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- Maha Upanishad

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Adventure Travel

Apr 28, 2017

Irish Wingsuit Team Sets New World Records

On a recent jump in California, three members of the Irish Wingsuit Team shattered existing world records for longest flight, both distance and time.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

Jumping out of the aircraft from over 34,000 feet up, David Duffy, Stephen Duffy and Marc Daly used the jump as practice for an even bigger project, when they hope to wingsuit across the North Channel, from Ireland to Great Britain.

The Irish Wingsuit Team, a group of four wise-cracking thrill-seekers, flew into the record books at the beginning of this month. On April 9, in preparation for an even bigger, riskier flight, three of the team’s members—brothers Stephen and David Duffy, and Marc Daly—set new world records for both time and flight in Davis, California.

Photo courtesy of the Irish Wingsuit Team

Their jump was a subproject of a larger goal still over a year away that the Team is calling The North Channel Crossing, in which they hope to fly their wingsuits from the North of Ireland to the UK. They will need to fly at least 21 kilometers to avoid splashing down in the water. “Us being Irish, the concept of this came over drinks in the pub, about three years ago nearly now,” Stephen Duffy told The Outdoor Journal. “We’ve been doing lots of subprojects working towards it.”

Photo courtesy of the Irish Wingsuit Team

Their recent jump in Davis, CA was the biggest subproject yet. The Team decided it would behoove them to try a flight of at least 21 kilometers over land before they attempted it over water.

Duffy, Duffy, Daly and Des Reardon (the newest member of the team, who didn’t participate in the record-breaking jump), all have day-jobs: Stephen, 31, is an aircraft engineer and university lecturer; Marc Daly, 47, is self-employed; David Duffy, 30, is a Sales and Account Manager at a construction company; and Des Reardon, 31, is a “military man,” according to Stephen.

The three are also highly experienced skydivers and wingsuiters. “We all have over 1,000 jumps, and that includes 600 to 800 wingsuit jumps,” Stephen said.

Photo courtesy of the Irish Wingsuit Team

The Duffys and Daly formed the Irish Wingsuit Team in 2011, and have been operating out of the Irish Parachute Club ever since. Since its founding, the team has represented Ireland at World Cup and World Championship events around the globe.

The high-altitude nature of the California jump posed a variety of problems and dangers for the guys. Temperature was perhaps their biggest fear: at the altitude from which they hoped to exit the plane, they estimated it would be roughly -55 degrees Celsius.

One of their sponsors—a company named Flexitog that designs and manufactures insulated wear for people working inside freezers—came to the rescue on the temperature front. According to Stephen, the guys at Flexitog said, “Guys, you’re all crazy…. What do you need?” and then outfitted them with compression skins, thermal layers and custom designed suits.

Not your average head gear… Photo courtesy of the Irish Wingsuit Team

They also had to line up an aircraft and support crew that would support their high flying aspirations. The Irish national Airline, Aer Lingus, stepped up to the plate.

When the Team arrived in California, raring to go, they had to hurry up and wait. Stephen said, “We done what the Irish do: bring the bad weather with us.” After three straight days of thunderstorms, they finally had clear skies to test out their oxygen set-ups and cold-weather gear before the main event. Stephen, David and Marc did three prep jumps from 13,000 feet, 18,000 feet, and 24,000 feet. “The last one was our first record attempt,” Stephen said. “On that one, we broke the European Continental Time and Distance records for free fall.”

Feeling confident, they readied themselves for the “big day.”

The trio awoke at 4:00 am on April 9. They arrived at the drop zone at 5:00 am to gear up, and boarded the aircraft at 6:00 am.

“We had to pre-breathe 100% aviator’s oxygen for an hour before take-off,” Stephen said. “The idea of this is to push all the nitrogen out of our tissue,” to prevent the “bends” (decompression sickness, caused by changes in pressure, most commonly associated with divers).

Technical difficulties with the first aircraft led to the team deplaning and boarding a different one. Another hour of pre-breathing oxygen and everything was a go. The plane took off around 11:30 am and quickly climbed to 34,400 feet. Their predictions about temperature weren’t far of the mark: the thermometers registered -59 degrees Celsius.  

Feeling good, the Irishmen jumped.

And, GO! Photo courtesy of the Irish Wingsuit Team

“I went first, then Marc, then David,” said Stephen. “We flew a straight line from over the mountains and into the valley as far as possible.” After an exhilarating flight lasting nearly ten minutes, they each landed down in different spots, but Marc hit the jackpot. “Marc landed in a field right beside a guy who was loading up his RV and who provided him with cool, chilled beers,” Stephen recounted, laughing. “Only that man could find beer in the middle of the American countryside.”

When they got back to the drop-zone, they checked the results from their fly-sights (little GPS units that record all the statistical data from the flight), to see how they had done. “David flew the largest horizontal distance of us, at over 29 kilometers. If you take in the angle of descent, he flew 32 kilometers, and that’s known as absolute distance.”

Stephen flew 26.5 kilometers and Marc flew 25.5 kilometers. Though David went the farthest, Stephen spent more time in the air. “I was up there for 9 minutes 31.4 seconds. That’s a long time to be falling.”

Between Stephen and David’s flights, the team set four new world records: the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world’s governing body for all airsports) record for wingsuit time of flight, the Guinness record wingsuit time of flight, the Guinness record for horizontal distance, and the Guinness record for absolute distance. “We also set all the Irish national records and broke the European continental distance and flight of time records as well,” Stephen said proudly.

The guys were chuffed: “We’ll need to do at least 21 kilometers to get across the Channel, and we learned we can do that,” Stephen said.

With the records and that confidence under their belts, they are now firmly focused on the North Channel Crossing jump. The tentative plan is to jump in September 2018. Stay tuned!

 

 

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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