All in all, though, dangerous spins are a rarity among skyfliers. A bigger concern, Kuosma says, is the tendency to focus too much on the fun and not enough on the ground. "Sometimes people are flying too low before they open their parachute," he says. "It's such an amazing feeling that you think you can take it all the way down."
And why not? As twilight and the last of the day's parachutes descend on DeLand, Kuosma, now on his second pint, grins around the table at the other skydivers. "Maybe we have to add a little engine to the back for thrust," he says. "And we definitely need to improve the overall profile of the flier. But the ultimate goal is to fly to the ground and land without the parachute."
Kuosma's scheme inspires enthusiastic nods among the other skydivers, but not everyone is so supportive. "They're deluding themselves," says MIT Professor of Aeronautics R. John Hansman. The problem, he says, is a number called wing loading, the ratio of an airplane's weight to its wing surface area. A light sailplane has a wing loading of about six pounds per square foot of wing, which allows it to land at very slow speeds. A fighter jet, with a wing loading of 100 pounds per square foot, requires landing speeds of 120 to 150 miles per hour. Since our own strength limits how big our wings can be, human beings, with our dense bones and muscles, will always have a wing loading in the fighter plane range, and we'll have to land at similar speeds. "The problem isn't the landing," quips Hansman. "It's the landing gear. Our legs won't run fast enough."
Kuosma, though, does not blench at the arguments of skeptics. "All our inventing so far has been a back-of-the-envelope thing, just two guys with a tiny budget," he says, conveying the implicit "and look at what we've done!" through his grin. He and Pecnik dream of corporate sponsorship—"a few million dollars and the right precision measuring technologies to see where we can improve the suit."
As for the landing gear problem, well, Kuosma has thought about that too. "We'll have to land in foam, maybe, to absorb that speed," he says. "Or on a ski slope like a ski jumper." Blind hubris? Maybe. But it would be his own hamster body that Kuosma would be putting at risk. And can you blame him for trying to be the first to take the ancient dream of flight all the way to a safe landing? n
William Speed Weed jumped from an airplane for the first time while reporting this story. He writes regularly for National Geographic Adventure and The New York Times Magazine.single page