More of my NYT mag ideas-pieces: “Airborne Humans”

Here’s another one of my essays from this week’s New York Times Magazine “Year in Ideas” issue:

Airborne Humans

On July 31, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of an airplane at 30,000 feet and began plummeting to the English countryside below him. But within seconds, his wings caught the air, and he spun around, straightened up and peacefully soared off into the distance like an eagle. Baumgartner was no ordinary skydiver: he was wearing a six-foot-wide carbon-fiber fin strapped to his back, making him look something like a human version of a Delta-winged military jet. He began his glide over the east coast of Britain, but before long he was heading out over the English Channel toward France, streaking through the air at 220 miles an hour.

”It’s such an incredible feeling, because it’s just you, the sky, your wing and your skills,” he says. With no power supply, he couldn’t stay aloft forever. But his wing allows him to travel four feet horizontally for every foot he descends, which meant he could cover 22 miles in this six-minute flight. As he descended to 4,000 feet, he broke through the cloud cover and saw the coast of France below him. A thousand feet later, he opened his parachute for a landing. He had become the first person to fly across the English Channel without using an engine.

Even in a world jaded by extreme sports, that’s a pretty cool stunt. Yet it may soon become commonplace. An Austrian company plans to begin selling the Skyray, the fin-shaped wing of which Baumgartner used a slightly modified version.

An experienced Skyray user can perform aerobatics, doing barrel rolls and slaloming through clouds. The advent of personal wings could even become a new military tool, allowing parachute troops to deeply infiltrate enemy territory, evading radar and heat-seeking missiles and traveling faster than many Cessna-class aircraft. The Skyray’s inventor, Alban Geissler, has already had inquiries from the German and American militaries, as well as a U.S. defense contractor (though ”I can’t tell you who it is,” he adds quickly). But either way, the age-old dream of flying has now become less mechanical and more human. — Clive Thompson

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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