Dawn of a new extreme sport: The world's first electric wingsuit
Wingsuit flying certainly captured folks' attention when it first hit the mainstream around the turn of the millennium, sparking a wave of GoPro and Red Bull videos. Human flight had never been so personal or so physical as these intrepid maniacs half-fell, half glided through rocky gaps and mountain passes like turbocharged flying squirrels.
The name of the game quickly became to see how close you could fly to things without hitting them, in search of the ultimate rush and the biggest view counts. But these devices were limited in that your only source of acceleration was gravity itself, and your flight profile could only ever take you downward.
No longer. Stuntman Peter Salzmann had been thinking for years about how to add some sustainable propulsion and climbing ability to the wingsuit experience, and he hooked up with creative consultants at BMW's Designworks studio to create a chest-mounted set of electric impellers and a wingsuit that would work with them.
At first, he wanted to mount the props in a backpack arrangement, in longer tubes capable of generating more thrust. But the most advantageous airflow would be in front of him, and he found the initial design too heavy. So a chest mounted system it was, with two 5-inch (13-cm), 25,000 rpm impellers in a relatively compact but still pretty chunky unit that has a bit of a submarine kind of look to it.
The wingsuit was designed to incorporate air inlets for the propulsion system. There's an on/off switch, a two-finger throttle and a kind of steering facility, as well as a cutoff switch for emergencies. Otherwise, she's even more of a physical thing to fly than a regular wingsuit; you need plenty of core and limb strength to fight the wind and control your motion in the air.
The props put out a relatively modest combined 15 kW (20 hp) for around five minutes, but the results are pretty epic; a regular wingsuit's most horizontal glide ratio drops around a meter for every three meters traveled horizontally, and speed tops out around 100 km/h (62 mph), but when Salzmann hits the electric boost, he can hit speeds over 300 km/h (186 mph), and actually gain altitude to fly upwards instead of constantly dropping.
After wind tunnel testing, both in BMW's more auto-focused facilities and in a specialized wingsuiting wind tunnel in Stockholm, and around 30 test jumps, it was time for a public demonstration. The initial plan was to demonstrate the suit's climbing capability by taking it to Busan, Korea, and flying over a group of three skyscrapers, in which the final one was much higher than the first two.
COVID-19 put paid to that aspiration, so Salzmann settled for something prettier and closer to home, lining up the Del Brüder peaks in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, part of the Austrian alps. Salzmann and a pair of buddies kitted out with regular wingsuits went up to 10,000 feet (3,050 m) in a chopper, counted down, and jumped.
The others are there to act as a reference point, and the three hold formation until Salzmann hits the juice and blasts forward. Where his friends have to split off and fly around the final mountain peak, the electric wingsuit allows him to accelerate up and over it.
It's not going to blow Yves Rossy's skirt up; the Swiss "Jetman" has four incredibly powerful jet turbine engines on his extraordinary full carbon jetwing design, which allow him to blast off vertically from the ground with computer-controlled stabilization, and shoot vertically upwards like a rocket as well as swooping and soaring like a 400-km/h (250-mph) eagle.
But jet turbines are insanely expensive, and so noisy that they rattle windowpanes from miles away. The average wingsuit pilot's chances of ever flying one are very limited. Salzmann's design, on the other hand, looks much more promising. The electric wingsuit has had the full BMW design touch applied to it; it looks very nicely put together, and, dare we say, much more like a product than a prototype.
Nobody's saying anything about these things being for sale yet, either now or into the future, but a small electric propulsion unit is not going to cost jet turbine money, and it's hard to imagine an adrenaline-fueled wingsuit pilot in the world that wouldn't be interested in getting that little bit closer to the Icarus dream of soaring through the sky, rising and gliding at will.
Indeed, the main issue may turn out to be whether a company like BMW wants its logo on a product that potentially makes its owners go splat. It's one thing to be making promo videos for world-first innovations like this, and another altogether to release these tools into the hands of extreme sportsfolk where the difference between successful and unsuccessful flights can be so gruesome. Things have come a long way since the first "wing suit" flight – a brief and messily fatal leap off the Eiffel tower by Franz Reichelt in 1912 – but wingsuity types don't seem to be able to get their pulses racing without cutting things really fine.
Still, I think we can all rest assured that we'll see more of Salzmann and this device as things develop, and that consumer-grade electric wingsuits will soon be a thing, and that this public debut is a significant moment in personal flight and extreme sports. Enjoy the video below.
Source: BMW/Peter Salzmann