for National Geographic News
It sounds crazy, and it probably is: Skydive from 15,000 feet (4,600 meters) and land safely—without a parachute—wearing a getup that resembles a flying squirrel costume (wallpaper: flying squirrel).
"It's pretty much considered impossible," said Maria von Egidy, a designer with Jii-Wings in Cape Town, South Africa.
Von Egidy isn't interested in trying the stunt herself. But she aims to design the first wingsuit that will help pull it off.
Wingsuits are jumpsuits with fabric panels between the arms and legs that enable skydivers to zoom around in freefall.
By angling the self-inflating, rigid "wings," pilots can turn, dive, or rocket forward.
What wearers can't do—at least not yet—is land safely without the aid of a parachute.
"In terms of downward speed, we're actually within the margin of safety there for landing," von Egidy said. "But of course the forward speeds are tremendous."
And therein lies the catch.
If pushed from a high-flying plane, a naked human would fall to Earth at a terminal velocity—or maximum speed—of about 120 miles (190 kilometers) an hour.
A wingsuit doubles a person's surface area, slowing the descent rate to about 30 miles (50 kilometers) an hour, about the same as with a small parachute, von Egidy said.
The main problem with making a safe landing is that wingsuit pilots descend not only downward but also forward, propelled by the gliding action of their wings.
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