Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them

Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them

by Michael Abrams

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now


The Wright Brothers were wimps.

Or so you might think after reading this account of their unsung but even more daring rivals—the men and women who strapped wings to their backs and took to the sky. If only for a few seconds.

People have been dying to fly, quite literally, since the dawn of history. They’ve made wings of feather and bone, leather and wood, canvas and taffeta, and thrown themselves off the highest places they could find. Theirs is the world’s first and still most dangerous extreme sport, and its full history has never been told.

Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers is a thrilling, hilarious, and often touching chronicle of these obsessive inventors and eccentric daredevils. It traces the story of winged flight from its doomed early pioneers to their glorious high-tech descendants, who’ve at last conquered gravity (sometimes, anyway). Michael Abrams gives us a brilliant bird’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly with wings. And then, inevitably, to fall.

In the Immortal Words of Great Birdmen...

“Someday I think that everyone will have wings and be able to soar from the housetops. But there must be a lot more experimenting before that can happen.” —Clem Sohn, the world’s first batman, who plummeted to his death at the Paris Air Show in 1937

“The trouble was that he went only halfway up the radio tower. If he had gone clear to the top it would have been different.” —Amadeo Catao Lopes in 1946, explaining the broken legs of the man who tried his wings

“One day, a jump will be the last. The jump of death. But that idea does not hold me back.” —Rudolf Richard Boehlen, who died of jump-related injuries in 1953

“It turned out that almost everyone from the thirties and forties had died. That just made me want to do it more.” —Garth Taggart, stunt jumper for The Gypsy Moths, filmed in 1968

“You have to be the first one. The second one is the first loser.” —Felix Baumgartner, who in 2003 became the first birdman to cross the English Channel

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307419903
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Michael Abrams is a writer based in New York City who has written for Discover magazine, Wired, and Forbes FYI among other publications. He has jumped out of a plane twice, neither time with wings.

Read an Excerpt

Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers

By Michael Abrams

Random House

Michael Abrams
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400054915

Chapter One

Chapter 1

One Small Step for Man = One Giant Step for Man

For those of us who fly in our dreams, rarely is there any flapping of the arms, nor are there hidden jets or superhero capes. No air, really. The means of propulsion, even for daytime nihilists, is some kind of faith--just a matter of knowing it can be done--that keeps the body suspended and moving. And as that faith wanes, maybe from some creeping knowledge that it must be a dream, instead of plummeting to the ground there's just a slow, soft descent. Sometimes there's only enough faith to hover a few inches or feet above the ground. But those inches are miles when compared to how high we expect to fly after our morning cup of coffee. In the waking world we are utterly certain that any step off a mountain, roof, or table will have the same result: blind obedience to the draconian laws of physics.

We can fantasize that if we could just muster up enough faith, we could launch ourselves off some precipice and hover there like Wile E. Coyote before he notices the earth's no longer beneath him. But to go any further with the fantasy is to feel gravity's tug. No one will ever persuade us to jump--without a parachute--from anything much higher than the kitchen counter. Fasting, lashing the flesh, walking on coals: these are the limits of what thefaithful are asked to do. What religion or cult has ever suggested to its followers that with enough faith they could fly?

And yet every century has had its birdmen, people with enough faith in the possibility of humans taking flight--and enough faith in whatever accoutrements they had devised--to take the literal plunge. Had they heard of a leading edge? No. Was angle of attack a part of their vocabulary? Less than unlikely. Lift and drag? Forget about it.

The tower jumpers of centuries past had a kind of faith that separates those who dream of flight from those who try it.

It's hard to talk about humans trying to reach birdy heights without first touching on the Greek myth of Daedalus and his young egg, Icarus.
But the tale has more bearing on our story than it might first seem.
Daedalus, a metalsmith and inventor of great talent, and Icarus were incarcerated by King Minos, on the island of Crete. To escape, Daedalus assembled wings of feathers, wax, and whatnot and learned to fly. He made another set for Icarus and, before they took off, advised his son not to fly too near the sun, lest the wax melt. "No fancy steering by star or constellation, follow my lead!" as the poet Ovid puts it in the Rolfe Humphries translation. And so they flew, dazzling farmers and boatmen below, who thought them gods. Needless to say, Icarus was having such a heady time that he couldn't resist flying sunward--the wax melted and he plunged to a watery death.

Despite the unhappy ending, the tale seems to inspire flight-minded people of all kinds. Ballooning, aviation, and bungee-jumping companies have named themselves after the wax-winged hero, and Icarus Canopies is perhaps the best-known parachute manufacturer in the world.

The fact that these companies are unafraid to use the name of a figure whose fearless adventurism led directly to his death can only be explained by the fact that those attracted to flight tend to be (or want to be) fearless adventurers. Leo Valentin, whose jumps (and death) in the 1950s inspired a slew of imitators in the second half of the century, did not read the tale of Icarus as a cautionary one. Instead he saw it as "amplified and glorified to strike the imagination, to satisfy the taste for the marvelous." The same stores that sell Icarus skydiving gear also sell bumper stickers that say no fear, no limit.
You might think a skydiving company could just as easily name itself after Daedalus, who did, after all, manage to fly and live, but it seems that for those who take to the air, the name Icarus resonates more with the drive to greater extremes than that of his more confidence-inspiring father. Perhaps the school-marminess of Daedalus's warning displeases them. (The Daedalus drop zone in Germany is the exception. Its owner, Christoph Aarns, who flies the rigid Skyray, is safety-obsessed and extends the bumper sticker by two words: no fear, no limit: no brains.

The Greeks certainly didn't have a monopoly on such tales. Myths of human flight abound in almost every ancient culture. The Aztecs had their eagle-knight; the Incas spoke of Ayar Utso, who flew to the sun; and the Hindus have the birdman god Garuda, as well as the story of Jatayu, whose flight closely parallels the story of Icarus. The tomb of Ramses II shows him wearing wings--to what end we'll never know--and the Norse had another flying tinkerer in Wayland, a blacksmith who slapped together some wings, again for the purpose of escaping, only to wind up in a Wagner opera. But the story of Daedalus, in its more complete form, does more for our history of flight than just express the human dream of soaring and warn against trying to make that dream a reality.
One subplot of the story more precisely demonstrates what would happen to the first men who tried to fly.

How was it that Daedalus came to be imprisoned in the first place?
Well, he was taking care of his nephew Talos, who one day noticed the usefulness of a jawbone for sawing things in two. Talos forged one in iron, thus inventing the saw. Daedalus, who claimed to have invented the tool himself, was either worried that Talos would become future competition or just plain jealous. He led Talos to the Acropolis, ostensibly to show him the view, and there shoved him off the roof of Athena's temple. There was no flying for Talos, just a deadly drop--though some say he turned into a partridge after his death.

What better leaping-off point, as it were, for this history than that of a mortal fall from some high, stationary place? For most of human history, those who tried to fly experienced something similar.

Sorting out what in our written history is pure myth, what is myth based on fact, and what is plain old fact is a notoriously difficult task, and so it's impossible to say who was the first person to make an attempt at flight. But the first possibly plausible account comes from those most ancient of the ancients, the Chinese, and may also tell us of the first use of a parachute. According to the Bamboo Annals, the Emperor Shun, as a boy, was imprisoned by the enemies of his father. Somehow he managed to cobble together a bird suit and either leapt out of a tower and flew to freedom or flapped his way over a prison wall. His interest in air travel apparently extended into adulthood, when he stepped off another tower and, with the help of two large, conical hats, made it to the ground without injury.

As with the printed word, explosives, and pasta, the Chinese were centuries ahead of the rest of the world at putting men in the air. Sometime in the sixth century a.d., the emperor Kao Yang began experimenting with the power of large kites to lift the human body. With the typical wisdom of a monarch, he did not use himself as a subject, as Emperor Shun had, but used his subjects as subjects--his imprisoned enemies, to be exact. The emperor forced these kite-accessoried captives to jump from a high tower on the outskirts of the city of Yeh. The kites proved unhelpful, except for one made in the shape of an owl, which placed its payload, the prisoner Yuan Huang-t'ou, on the ground unscathed. For his pains he was locked up again.

The pairing of wind and royalty remains intact across centuries and continents. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" rails King Lear against the storm, according to Shakespeare. Perhaps, though, Lear was echoing words shouted with more sincerity, and urgency, by his father, the historical King Bladud, in the early years of the ninth century b.c. (The king was also known as Lud Hubibras, which has nothing to do with the etymology of the word hubris, but it would make sense if it did.) Bladud was educated in Athens, built the city of Bath, England, and supposedly dabbled in black magic. His own parents banished him when they discovered he was a leper, and he roamed the countryside till the day he chased a mad pig into a pond of muck. The muck cured the prince (as well as the pig), and he was soon accepted at home, where he eventually ruled for twenty years. He built the baths of Bath so that others might enjoy healing similar to his. Whether it was with the assistance of necromancy or science that the king hoped to fly from the Apollo tower in what is now known as London, we will never know. And so we will never know what it was that failed him when he made this jump with wings never described by his contemporaries: the wind did not crack its cheeks quite enough to keep the sovereign aloft--'twas his neck that cracked instead.

English historians tended to use Bladud's tale as an admonishment and a warning to those who strive to outdo God. Some centuries later, Percy Enderbie, the author of Cambria Triumphans, or Brittain in its Perfect Lustre, a history of England, felt free to describe Bladud's wings as made with wax and blamed the lord's downfall on his nearness to the sun--"a just reward for his temerity."

In ancient Greece and Rome, flights to the death were not always made by choice. In the first decade or two of the first century a.d., Strabo described in his Geography an annual ritual that took place on the island of Leucas. To honor Apollo, the Leucadians would take a criminal to a precipice some 2,000 feet above the sea for the purposes of sacrifice/setting him free. (Sappho, the poet, supposedly leapt from this same cliff, as did many others, to cure her love.) Should the offering survive the fall, fishermen would pick him up and take him to other lands. Having learned from repetition, one guesses, that merely attaching wings or feathers would lead prisoners to certain death--little sport in that--the islanders also tried tying live birds to the unfortunates before giving them a push. The rate of survival is not recorded.

The historian Marcus Antonius Sabellicus, who published a history of the world in 1504, tells us that during Caesar's reign, men imitated birds and managed to leave the ground. At least the notion that such things were possible stuck around till Nero's day, a.d. 54--68. The Sophist and Nero contemporary Dio Chrysostom wrote that Nero would, on occasion, order a man to fly, and as no one would dare disobey such a command, courtiers would keep the man around for some time and pretend he had the ability. Dio Chrysostom does not explain how the chosen birdman escaped demonstrating his supposed skills. Suetonius, who also lived during Nero's reign, tells us that during the "Great Festival," an actor attempting his first flight as Icarus in the Daedalus and Icarus ballet "fell beside Nero's couch and spattered him with blood." Sadly, Suetonius does not tell us whether this was a real flight or just an act, if the blood was real blood or just tomato sauce, or whether the bespattering delighted or angered the emperor.

The tyrants of yesteryear managed to contribute to the history of attempted flight even when abusing power in ways other than ordering people to flap or fly. The Persian king Shapur I, who lived in the third century a.d., once had a lovely tower built for himself and feared that others might be moved to requisition one themselves. So, anticipating by 1,300 years the style of Ivan the Terrible--who blinded the architect who built Saint Basil's Cathedral--Shapur ordered his architect to build the tower in such a way that when it was finished he would remain stuck on top. The architect, in no position to reject the offer, requested only that he have enough wood to build a shack to protect himself from vultures. Once the tower was complete, the architect hewed himself a pair of wings with the wood and, with a little help from a strong wind, flew to his escape. (And as for Ivan the Terrible--he treated winged men as brutally as he treated his architects. He executed a man who had the poor luck to survive a jump from a tower wearing wings made of wood and cloth. The event caused the tsar to declare all attempts at flight unnatural.)

In the middle of the ninth century a.d., several Islamic scholar/adventurers continued the quest for human flight, albeit in a more voluntary fashion. Cordova, at the heart of Moorish Spain, was experiencing something of a renaissance, and as it came to be known as Europe's intellectual center, it was the perfect place to exhibit the latest aviation technology. To Armen Firman (pronounced "Air-man Firm-man," let's just say) this was a huge canvas cloak, which he donned and leapt with from one of the city's towers. Witnesses tell us that the cloak managed to break Firman's fall enough for him to survive, though not without some scuffing of the flesh.

You'd think these witnesses would share a few more details, but they do not. One of them, though, was a young scholar named Abbas Ibn Firnas. Firnas had come to Cordova to teach music, went on to become a chemist, a physicist, and an astronomer, managed to turn sand into glass, and invented a timekeeping device. Eventually he, too, turned his keen mind to the challenges of aviation. Twenty-three years after Firman made his short drop, Firnas built wings made of feathers mounted on a wooden framework. According to spectators gathered on a nearby mountain, Firnas threw himself off a high point and managed to glide for some distance before stalling and sinking straight to the ground. Firnas injured his back and blamed the less-than-complete success on his having forgotten to use a tail--since that's what birds land on. Firnas died more than a decade later, reportedly from complications with his back. But between his flight and his death, the inventor built a mechanical planetarium, complete with moving planets. Perhaps he was after the view Icarus had as he approached the sun. If he's looking down on us now, he'll be pleased to see the statue of himself on the road to Baghdad's airport.

As we move forward through history, and myth solidifies into reportage, the results of these experiments take a decided turn toward the negative. In the first years of the second millennium another scholar, the brilliant lexicographer Al-Djawhari of Turkistan, had made his way to Nisabur in Arabia. It was there that he announced from the top of a mosque that he was about to make history. He did. Wearing two giant wooden wings, he leapt into the air and fell immediately to his death.

Excerpted from Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers by Michael Abrams Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: DeLand of the Free: Wingsuits for Whuffos     1
The Fall of Man from Towers, Cliffs, and Hills: The Legacy of Icarus     13
One Small Step for Man = One Giant Step for Man     15
The Plummet Continues     27
Bat-wings from Airplanes: The Legacy of Clem Sohn     39
The Sohn Also Falls: Clem Sohn     41
Mocking Birds Don't Sing: Floyd Davis and Others     53
Garden State Bird: William Picune     61
High Planes Drifter: Roland Kumzak     67
New Falls from Sioux Falls: Manus "Mickey" Morgan     71
Mamas, If You Don't Want Your Babies to Grow to Be Bird-Boys: Tommy Boyd     75
When Erks Turn Loony: Harry Ward     81
They Fell for It: Robert X. Leeds     93
International Playbird: Roy W. Grant     99
When a Finn Is a Wing: Viktor Andro     107
The Bat-wing Revival: The Legacy of Leo Valentin     111
L'homme-oiseau: Leo Valentin     113
Mocking Birds Still Don't Sing: Louis Faure and Others     133
Shiver of Death: Rudolf R. Boehlen     139
Michigan Shenanigans: Charlie Laurin and Art Lussier     143
Spy vs. Sky: Lyle Cameron     159
Flights of Fancy: Cliff Winters, Jim Poulson, Bob Hannigan     171
Band of Gypsies: Garth Taggart     179
Thy Words Have Upholden Him That Was Falling: Bill Cole     187
Daring Young Man on a Flying Trapeze: Tom Sitton     195
Paying the Toll: John Carta     205
The Growing Flock: The Legacy of Patrick de Gayardon     209
Solo Flight: Patrick de Gayardon     211
Over the Volcano: Chuck Priest     221
Slope Opera: Loic Jean-Albert     227
Birdmen and Birdbirds: Leo Dickinson     231
Beyond the Wingsuit     235
It's Skyray or the Highway: Christoph Aarns and Alban Geissler     237
Crossing Over: Felix Baumgartner     247
The Shape of Things to Come: Roberto Stickel     253
Turn On the Warm Jets: Yves Rossy     259
The Final Frontier: Earth     267
"Darius Green and His Flying Machine"   John T. Trowbridge     277
"A Ballad of the Friar of Tungland"   William Dunbar     282
Untitled Elegy on the death of Clem Sohn   Burkhard Bilger     284
Notes and Sources     285
Acknowledgments     295
Index     299

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Birdmen, Batmen, and Skyflyers: Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them, and Perfected Them 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book very helpful. I taugth me a lot about my family that I never knew. I am amazed about all this information about everyone who had something to with our history. I just wonder why my Grandpa Rollie never talked about this. I never knew my Grandpa Rollie was famous and he had nicknames as well. 'The Bat Man of Iowa', and 'The Hawk'.I just wish I could get more information regarding my grandpa Roland Kumzak, because this is the only thing that I have found. Thank you so very much.
MFowler More than 1 year ago
Michael Abrams shines the bright light of discovery on a facet of human endeavor that probably few people realize exists with his book Birdmen, Batmen and Skyfliers. The subtitle, Wingsuits and the Pioneers Who Flew in Them, Fell in Them and Perfected Them, piqued my curiosity enough to buy the book. I was glad I did. Abrams' breezy and engaging style takes readers through the history of the "other" winged flight (according to these guys, the Wright brothers were wimps). Through trial and error (heavy on the error), people kept pushing the envelope to imitate birds by jumping off of cliffs, buildings, from balloons and airplanes, strapping increasingly more sophisticated assemblages of "wings" to their arms and legs. Some progressed. Many didn't. You have to wonder about the sanity of guys who jump out of a perfectly good airplane, moreso with wings made out of everything from sailcloth to the latest carbon fiber, but Abrams gives each wingsuit pioneer his due in a separate chapter. The well-selected photos in the center section and on the endpapers do a good job of showing the evolution of wingsuits. I especially liked the ones showing actual "wings," including the guy who hung two small jet engines on his. Gutsy. My only reservation was, on reading the Notes and Sources, finding that Abrams relied a great deal on verbal interviews with either the wingsuit fliers or people who knew the early pioneer fliers. That led to some questionable facts creeping into some stories (jeeps being parachuted into France early in WW II, for instance. Didn't happen. Jeeps were delivered by glider in WW II). For me the most glaring error was his multiple references in the BASE jumping chapters to the location for the annual Bridge Day jump from the New River Gorge Bridge - it's in WEST Virginia, not Virginia. They've had their own state since 1863.