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American wingsuit flyer dies in French Alps

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A wingsuit flyer about to take a jump. File photo: Hakon Thingstad/flickr
09:45 CEST+02:00
The dangers of the extreme sport of wingsuit flying were made apparent once again this weekend when an American died during a jump in the French Alps. He becomes the sixth person to lose his life in similar circumstances in the Alps since the start of summer.

It may not be long before local authorities in the French Alps are forced to consider reinstating a ban on wingsuit flying.

The extreme sport has now claimed the lives of six people this summer, with the latest being a 33-year-old American who died near the Alpine town of Chamonix on Saturday.

The American, who has not been named, jumped from a cliff near the summit of Brévent at a height of around 2,500 metres.

It was unclear how he came to his death and officers from the local gendarmerie’s high mountain unit have opened an investigation into what happened.

The extreme sport of wingsuit flying is described as a combination of hang gliding and sky-diving. 

Wingsuit flyers wear a jumpsuit that uses special fabric to increase the surface area of the body, which allows the jumper “to fly” as they launch themselves from either a "base jump" or an aircraft.

The suit allows the “flier” to freefall for much further than a skydiver, before they open a parachute. But the sport is considered more complicated and therefore more risky than straightforward skydiving.

Those risks are evident in the fact that six “flyers” have now lost their lives in the Alps since the start of the summer, including the British stunt man Mark Sutton, who performed the memorable James Bond stunt at the opening ceremony at the London Olympics.

Sutton died when he hit a ridge near the town of Martigny, Switzerland, close to the border with France in August.

Last year the mayor of Chamonix took the drastic step of banning wingsuit jumps from areas accessible by ski lifts after the death of a Norwegian jumper, who died when his parachute failed to open.

"For us, adventure doesn't mean extreme risk," said Chamonix mayor Eric Fournier at the time.

In a town known for its extreme sports, the ban caused controversy until it was lifted in July this year, under certain conditions.

Jumps from the Brévent cliff and Aiguille de Midi are now permitted again, from June 1st until September 30th, but not between 10am and 3pm. A board listing the rules for base jumping has also been placed at jump sites. They also have to let authorities know of the intention to jump and starting point, which the American victim is known to have done.

Erich Beaud, who was the first man to perform a base jump off a cliff in France in 1989 has spoken of how the new wingsuits can be dangerous for inexperienced jumpers.

“Today the suits are huge and increasingly high-performance. This can mean Formula 1 kind of speeds for people who don’t always have the capacity to control them,” Beaud said.

The former jumper also blamed the emergence of mini-video cameras that thrill seekers and extreme sports enthusiasts attach to their helmets or equipment.

“Some people are confusing video games with reality. You don’t get a second chance in a wingsuit,” he underlined.

But others who know the sport well say the wingsuits themselves are not the dangerous factor.

"It is not the wingsuit that is dangerous but base jumping," Yann Cavé trainee teacher at Savoie Voglans skydiving school told Le Dauphiné Liberé.  He notes that it is much safer to jump from an aircraft than from a cliff and so the the two disciplines should not be confused.  

Other professionals denounce the irresponsibility of some jumpers, who are to eager for the thrills and not prepared to learn the skills.

“You need to pass through the levels step by step before moving on," wingsuit teacher Stéphane Zunino the Alps told French rado Europe1. 

"Often people take short cuts because things are not going fast enough for them. They want to go straight to higher places where the flying is better.

 “We have many people contacting us, without ever having done a skydive from a plane. They think you can just go in a wingsuit like you would go canoeing in a river on a summer holiday.

Judge for yourselves. Does this sport need stricter regualtions? This video below shows a base jump with a wingsuit from the Brévent starting point.

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