The Phoenix-Fly and TonySuit wingsuits used by all the competitors in the World Wingsuit League Tianmen Mountain Grand Prix were designed and built by three men who also helped create the modern wingsuit era – Croatian Robert Pecnik, American Jeff Nebelkopf and Englishman Tony Uragallo.
When in the mid-1990s Patrick “Deug” de Gayardon designed his revolutionary new wingsuit with ram-air-inflated arm and leg wings that actually generated lift like an airplane wing, he went to Tony to put on the finishing touches. Tony also built wingsuits for Deug’s fellow wingsuit pioneer, Adrian Nicholas, before there were any commercial wingsuit manufacturers.
Unfortunately, Deug died on a wingsuit jump in April 1998. Three months Robert found himself standing at the edge of an Italian cliff with Finnish jumper Jari Kuosma – knowing that Deug had made a 27-second flight from that cliff the year before “while we were talking about a maximum of 11 seconds or something like that,” Kuosma recounted years later. “So basically, right there on that cliff, we decided to make wingsuits so we could fly more.”
The result was Bird-man International, the world’s first company to make wingsuits that could be safely flown by parachutists of wide experience and skill levels. Jari was its executive, and Robert its chief wingsuit designer and manufacturer. By the turn of the century, their suits had spread throughout the parachuting world, sparked the creation of several competing manufacturers – and forever changed human flight.
Robert and Jari parted ways in 2004, when Robert founded Phoenix-Fly to build the next generation of wingsuits exactly the way he wanted. Two years later, longtime jumpsuit
manufacturer Tony Uragallo and Artist Jeff Nebelkopf founded TonySuit Wingsuits. Since then, these two companies have dominated wingsuit design, development and sales throughout the world.
Their products were on bold display at the Tianmen Mountain Grand Prix, with 10 of the 16 competitors flying various Tony suits, the rest piloting Phoenix-Fly models, all of which had names as exotic at their designs: Apache, Vampire, Venom, Rebel, and “X,” among others. Tony Suit Apaches dominated the final standings too, though second-place finisher Espen Fadnes piloted a Phoenix-Fly Vampire.
The reasons behind that dominance lie ultimately with the skill and spirit of the competitors, but the design philosophies of the two manufacturers came into play as well.
“Both suits are very well-made and both reflect the personality of Tonysuits ” and me,” Robert explains. “My focus in flying is agility and speed, and this always going to be my primary focus, as I like terrain flying way more than long distance flying, so I want a suit that can turn faster, easier, nicer, and go faster. Tonysuit is more focused on distance and time and, as a consequence, his suits tend to be bigger than mine.”
Competitor Jon Devore, who brought both a TonySuit Rebel and a PF Vampire 4 to the race, concurs.
“I like the V4,” he says. “It’s like an F-16 – you can turn very aggressively in it. The Rebel might be faster though.”
As for Jeff and Tony, they have a similar take to both Robert and Jon.
“Robert’s suits are a hard-core dive-for-speed arrangement,” they said, “whereas we set up ours to have range. Fly flat for distance, move your arms a bit back and go steep and fast. We just want to fly with a larger range. This is safer”
There are other design philosophy differences, too. Robert invented and placed wing cutaway handles on the original Bird-man suits and installs them on all of his suits to this day because he believes a “last resort” safety option is important for jumpers to have, regardless of skill level. The Grand Prix racers are all top-level professionals who make wingsuiting look easy, but sometimes the parachute opening after the flight doesn’t go as planned, and being able to instantly free your hands and arms from the suit could mean the difference between life and death.
“They may never need them,” he says, “but if they ever do, they are there.”
Jeff took a different approach and invented the Escape Sleeve. “Just allow the jumper to access their parachute with out any steps between. This innovation has saved countless lives already including my own. The suit was also designed to be easy to fly. Most wing suits before this time took a lot of strength to get to maximum performance. This left you dangerously fatigued after a few jumps. Allowing the jumper to preserve their strength makes for a more controlled flight and the ability to do more jumps before fatigue sets in.”
Robert diverges from Jeff and Tony’s thinking on this point; while their suits require far less “muscle” to fly than earlier wingsuits, he says “I do not like to be inside of a mattress. For fine control, a flyer needs to be in touch with the suit.”
Which brings us to why Jeff and Tony’s suits dominated the Tianeman Mountain Grand Prix. Part of it, of course, was a numbers game; almost twice as many competitors wore TonySuits, but the course design itself played a major role in the final standings as well because of the way it played against the design differences of the two suits.
“Our suits fly a lot flatter than Robert’s,” said Tony, who finished seventh in the standings, “and because the course was short, you had to drop your head down and you went really fast, which meant it you were almost better off with a Vampire because the course was so steep and that’s what they’re made for. (Second-place finisher) Espen said that if the distance had been farther, he would have lost his speed, but gained his glide. Still, when you put your head down on our suits, they’re very fast too, as Julian and James showed.”
“This years race was won by flying the shortest line, so it is hard to say which suit is actually faster.” said Jeff, who placed fifth in the standings. “I have always found the flying air mattress analogy amusing. It’s just a marketing thing when you compare your competitors wingsuit to something not fit for flying. A wingsuit is a wingsuit, they all fly.”
Wingsuit flying has progressed enormously during the 15 years of the modern era, with suits growing in size from small arm and leg wings to Jeff and Tony’s “flying mattresses” and Robert’s “F-16s” – and in performance from 1997 glide ratios in the 1.5:1 range to glide ratios in 2012 that approach 3.5:1 in sustained flight.
Where wingsuit flying, design and performance will be five years from now is unknown, of course, but when asked to speculate, Robert Jeff and Tony came up, as usual, with different
takes on the subject – though in opposite directions to the suits they build!
Robert went big: “Wingsuiters need to work together to establish acceptable competition formats that will be attractive to watch and participate in. We need competition, because
without competition, wingsuiting will remain a discipline for show, fun, and end-of-the-skydiving-day activity. Then, when the wingsuit community becomes bigger, it will be
easier to find our spot in the skydiving world.”
Tony took a smaller view: “The performance will keep creeping up a bit at a time, then I guess someone will do something rad and we’ll all copy it, then it will creep for a bit – but if I knew where it would be in five years, I’d do it now!”
Jeff has since moved on from Tonysuits and has created his own company, Human Flight Developments LLC. He is taking a totally different approach to designing his future wingsuits. “I did not look to past suits to design the next generation of wingsuits, in fact I removed all wingsuit pictures and wingsuits from my design studio as to not contaminate my vision. I listen to jumpers needs and tailor my wingsuits to fit that. The future of wingsuit design as I see it is very interesting. Not only will the suits fly farther and faster, they will be easier to fly as well as be way more accessible for new fliers. New disciplines within wingsuit flying will soon be created because jumpers will have more performance at their disposal. There is still room in wingsuit design for as much improvement that has happened since wingsuit flying started. As far as what a wingsuit will look like in five years, I have a clear vision, but everyone will have to wait 5 years to see.”