Jeb Corliss wants to fly—not the way the Wright brothers wanted to fly, but the way we do in our dreams. He wants to jump from a helicopter and land without using a parachute.

And his dream, strange as it sounds, is not unique. Around the globe, at least a half a dozen groups—in France, South Africa, New Zealand, Russia and the US—are chasing this same flight of fancy. Although nobody is waving a flag, it is a quest that has evoked the spirit of nations’ pursuits of Everest and the North and South Poles.

Flight of fancy: Corliss leaps from a plane

“All of this is technically possible," said Jean Potvin, a physics professor at St Louis University and skydiver who performs parachute research for the army. But he acknowledged a problem: “The thing I’m not sure of is your margins in terms of safety, or likelihood to crash."

Loic Jean-Albert of France, better known as Flying Dude in a popular YouTube video, put it more bluntly: “You might do it well one time and try another time and crash and die."

The landing, as one might expect, poses the biggest hurdle, and each group has a different approach. Most will speak in only the vaguest terms out of fear that someone will steal their plans.

Corliss will wear nothing more than a wing suit, an invention that, aeronautically speaking, is more flying squirrel than bird or plane.

He plans to land on a specially created runway of his own design. It will borrow from the principles of Nordic ski jumping and will cost upwards of $2 million (approx. Rs8 crore), which explains why he is being so much more vocal than the others about his quest.

Jean-Albert figures he could glide to a stop on a snowy mountainside. “The basic idea is getting parallel to the snow so we don’t have a vertical speed at all, there is no shock, and then slide," he said.

Then there is Maria von Egidy, a wing-suit maker from South Africa, who said she had begun creating a suit that would allow pilots to land on their feet on a horizontal surface.

“I think people will recognize this makes sense," said von Egidy, who has been pursuing financing for her suit. “Why didn’t someone think of this long ago? I’m hoping that will be the reaction."

That depends on whom you talk to—the endeavour is either quixotic or brave. Even Evel Knievel had the sense to pack a parachute when he climbed into his Skycycle X-2 to jump Snake River Canyon in 1974.

This spring, Corliss will attempt the first of three tests to prepare for his ultimate goal. Wearing his suit, he will jump from a plane, which will then execute a 270-degree turn into free fall. He will then fly down to the plane and re-enter it.

Wing suits are not new, but the suits’ practical use took hold in the early 1990s, when a modern version created by Patrick de Gayardon proved safer and led to rapid innovation.

Modern suit design features tightly woven nylon sewn between the legs and between the arms and torso, creating wings that fill with air and create lift, allowing for forward motion and aerial manoeuvres while slowing descent.

As the suits have become more sophisticated, so have the pilots. The best fliers, and there are not many, can trace the horizontal contours of cliffs, ridges and mountainsides.

Some wing-suit pilots have briefly slowed the vertical descent to 30 miles per hour (approx. 48kmph). But they are moving forward horizontally at 75 mph. Even if a pilot could achieve such speeds, Potvin said, any slight wrong movement could cause a crash and certain death.

“Is there some crazy person out there who might beat me because he’s willing to do something more dangerous than me?" Corliss said. “Yes, but I’m not that guy."

He was encouraged by the response to his plans from Vertigo Inc., an aerospace company in California, that has worked on projects for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the US military.

“Is it possible?" said Roy Haggard, a founder of Vertigo and a skydiver himself. “Yeah."

If Corliss can raise enough money, Haggard’s company would help him design and build the runway.

“Everybody wants to be the first one to do it," Haggard said.

Which leads to an obvious and inevitable question: Why?

“Because everybody thinks that it’s not possible," Corliss said. “The point is to show people anything can be done. If you want to do amazing things, then you have to take amazing risks."

©2007/International Herald Tribune

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