ICARUS Project - The science behind human flight

Dr. Angelo Grubisic watched a film called the rocketeer aged 10, where an innovative inventor built a rocket suit and flew around the sky like a bird. At age 10 Angelo formed his career plan and stuck to it - he now leads the double life of rocket scientist a wingsuit BASE jumper at the University of Southampton, leading The ICARUS Wingsuit Project. The Icarus team have pioneered the use of a combination of 3D computational fluid dynamics and experimental testing in order to firstly understand how wingsuits operate and then develop adaptations and new designs for improved performance to try to extend the flight envelop and improve the safety of the sport.

Wingsuit BASE is one of the most deadly extreme sports, whereby athletes use low aspect ratio ram air pressurised aeroelastic garments to free fall with 3:1 with glide ratios. Typically leaping from 1,000m cliffs, wingsuiters transition to horizontal flight with forwards speeds of approximately 120-160mph. Within the last two years, many of the world leading pilots have tragically died. This trend is accelerating with 31 deaths in 2016 by the end of August; the deadliest year on record.

A significant fraction of BASE fatalities include the stalling of wingsuits or loss of control during ground terrain flying or exiting cliff edges. One contributing factor is the poorly understood aerodynamic performance of wingsuits, which stall suddenly and are unforgiving of pilot error. Over the last two years Dr. Grubisic and students at Southampton have helped to put scientific understanding in to wingsuit design, leading a project to make the sport safer and save lives by expanding knowledge and developing innovations to give greater margin. Ultimately, these innovations will be also be demonstrated in a high altitude world record attempt. The new suit termed the Icarus-Race is currently in build by a leading wingsuit manufacturer and is undergoing testing.

How did you get into the sport?

“My grandfather Tom Richardson is the reason I got into the sport. He was one of the oldest skydivers accumulating over 400 jumps, which was not easy in those days. He raised thousands for charity and was a real character. He was one great athlete. He showed me a results sheet for the 1939 Army Games in Antwerp with the British Expeditionary Force, and the results sheet practically all read Private Tom Richardson, which came in handy. As when they were destroying equipment with the Germans on their tail, a young officer slashed the tyres on the only working truck to get them home, so he had to run a good part of the way back to Dunkirk.

Why did you conceive the Icarus Programme?

“I was inspired by some great teachers, and I’ve learned there’s nothing I can do more valuable than generating that same inspiration and motivation in others. I also want to raise the bar for university’s and show that with some initiative and leadership, and given the right opportunity, students can achieve great things, well beyond the value of a grade. They can advance fields, such as advanced aerodynamics and be proud of what they accomplish. Students are more than capable.”

“Sometimes people ask ‘Why did you name it Icarus, didn’t he die? Shouldn’t you call it Daedalus after his father, since he survived?’ I think I have more in common with Icarus as a scientist, as he explored the limits, plus we started tempting fate when we started jumping off mountains in wingsuits, so I’m not going to stop now.”

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