Valentin's fate was hardly an anomaly. From 1930 to the early 1960s, out of 75 actively experimenting birdmen, 72 were killed in the pursuit. The problem was, the technology of the time wasn't a whole lot better than Daedalus's wax and feathers. Before the invention of strong synthetic materials, fabric wings had to be reinforced by wood or metal stays, which tended to cause one of two exigencies: Either the wings would fly too well, overpowering the birdman and dumping him into a terminal spin, or his parachute cords would get tangled in the stays and not deploy properly.
It wasn't until the mid-1990s that a truly modern wing suit emerged, and it was Patrick de Gayardon who wore it. De Gayardon's wings, made of a double layer of parachute material, required no wood or metal stays. Instead, air inflated the wings and held them rigid as he flew. For years, skydivers stood in awe. "He was a daredevil," says Norman Kent, a professional skydiving photographer and an old friend of de Gayardon. Kent recalls the gasps of onlookers when de Gayardon flew into the Grand Canyon or past the glaciers in Chamonix, France. "It was just like watching this wacko do something no one else could do," Kent recalls. To the skydiving world, de Gayardon became the birdman, the only mortal the gods permitted to fly.
Then, in April 1998, while testing an upgraded suit on a jump over Hawaii, de Gayardon's parachute cords got snarled, sending him plummeting at 120 mph to his death.
Standing atop the Arco cliff just four months later, Kuosma and Pecnik knew about all this—de Gayardon's recent death, the sport's 96 percent fatality rate. Nevertheless, they resolved in that moment not only to design their own wing suits but to do something even crazier: to build a business around selling them to other skydivers.
Then they leapt off the cliff.
As DeRego rushes off to tell her friends about her flight, Kuosma strips off his flamingo suit, repacks his parachute for another day, and heads to the drop zone bar for a pint of Australian lager. He's wearing neon orange pants and a blue T-shirt with a Superman insignia on it, except the S has been replaced by an icon of a BirdMan skyflier. Kuosma sports rakishly tousled hair and a mischievous grin; he looks like Loki, the Norse god of trickery, posing as Clark Kent.
Beer in hand, Kuosma sits at an outdoor table among a small group of skydiving acolytes and recounts the tale of how he and Pecnik managed to design wings that would not only work but be safe enough for the masses. They started by trying to get technical specs from de Gayardon's estate but were rebuffed. "We had to reinvent it," Kuosma says.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.