Not winging it

by • October 17, 2016 • Feature, Feature Photos, HighlightsComments (0)310

Alaska Wingsuit Project explores nature’s outermost boundaries

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A wingsuit flyer soars over the landscape in California. Pryce Brown, an engineer and surveyor by profession and wingsuit devotee, started the Alaska Wingsuit Project to seek out BASE jumping opportunities in Alaska.

Pryce Brown has always been into adventure. Growing up in Cordova, the mountains surrounded him – and naturally drew him in. Early on, he took to skiing and exploring the wilderness – but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he realized just how dedicated he would become to seeing what is out there – in the wild Alaska that most of us only see from the window of an Alaska Airlines flight departing the state.
Brown’s adventures have resulted in The Alaska Wingsuit Project. He started the project this year, with a mission to open up wingsuit BASE jumps in Alaska. BASE stands for for the structures that are considered options from which to jump – buildings, antennae, spans and earth. Brown’s quest for the perfect BASE jump is being documented on the Wingsuit Project, and he’s hoping it will bring awareness of wingsuit BASE jumping in its purest forms.
“It’s been fairly uncommon in Alaska as far as wingsuit BASE jumping, and it’s been pretty isolated up in Alaska, too,” Brown said. “But it’s big in Europe and it’s growing much more now than it was just 10 years ago.”
For the uninitiated, wingsuits are one of the most advanced forms of gliding through the air. The suits, which look like oversized jumpsuits, add surface area to the body and fill with air pockets that create a glider-like structure – once you’ve jumped off a cliff or building or other structure that can help the suits fill with air.
It sounds like a treacherous and crazy idea at first– and thanks to a plethora of YouTube videos showing amateurs trying stupid Spider-Man-like stunts, it indeed can be crazy. These same Spider-man wannabes seek millions of online hits and their antics can backfire. Those are the people who don’t last long in this sport. Read the obituaries and you will see the rise in wingsuit-related deaths have not been due to any inherent danger in the sport, rather to the overwhelming ignorance of those who think it’s a simple parachute jump.
The Browns of the sport are trying to set the record straight. Quite the contrary, wingsuit BASE jumps are achieved after years of training, education, preparation and understanding of science. Successful flyers must first master skydiving, then wingsuit skydiving, then BASE jumping and finally wingsuit BASE jumping. It’s a tedious process that cannot be mastered by skipping steps.
“What we’re doing out there is a higher echelon of the sport,” he said. “It’s not something you can walk off the street and do.”

Alaska Wingsuit Project

Pryce Brown helping someone with their suit before jumping.

It’s taken Brown years to reach this level of the sport, and he said he is still learning every day. Understanding flying – whether it’s skydiving, paragliding or wearing a wingsuit – requires patience, an understanding of science and math, and lots and lots of practice.
“I started out in canopy sports, which is the umbrella term that covers all BASE jumping, from paragliding to jumpsuits,” he said. “Four years ago, I got into paragliding and speed flying. I ended up doing that for a couple of years and through that discovered skydiving and BASE jumping.”
For starters, he said, you have to start in a safe environment – and no jumping sport is considered more reliable than skydiving.
“Do a lot of skydiving and learn all the skills there,” he said. “Once you are a really experienced skydiver, then you can put on a wingsuit. Wingsuit skydiving has been done in Alaska before, probably for the last 10 years, but BASE jumping in a wingsuit … that’s what we’re trying to develop.”
The Alaska Wingsuit Project aims to find and promote the best BASE jumping opportunities in the state, and that requires a knowledge of the geology, cliff-face angles, wind patterns and other natural barriers that might or might not make a great location.
“I do try to convey that when we talk about the project,” Brown said. “We do get frequently lumped in as adrenaline junkies, but this is our science and our passion. The science that goes into it matters.”
What also matters, Brown said, is the experience. For him, it has never been about the adrenaline rush, although he admits that the first few seconds after a BASE jump – before the air foils of his wingsuit have filled and he’s rapidly falling – take his breath away.
Instead, it’s the places that the wingsuit takes Brown – often unreachable any other way – that appeal to him. Unlike paragliding, which is slower and more methodical, in a wingsuit, it is pure silence as you glide over the terrain.
“Really, it’s about the experience,” he said. “You make small, incremental moves – every single move has an effect on your flight. … When I was a kid, I was obsessed with flying; I always dreamed of flying and it was something that didn’t manifest with me then on how I could make it possible.”
A more traditional route – say, learning to become an airplane pilot, would have been one option, Brown said, but his more curious nature led to free flying first – although he currently is in training for his pilot’s license as well.
“I come from a skiing background, and that’s where a lot of my community is,” he said. “I think it just progressed from those adventures.”
At the end of the day, though, wingsuit jumping is about exploration, and Brown said he never wants to stop exploring.
“A big goal with this project is to kind of take some focus away from the extreme YouTube craziness of smashing through trees and crashing through walls,” he said. “We are pushing the edge of what is possible in the wingsuit — on a more of an exploration side. There’s a lot more that goes into these jumps than people realize.”
To learn more about wingsuit BASE jumping, visit the Alaska Wingsuit Project Facebook page or www.topgunbase.ws, a website that offers a tutorial on wingsuit jumping and what it takes to succeed. And, of course, if you see wingsuit jumping in your future, start first with skydiving – the best place is uspa.org. If, after, jumping from an airplane, you are still hooked, then wingsuit jumping might just be for you.

— Melissa DeVaughn

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