“Pure flight is great,” says record-breaking wingsuit pilot Fraser Corsan. “The sensation of human flight is hard to describe. Imagine yourself completely weightless and able to go wherever you want to go. I can go through the clouds or around them; it’s quite uplifting and puts everything into perspective.”
By John Portch
The Leaders Performance Institute caught wind of Corsan’s eye-catching exploits when he broke the world record for the fastest horizontal speed reached in a wingsuit in the spring of 2017. He set the mark in Davis, California, where he reached a speed of 246.6mph during his flight.
Corsan hoped to break three further world records with the help of his team at Project Cirrus, but two years of planning, as well as nine months of training, were scuppered by adverse weather conditions in Davis and later in London, Ontario.
“We’ll look at our options in the future,” said Corsan at the time and, for all their frustration, the Project Cirrus team has raised more than £50,000 for SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity in the UK. But a British, European and world record holder Corsan remains, and we were keen to discuss his approach to risk management and draw out the pertinent lessons for sport.
Picking the right team
The Leaders Performance Institute asks Corsan, who works for Fujitsu Defence, to cite some of the key individuals he has learnt from. He reels off several names, including early wingsuit pilot Robert Pečnik (“a very quiet, sanguine individual who does the job – that’s the approach I’ve taken”) and British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes (“someone who takes on adversity and just goes through it”). However, “In terms of flying I’ve had to learn a lot myself because there weren’t many other people around who were doing it.”
For all that, Corsan relies upon his 20-plus Project Cirrus colleagues, a team that include pilots, camera people, jump masters – many of whom hold aviation records in their own right. No team, no flying, and, as he says: “I put a vast amount of personal time into getting to know and making sure we have the right people on board. Personalities are important. There is no room for divas on a project, myself included – not an option.
Personalities are important. There is no room for divas on a project, myself included – not an option.
“My background is fairly scientific and I’ll sit down with the team and go through specific areas, like life support. I’ve been flying for 18 years now and I’m one of the world’s most experienced wingsuit pilots, so I’m fairly au fait with the wingsuit but I’ll consult back and forth with the chief designer. We’d talk about modifications we could make; what tweaks we could do to improve performance.
“It’s iterative and whether this is good or whether I’ve missed something. I got the head of the Aero-Medical Centre to go through with a fine toothcomb; we spend a day and a half together and he said ‘this is good, you’ve got a good plan, good backup and you have the right level of margins.’
“We chose 42,000 feet as our altitude for a reason: when you start talking about the risks and the pressures of going a little bit higher, you’ve got to be comfortable; we could have gone to 45,000 feet. In the end the weather screwed us because we only did 35,508 feet in the US and then got rained on in Canada.
“But the whole team have the mindset of making it happen professionally. All of the team members have that credibility.”
Running through the ‘what ifs’
Corsan may take risks but he is not reckless: “People love to say that wingsuit flying is a daredevil thing, but the level of professionalism that’s required to actually execute it is considerable.” When fatalities happen – and they are not unknown in wingsuit flying – he will assess what when wrong in each individual case. Corsan’s background is in aviation engineering and he has developed an encyclopaedic understanding of protocols and procedures at high altitudes. “I’ll be totally focused on the job at hand; how I’m flying, monitoring life support, maintaining focus throughout.”
People love to say that wingsuit flying is a daredevil thing, but the level of professionalism that’s required to actually execute it is considerable.
The Project Cirrus team ran through a series of ‘what if’ scenarios in their preparations for the four record attempts. “You are managing risk throughout, at all stages of the programme,” Corsan explains. “Some of them are physical, some hard constraints.” He cites the ‘oxygen challenges’ that increase the risk of hypoxia – the reduction of oxygen in one’s system. “So you look at how your oxygen can fail; is there a physical problem, how qualified is the equipment, has it been used for six months or 20 years, how many cycles has it gone through, what’s the confidence level I have in that bit of kit, is it a new technology which looks exciting but is unproven; if it fails do I have a backup system – is it possible to have a backup system?”
There is also an element of risk versus reward in an environment where the wind chill factor can see temperatures drop to -130 degrees Celsius: “You have to look at the most critical part of your body in terms of shielding, which is your hands, which are the most exposed element. You’ve got to protect yourself but you’ve also got to maintain dexterity.”
Data also plays its part. “We also do a huge amount of analytics,” he says. “I’m collecting GPS data that’s cycling 25 times per second on all my flights and that gives you my glidepath and forward speed, plus my angle of attack, so I can start working out for the specific records I’m going for and how I need to fly. It also gives me insight into the wingsuit – I can fly different types of wingsuit and see how that impacts the performance. Otherwise you just get a great video without any hard, analytical data. You need empirical data to give you insight.”
That, of course, includes continual training: “I’ll fly every weekend when the weather is good. I’ll typically put in seven or eight jumps during a day. Once you’re used to a wingsuit, you learn to fly them intuitively – but you have to keep current.
“It’s like driving a Formula 1 car or running a business, you can’t expect to drop out for six months and come back and be sharp – you’ve got the muscle memory and you understand the fundamentals but you need to be on top of it. The suits we’re flying are not very forgiving so it’s critical that when you are flying them you are in tune with what’s going on around you. Compared to an aircraft it’s very low performance but in terms of human flight it’s pretty high performance.
“You can travel along happily at 140mph and very easily take yourself seven or eight miles from the drop zone. You have to be really aware of that.”
All of these considerations combine to ensure that Corsan is confident and able to find his focus come the time to jump. “You cannot have any self-doubt. Having the personal will and self-belief, and that you’re prepared, is critical. People see pictures and think it’s a nice, high jump, but be under no illusions.”
Positive and negative visualisation
Numerous athletes have spoken of their efforts to visualise scoring the winning goal, post the fastest lap, or even eat the grass on Centre Court at Wimbledon. It is almost without fail positive visualisation – and Corsan quickly explains that he adopts both positive and negative visualisation. “I will visualise everything going wrong – every single thing,” he begins, “both in terms of flying up to altitude to getting to the exit, going into high spins, down to failure of parts of the wing, premature deployment, oxygen system freezing.
“You visualise the positive – what you’re going to do, how you’re going to fly etc. – but you make sure you’ve gone through all the negative stuff so that when you have an issue arise the thought process is minimal and it’s muscle memory that guides your behaviour. Once you exit that aircraft you are own your own and you are in the most hostile environment on the planet – or above the planet.”
Corsan and Project Cirrus hope to raise the support and backing for a further attempt to set wingsuit world records for the highest altitude, highest speed, longest time and furthest distance flown. From his experience in setting the speed record, he knows it will not be plain sailing. “Getting the record was fun but it was bloody hard work,” he says. “You have to be very serious about how you approach it, but it was great.
“We had the right team around us and we made it work.”