The First Contact
Updated: Apr 21
The First Contact in free-fall.
-by Jari Kuosma
Approach from above was the key to the success.
How does it feel to do something extraordinary for the first (known) time in history? What do people think and what is their mindset before they begin such an attempt? Why do some people live to break the norm? Why does society try to stop them? What does it take to stand against the cult (group, gang, society), its norms and break its rules even when faced with an ultimate penalty (and sometimes reward)?
Dropping and sliding towards Vladi just barely clear from lines required ultimate skilled focus from both skydivers.
To be honest, I never thought of those questions until much afterwards the feat had already happened. In fact, its been now exactly 19 years (or 6940 days) since I had the first controlled contact (in our case, a controlled grip) in free-fall with a skydiver under a fully open parachute, in the history of man. Yeah, I know, a small step for those earthlings but a huge flight for Vlad and I.
Vladi is trying to cath me with his leg!
So here it is as I remember it, but little background first. The year 2002 was a very exciting year in skydiving in general. Parachutes were getting smaller and smaller as their performance due to technological innovations and pilots skills increased exponentially. Luigi Cani from Brazil landed a 39 sqf Icarus parachute (normal student and accuracy parachutes are still approximately 6-7 times bigger) and we regularly jumped with parachutes that confused AAD’s (Automatic Activation Device) ”brain" chip. You see, it was possible to be under canopy as fast as the next guy in free fall. Almost.. We were certainly getting there with the BirdMan wińgsuits I had introduced for the market a few years earlier, in 1999. We had been playing with them for 3 years and they were not only accepted, but gaining popularity. We the pilots were getting better and more innovative and like with all new toys, we were thinking of ways how to play with them. Man has a competitive and playful nature. Not only did we want to fly further and faster than before, but also closer to ground and longer! Often to our peril that was. Before BIRDMAN® about 92% of them batmen didn't make it according to one statistics but records and rules were to be broken said an old law from the jungle.
Todd is filming Jari's opening (Ve-79 by PD) on his back. Back in those days the performance of the wingsuit was not as good as it is now. I was getting around 2:1 glide ratio, sub 50 km/h descent for a while and anywhere between 0 to + 330 kmh speeds with an acceleration of roughly 9,7 -9,8 m/s2. As my experience and confidence grew the level of precision and risk-taking went also up exponentially. A real pilots goal must always be TOAL (Take Off And Landing) or V/STOL (Vertical / Short Take off and Landing) but in order to practise that with relatively low risk we can try to match flight performance in midair. It was either that or some other reason now forgotten we got with my roommate and ”brother” (from a different mother) Vladi Pesa, a Belgian professional skydiver, BASE jumper and test pilot for Performance Designs Inc, famed parachute manufacturer from DeLand, FL. The idea..
We shared many things with Vlad. Love for good food and wine, high quality adrenaline and vivid imagination that manifested us those times together and trying to do what no men had done before. Our idea was simple enough, Vlad would jump his Velocity 84 high performance parachute and I should catch him in midair flying my BIRDMAN Skyflyer S.3 wingsuit. The problem was not only whether it was possible, but if not done right, it could and would be fatal for one or both of us. Due to the speed difference I could hit Vladi with deadly force, or I could get mixed up with his parachute lines while approach just a few cm away.. or a number of unknown unknowns that could kill us, we knew nothing of. But thats quite normal bizz in skydiving so we decided to give it a go if we get an a OK from the DZ (Drop Zone) owner Bob Hallet and his pilots, after all, we were not only playing together, we had to involve the whole DZ operation, expensive planes, willing pilots and personnel in the air and on the ground. Well, Bob was and is a real deal and gave us his full support as did everybody else at Skydive DeLand. I am forever thankful for them all.
That winter we had several attempts. We were often so close but oh so far. Sometimes we didn't even see eachother after exit until after landing. Our speeds were just too different and we were always challenged by changing weather conditions, different pilots and a very steep learning curve without any guarantees it was a right one. But we did learn with every jump and every mistake. To progress one must be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. Just don't make too fatal mistakes, thats the only rule really. I think our final success depended on two crucial things. Firstly, Valdi’s idea and insistence to use trimmed front risers for steeper glide under his Ve-84 and secondly my idea and willingness to approach Vlad from above instead of behind. Those were the winning ideas for us. The day we never forget!
We have a little bit different idea of the date, in Vlad's reality bubble we did it on Thursday the 17th and in my perfect universe we did it on Saturday at the 420 boogie, April 20th 2002. But which ever the date, we were successful finally on the 18th attempt and to prove the point, that it was no luck, we did it again on next one, the 19th. Both jumps were filmed, 1st by Todd Sutherland and 2nd by Norman Kent.
1 st contact is reality!
Vladi Pesa, Jari Kuosma and Todd Sutherland immediately after jump.
Those were also our last such jumps together. We had proven we can do it and I suppose we didn't really know where to go with it anymore. As often with "our kind", after we do what we are first set to do, we loose interest as we are already eyeing the next impossible..
Our canopy-wingsuit docks were not the last. The stunt has become a sport and is called XRW. A novice skydiver can now buy special equipment and hire professional couching to do XRW. YouTube is full of videos of it with millions of views. Here is the first video of the first contact ever.
Sports Illustrated Centerfold & Calendar entry for August 2004.