Laurent Frat is an adventurer who has brought new meaning to the phrase ‘suited and booted’.
As a Wingsuit BASE Jumper, his pursuit of high-octane thrills dances right on the edge of survivability, but despite a spate of headline grabbing accidents, the 42-year-old US-born daredevil believes the acceptance of the sport has never been greater, as he reveals to RSNG…
RSNG How insane do you have to be to fly using a wingsuit?
LF ‘Well, certainly I think in order for it to be a sustainable sport, I think that the participant or somebody who practices Wingsuit BASE jumping has got to have the balance of being a little bit crazy – and when I say ‘crazy’ I mean someone who is willing to explore boundaries outside of normal life and maybe somebody who is a bit more driven by passion, than someone on the street.’
‘This person also must have a very strong, logic-based decision-making process which allows them to personally assess danger and keep them safe. I don’t think that the word ‘crazy’ fits the profile of Wingsuit BASE jumpers – the crazy guys end up crashing.’
‘The types of people who participate in the sport for a lifetime and end up having a long career are generally people who are sensation-seekers, explorers and the people who need the intensity in their lives turned up a notch.’
‘These people also need to be able to personally assess their own thought process and emotions and to also act accordingly.’
‘But there are still plenty of girls and guys who get into the sport, who are crazy – I won’t paint a false picture, here. It does attract that sort of person who feels like they can do what they want to do, and no-one can tell them otherwise. This is also indicated in the number of accidents that we have.’
‘There is a small community of us who are operating between reasonable margins and then of course, there are other people who are excited about the sport and those who are maybe looking for the recognition that they are different from the average person.’
‘Generally, either these people are either scared out of the sport – or worse.’
RSNG Does flying a suit need optimum conditions?
LF ‘There can be a wide misconception that a little puff of wind or gust is going to throw us off access and we are randomly going to be hurled against a cliff.’
‘At slower speeds, we are more-susceptible to weather, but the faster we go, the more we are able to pierce through any air mass. The most-prone we are to winds and weather patterns is at the exit point, meaning when we jump off the cliff or rock.’
‘At lower speeds and when we have flared our wingsuit, meaning when we have increased the angle of the tack and created more lift, by burning off speed to create lift, or burning off a bit of power to lose less altitude, we are more susceptible to that. Also, at deployment time when we are ready to open up the parachute.’
‘So, theoretically, if I were to jump off a cliff and go as fast as I possibly can in my wingsuit, there is a possibility that I may not feel the change in air mass whatsoever.’
‘However, a lot of times wingsuit BASE jumps require us to fly a certain amount of distance, or cover some geography, maybe clear a plateau, over a hill or a mountain, something like that. This is the time when during that glide, we can feel the weather.’
‘But ultimately, mountain weather is something which is integral and during a long career in wingsuit BASE jumping and studying meteorology and even studying its local patterns, is something that we are constantly doing.’
‘We are constantly looking at and monitoring the weather, even if we are out on a hike with our families or something like that.’
‘We are feeling the ebb and flow of the valley winds and analysing what this would do with our flight and it’s a life-long experience of understanding mountain weather.’
‘With wingsuit BASE you don’t rise to the occasion – it’s more like you dip to the level of your training’
RSNG What are the biggest challenges when using the suits?
LF ‘With wingsuit BASE jumping, you don’t rise to the occasion, it’s more like you dip to the level of your training. There’s not so much of a thought process going on, it’s more a flow state, so we are really relying more on our previous training that we have put in.’
‘Out of an aeroplane we are able to try some different manoeuvres and different flight configurations in a giant airspace. Wingsuit BASE jump is like the intensity of skydiving times 1,000, with a lot less margin of error, so we use the skydiving environment to train our ability to fly the wingsuit.’
‘Skydiving is definitely something that I am doing a lot and I have around 3,000 jumps and it’s certainly something that I think is a big part of being a wingsuit BASE jumper.’
‘I will always be training in the skydive environment. But in skydiving, we really use each other and that’s the other people who we fly with in almost a flock or a gaggle of wingsuiters in the sky.’
‘We have certain body configurations in which are able to manipulate the shape of the wingsuit and thinking about the angle. Those are the two main factors that we are thinking about and the amount of drag that we are presenting to the relative wind, and also the angle of the tack that we present these bodysuits or aerofoils, and this is what is controlling our speed and the direction that we are flying.’
‘It’s amazingly precise and I think that the lid was blown off on how precise these wingsuits are, with all of these videos that you see out there now.’
‘People flying through caves and hitting targets the size of a lunchbag! We are able to be quite precise when we want to with these wingsuits.’
‘So, the more altitude that we are able to have will generate speed and that means more power and more speed, and that will enable us to carry over a plateau and also cover more distance.’
‘We are generally able to cover just over a 3 to 1 glide ratio (the rule of aeronautics). But if we were to dive at 2,000ft, we would generate all of that force and we could then lift up, flare our wingsuits and actually go up.’
‘And the flaring of our wingsuits is one of the most amazing feelings that any of us have experienced. Jumping off a cliff, fly next to some trees, bushes and rocks and then flare our wingsuits to be able to see the terrain going farther and farther away from us, as we are going up into the sky. That is something which is truly remarkable.’
RSNG Tell us a bit about your background before becoming involved with wingsuits?
LF ‘I think that I have always been the type of person who likes to test my boundaries and conquer any challenges. I had competed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I had done endurance mountain bike racing, I was a member of the local search and rescue team, I was a paramedic in a very busy system in California and worked as a wildland firefighter.’
‘So, I have always pursued very challenging and intense activities and when I saw wingsuit BASE jumping for the first time in a video, and I was just like: “I have to do this.” There have been very few things that I have seen that I have been so attracted to and it was a massive life-changing moment, to be honest.’
‘I started skydiving and progressing into the wingsuit and then after I had travelled to Norway, I knew that this wasn’t an activity that I could do part-time. I had come to what I thought was the glass-ceiling in my career and I decided that I was going to do a complete 180˚, move to Europe and try to do as much wingsuit BASE jumping as I possibly could.’
‘There is lots of spectacular wingsuit BASE jumping in the United States, but the access is much more difficult. In North America, there is an enormous amount of wilderness area with tonnes of mountains and lots of cliffs, but access to them can sometimes take days.’
‘Whereas in Europe, access is huge. There are roads and mechanical lifts everywhere, going to many places. It’s almost difficult to find a cliff or a peak where you can’t spot a hut or a café where you can get a coffee. So, just being able to access conveniently the edge of a cliff, made that a big deal.’
‘Also, the way that the Alps are formed, it’s quite a new mountain range or certainly younger in that regard, so those cliffs and rocks are quite jagged.’
‘Whereas in Nevada, the rocks and mountains are much older, and they have been rounded out from so much wear. That makes it conducive to having big, vertical cliffs, which you can easily jump in your wingsuit from.’
‘The worst time to find out about problematic factors with BASE is when you’re on a jump’
RSNG How can the sport become safer?
LF ‘Firstly, the gear that we have is getting a lot better and we have fantastic manufacturers who are producing top of the line gear. There is more and more data to help those people producing the gear. There has also been a great big push in education since that horrible year [in 2016 some 27 wingsuit flyers died doing their sport].’
‘When I started wingsuit BASE jumping, there was very little instruction available. There were only a few knowledgeable people out there and there was almost a mystique about how to be a successful wingsuit BASE jumper, and you had to find this guy who was willing to share this coveted information.’
‘Now, you can participate in camps and schools and go online and sometimes also interact with people who have over 1,000 jumps, and that will really get you access to vital information.’
‘The problem with the majority of the people who get into the sport is that they just don’t know what they don’t know. The worst time to find out about problematic factors with BASE in when you’re on a jump.’
RSNG Who were your influences growing up? And who are your influences now?
LF ‘I have spent a lot of time reading Reinhold Messner’s books, who is a very famous Austrian Alpinist and two others would be Rickson Gracie and Bruce Lee.’
‘The influence of Bruce Lee in particular was his development of Jeet Kune Do and his ability to break from the norm and develop his own style, and that worked for him personally. He pulled from all available information sources to use what was most practical and efficient for him, personally.’
‘I think that often, we can fall into a groove of what other people are doing and a certain school of thought and Bruce Lee was a person who really broke free from tradition to create an effective style. Whether was to do with martial arts of flying sports, he was an inspiration.’
‘Rickson Gracie is a famous Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter and he inspired me with the sort of focused training, which is to be successful in whatever it is that you do in a spiritual and trance-like state.’
RSNG How do people get into wingsuit flying?
LF ‘Well, for anyone who hasn’t done it before, it’s kind of like baby steps. If you had never driven a car before and then you were to sit in the latest model supercar, that would be quite jarring and scary.’
‘Generally, people who are participating in the sport have come from a skydiving background and have completed at least 200 jumps, and they start with a beginner’s wingsuit which has very little surface area and power, and then the progression is quite gradual.’
‘BASE jumping starts on a bridge and then you progress up to a very vertical and tall cliff and then, as your confidence increases we’re able to leap from smaller and smaller cliffs and really begin to fly our wingsuits in the mountains.’
‘The majority of people out there who have done a BASE jump or a few BASE jumps at an event, that’s it. The average career of a BASE jumper is five years and either they are injured, they are scared away from the sport or they have family obligations, or a career which takes away from their ability to participate, or they die. The pyramid gets smaller and smaller to the tip of those people over five years.’
RSNG At what stage do you think you will stop or quit?
LF ‘The thing with a sport like this and any mountain adventure sport is that pushing the limits becomes routine. The more you push, the less sort of intensity and crazy sensations you receive from them, almost. So, you need to keep pushing, and keep pushing and keep pushing to get these similar sensations.’
‘What I have found over time is that I want to be comfortable with being mediocre and never being the best wingsuit BASE jumper out there, because by not always seeking the most intense sensations, that I can stay within my margin and have a longer career.’
‘The pressure to not mess it up is much higher than anything else. Every jump is the most important jump of my life and I will always consider it as such. If I feel like that pressure that day is too high or if I feel like there is a chance that I could mess it up, I am going to walk down.’
‘I saw this really good Helen Keller quote the other day: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole, experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long-run than exposure.” That just rang really true to me.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the late Uli Emanuele threading the two metre eye of a stone solid needle, in one of the most daring wingsuit BASE flights ever…