Waiting on the ground for the Twin Otter that'll take them up, Blossom DeRego and Jari Kuosma look like a pair of avant-garde performance artists posing as flamingos, with bizarre flaps of scarlet flowing from their armpits and between their legs. The other skydivers, milling about in skintight ninja suits, look like superheroes. Once aloft at 13,500 feet, though, they all pour from the plane's side door, and suddenly there's no doubt who the superheroes are. DeRego and Kuosma's scarlet flaps transform into wings, and the dynamic duo swerve and swoop through the sky like they're heading for the Hall of Justice.
Poor ninjas. They just drop like cannonballs.
DeRego, a personal trainer from Hawaii, recently moved to DeLand, Florida, to live in the skydiving capital of the world. With 593 jumps, she's a veteran cannonballer. But this, her first flight in a BirdMan suit, is something entirely new. The moment she's out the door, she feels as if she's flying two miles above Earth. She is flying—her body alone, unaided by plane or glider. She zings from cloud top to cloud top, screaming with glee. The suit's three wings (the flaps under each arm and between the legs) increase her body's surface area by 100 percent, cut her fall's terminal velocity by two-thirds, and propel her forward to whoosh about the sky. Kuosma, for his part, holds down the other end of the experience spectrum. He and his Croatian partner, Robert Pecnik, invented these wing suits. Kuosma's
terminal velocity in the suit is a mere 35 mph—as opposed to 120 mph for a ninja-suit jumper—and with his 80 mph horizontal top speed, he can almost outpace the Twin Otter.
Kuosma and DeRego cannot gain or maintain altitude, so, technically, they aren't flying. But because even beginners can swoop two miles horizontally for every mile they drop, it sure feels like flight. After the jump, DeRego's eyes look as if they're on fire. "Wow!" she says, and then, clearly at a loss, she just repeats herself—"Wow … Wow!"—over and over. Finally, she breaks into a huge smile and speaks words that humans have dreamed of speaking at least since Daedalus built wings of feather and wax: "I was flying!" she says.
In August 1998, just days after meeting for the first time,
Jari Kuosma and Robert Pecnik drove from Slovenia to Arco, Italy, to leap off a 3,000-foot cliff. For Kuosma, this was not an entirely novel activity. He'd begun throwing himself from tall earthbound structures—BASE jumping (the acronym stands for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth)—the previous year, and had maybe a dozen jumps to his credit. In Pecnik, he had instantly sensed a kindred spirit. As a boy Pecnik had strapped homemade parachutes to hamsters and tossed them (without harm) from his sixth-story bedroom window; by the time he joined the Croatian national team he was making his own jumpsuits. Somehow, though, he had yet to do any BASE jumping, a deficiency Kuosma decided to address immediately.