a wingsuit versus as a normal skydiver,” said Ninness, who drives a Ford Focus with the license plate JUMPAH. “How you recover from a poor exit is entirely different, for example, and horizontal ground coverage and extending free-fall time is nearly solely based on body position.”

The sport has become so popular that Shorb’s roster went from three people in 2006 to about 25 in Massachusetts this year. He now has franchises in Utah, Seattle, and Florida, and there are a handful of other wingsuit schools across the country. Shorb estimates that there are 200 to 300 avid wingsuiters in the world today.

“There have been thousands of people to try them and fly them, and lots of people out there own a wingsuit, but for the most part it’s still a small dedicated circle,” Shorb said.

Before founding Flock University, Shorb was a professional snowboarder who owned a snowboard shop in Salem, N.H. In 2005 he had a skydiving accident that broke his leg and pelvis. When he returned to jumping in 2006, Shorb said, he felt it was time to try a more “docile” form of flying. So he start wingsuiting.

An initial class at Flock University costs $86, which includes the suit rental and two airplane seats – one for the student and one for an instructor who jumps with the student, takes video and photos, and meets for a post-jump analysis. Students who do well are cleared for solo wingsuit status and can jump for $25 a pop, the same price as any other skydive. An average wingsuit runs $1,200 to $1,300.

More men than women sign up for wingsuiting – by a ratio of 10 to 1, Shorb says. But there were a few women on the Pepperell jump. Ariel McManus, 29, of Meriden, Conn., earned her skydiving license in 2006 and started wingsuiting last year. (Ironically she works in the claims department of an insurance company.) She has completed 720 jumps, 50 of them in a wingsuit. “It’s . . . a nervy adrenaline rush,” she says.

As more people take up wingsuiting, the suits themselves continue to improve. Three years ago, Jeff Nebelkopf of Williamstown, N.J., felt he could create a better suit than what was available and submitted his proposal to Tony Suits, a manufacturer of traditional skydiving jumpsuits. Now Nebelkopf is the main designer for Tony Suits, a popular brand that Shorb endorses.

The design of which he’s proudest is the $650 student suit called the Intro, which he says has made wingsuit flying safer and has drawn new people to the sport. The highest performance suit Nebelkopf designs is a $1,700 model called the XS.

Which makes you wonder: If you’re going to jump out of a plane at 5,000 feet, wouldn’t you want the highest performance suit available? Nebelkopf says no.

“I kind of equate it to a sports car,” Nebelkopf said. “A sports car handles and brakes better than a normal car, but you wouldn’t want to put your teenager in it, because they’d go too fast.”

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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