EVENT: Red Bull Aces - Wingsuit Slalom Racing at 8,000 Above the Ground
Streaking through an airborne slalom course above Northern California this weekend, Andy Farrington of the United States fought off a fierce challenge from an international field of 40 men and women from 18 countries to claim his second consecutive Red Bull Aces championship. The innovative event saw skydivers wearing wingsuits and racing through a slalom course of gates suspended thousands of feet in the air. Fellow American Noah Bahnson had a repeat second place in the championship that takes the concept of ski cross to the skies, while a newcomer to the Red Bull Aces podium, Matt Gerdes, completed the American sweep in third. More info at www.redbull.com/aces.
While skydiving is a sport that reached “household name” status long ago, wingsuit flying is a relatively recent addition to mainstream consciousness. Skydivers exit a plane or helicopter wearing special jumpsuits that shape the human body into an airfoil (or human wing), creating lift and, with it, “human flight.” These winguits allow their pilots to zoom forward at a three-toone ratio, meaning for every foot they fall, they advance forward three feet. And by manipulating their bodies – streamlining them to speed up, for example – their aerobatic agility is similar to that of other non-motorized aircraft.
Wingsuit racing isn’t new, but the Red Bull Aces format is definitely revolutionary. It is the world’s first-ever wingsuit 4-cross competition, with athletes racing four at a time through a one mile-long slalom course made of five 112-foot long gates suspended thousands of feet in the air. Athletes jump in heats of four from a civilian Bell Huey helicopter at an altitude of 8,000 feet above sea level, and must weave between five gates positioned at descending levels between 6,500 feet and 3,500 feet. All the gates are equipped with GPS positioning, and the competitors each wear a GPS transmitter to determine whether they pass through the gates properly. The winner is based not only on how quickly the finish line is crossed, but also on how many gates he/she correctly passes through. The athletes then pull their parachutes and descend under canopy back to the takeoff area.
One thing all the athletes agreed upon was that the format was definitely racing . The genial camaraderie seen during the practice jumps quickly disappeared once race day arrived, and just like in other forms of racing – especially motorsports – the athletes fought for position, sometimes even resulting in mid-air contact. While this contact was never serious, the competitive nature was apparent, with athletes holding and defending their lines around gates and putting blocks on their opponents. An added challenge was the fact that the gates – suspended by helicopters – were constantly shifting with wind and helicopter pilot control. So each run – while as similar as possible - has its own unique track, forcing the athletes to adjust on the fly.
The competition format saw competitors facing off in groups of four, with the top two athletes advancing – based on time and precision (correctly passing each gate). In the final four, the athletes had so perfected their techniques that the race was almost too close to call. Farrington and Bahnson were neck-and-neck through the gates, jockeying each other for position. Both pilots passed through all gates with perfect accuracy, so the winner was decided by fastest time though the course, with Farrington edging out Bahnson by less than four-tenths of a second.
Combining speed, precision and agility, Red Bull Aces was developed to determine the world’s best all-around wingsuit pilot in a competitive environment. The format has inspired new training methods for the athletes as well as visionary designs for the suits, which enable swift and agile flight thanks to their innovative construction. The event was first held in 2014, and returned this year to bring the best wingsuit athletes in the world to compete in Cloverdale, Ca.
“This is such a unique event, and a previous win doesn’t guarantee you anything against the talent here,” said Andy Farrington, who has logged 24,000 jumps in his 33 years. “I raced Noah [Bahnson] three times today, and if the slightest thing had changed, he could have been at the top of the podium in a heartbeat. We’re going up against the top caliber of competitors in the world and the field is only getting stronger.”
Final Ranking Top 8: Red Bull Aces 2015
1. Andy Farrington, USA
2. Noah Bahnson, USA
3. Matt Gerdes, USA
4. Scott Palmer, USA
5. Espen Fadnes, Norway
6. Petter Mazzetta, Sweden
7. Rex Pemberton, Australia
8. Scotty Bob, USA
More info at www.redbull.com/aces