For the project “The Electrified Wingsuit” I entered unknown territory together with BMW i and Designworks – and had to overcome a number of hurdles in the process. From a big dream to unexpected setbacks to the final jump: this is the story behind the electrified wingsuit flight.
Review: The first thoughts about this project go back over 5 years. At that time I developed suits for skydiving and base jumping with a friend and base jumping mentor. In the evening after a day of testing, we threw many ideas into the room in a relaxed atmosphere as to how the performance could be improved. One of them was a supportive drive – and this idea never let me go. The idea of being able to jump from my local mountain with the wingsuit and land in my garden was fascinating.
The following text comes from the original article on BMW.com and has been slightly changed and adapted:
The Austrian has always dreamed of flying. As a young boy, he would jump off anything that raised him above the ground and land on mattresses or pillows. “To fly is freedom. It is the ultimate expression for striving for the unknown and discovering new horizons, ”says Salzmann. As a stuntman, base jumper, flight instructor and wingsuit pilot, he actually made flying his profession – a full-time occupation that allows him to follow a path that he always saw mapped out for himself. “I only want to do things that are close to my heart,” says the 33-year-old. “Still, I always knew that there was more.”
The Austrian wants to improve his flextime, he wants to take off from greater heights, fly further than before and land safely in a suitable place. “I quickly came up with the idea of an impeller, that is, a propeller enclosed by a ring or tube-shaped housing. However, a fuel-powered or conventional drive was out of the question, ”explains Salzmann. “I attach great importance to sustainability and try to do justice to it in everyday life. I enjoy nature from the air and on the ground – that’s why I would like to implement this path in future mobility too. “
The background story as a video:
There comes a time in life when you have to decide whether you want to continue doing what you have always done or whether you want to try something new. Peter Salzmann wants to get ahead, but he also knows that he needs expert help for this – and he will find it at BMW i in 2017. “Our future-oriented approach of electric drives and innovative materials and technologies fit perfectly with Peter Salzmann’s unusual but fascinating idea. In my eyes, Peter Salzmann perfectly embodies the attitude of the BMW i brand with his unique vision, his passion and his courage. In addition, I was very impressed by his physical effort combined with in-depth technical knowledge and a very clear understanding of the brand, ”says Stefan Ponikva, who was then the patron of the project at BMW i and is now Vice President Brand Experience.
With a view to the simultaneous development of the fully electric BMW iX3, the solution was obvious: they would jointly develop a wingsuit with an electric motor: an electric drive for lofty heights – powered by renewable energy, compact enough to work with a normal wingsuit, and with limited heat generation – a further development of the well-known wing suit, which would enable an immediate start and a truly agile flight experience. “I like to face such challenges. Developing new suits, testing new equipment and promoting the wingsuit sport in different ways – that’s what drives me, ”says Salzmann. “And in BMW I have found the perfect creative partner to implement the project with the highest safety standards and with all the necessary development steps.”
At the same time, BMW i made close contact with Designworks, the design innovation studio of the BMW Group. The studio provided Salzmann experts to work with the wingsuit pilot to develop the flight suit and the electric impeller adapted to the new drive technology. “From a technical point of view, we brought in Designworks, who are experts in bringing together the needs of mobility and other industries,” adds Stefan Ponikva. Realizing the vision together with his team was a personal moment of happiness for him. “Only an electric impeller is light and agile enough to allow normal wingsuit flying and base jumping. Light enough to climb mountains with it, agile enough to fly tight turns and maneuvers, and yet quiet enough not to disturb the purity of the flight. “
The first steps towards a wingsuit with an electric motor
Ideas became sketches, sketches turned into digital models, and digital models turned into first prototypes. “The very first one was made of cardboard – and I built it so that I could get a feel for the dimensions of the Flyunit, i.e. the impeller unit including the batteries and everything that goes with it,” explains Salzmann. Two models were produced, a large and a smaller unit. The next step was a prototype made of aluminum, but it did not contain any impellers or electronics. It was used to simulate the weight and dimensions, and Salzmann had already carried him with a harness and chest holder.
“The development process was a constant up and down, we were always faced with new challenges,” says Salzmann. “At the beginning we would have placed the drive unit on our back. But after the first drawings and discussions with aerodynamicists, we decided to move the Flyunit forward. ”Salzmann and the team also had to quickly discard the plan to use the larger version of the impeller and thus gain 40 percent more power. “When I tried the suit on for the first time, it was clear to me that the whole thing would then be too heavy and that I could only move to a limited extent. When jumping, however, comfort and a feeling of security are the most important things, and I also need freedom of movement to be able to open the parachute later. ”So the engineers focused on the smaller, still around one meter wide model, which then went into the wind tunnel got the finishing touches. The final flyunit with two propellers, each around 13 centimeters in diameter, ultimately resembles a futuristic mini-submarine, is powered by a lithium battery with 50 volts, weighs 12 kilograms and is attached to the pilot’s breastplate by means of a hinge device. The two carbon impellers in the lightweight structure made of carbon fiber and aluminum have a combined output of 15 kilowatts and run at a speed of around 25,000 rpm.
The first series of measurements with the suit are carried out in the AEROLAB, BMW’s horizontal wind tunnel. The tests were used to validate and compare the various impeller variants and wingsuits. “During the first few runs we tested the entire ensemble with a doll, but with the original impellers and wingsuits, and measured all forces and moments. Then we decided on a variant of the impeller and a certain position, ”explains Salzmann. Then it went on to Sweden. “The first test in the wingsuit wind tunnel in Stockholm was a milestone for me. I couldn’t stop grinning. Because until that moment I had no idea whether I could fly in a controlled manner with the impeller. This wind tunnel is the only one in the world in which wingsuit pilots can fly indoors. Here I was able to simulate the flight and also test whether I could open my parachute without any problems. And how stable that felt! Then I knew: we are on the right track. ”With this first draft of the drive unit, Salzmann then performs the first test jumps from a helicopter in order to get a feel for the influence of the equipment on flight behavior. In the next step, two prototypes were constructed, which already contained the impeller, battery technology and the necessary electronics, and then it went into the air.
Salzmann completed more than 30 test jumps with the Flyunit. “After evaluating the first jumps, we came to the conclusion that the impellers are still getting too little air flow. So additional air inlets were integrated into the wingsuit. ”The drive system was designed in close cooperation with BMW i and Designworks and optimized down to the smallest detail. Another finding was that the weight was too high and needed to be reduced. “And it was important to find a disconnection solution for the Flyunit in an emergency, to develop a control option and to position an on / off switch so that I could easily operate it at any time. This throttle is now on the left sleeve and can be controlled with the middle and ring fingers. “
The video of the final jump:
It’s early morning in the Alps, and the sun is slowly rising over the Three Brothers’ mountain range. The countdown is on, in half an hour Peter Salzmann will start the decisive jump. The wingsuit with the electric drive has been checked down to the last detail, every screw and every seam on the equipment checked. While the prospect of jumping from a height of more than 3000 meters would certainly make others nervous, Peter Salzmann remains calm and carefree. Calm, but visibly electrified, he explains to the members of his team with many gestures how he wants to pull through the flight. It should actually have taken place on the other side of the world: Originally, Salzmann wanted to complete this jump in Korea in spring 2020. But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to his plans for a world premiere in Korea. Then, after months of uncertainty: finally relief. When the pandemic began to subside, the project got back on track and the new location in Austria was found, the team was able to resume planning, testing and test jumps. A few months later, Salzmann’s dream of flying like no one has flown before is about to become a reality.
Was he nervous? No. “There is always tension, of course, and that’s good. You always have to be aware of the consequences of mistakes. At this speed and the physical strain, everything has to be right. Over the years I have developed an experience that now gives me the security of sitting in the helicopter with a smile, even if that may surprise some out there. When the helicopter takes off, the material is checked and I went through the processes in my head point by point. The way up is now only one thing for me: sheer anticipation. ”A jump not only requires mental strength, but also physical fitness, explains Salzmann and takes a flight position to illustrate. “The load is enormous, especially with additional devices. I can hold my arms in this extended position for about five minutes. I have been doing special training every day for months to strengthen my core, neck and shoulder muscles. “
THE FLIGHT WITH THE ELECTRIFIED WINGSUIT
3, 2, 1, go! Salzmann receives the long-awaited signal over the radio. When viewed from the ground, the pilot is initially only a small point in the sky, but quickly approaches. While the helicopter is turning, Salzmann quickly picks up speed in his wing suit. At a distance of only one or two meters, it rushes past the rock faces towards the valley. In flight, Salzmann always focuses on certain points along the mountain in order to maintain the course and to be able to react in good time if necessary. But the Austrian is in his element.
For three years he gave everything for this moment, in the past two years he has jumped more often than ever before – a couple of times even over his own shadow. Then the time has come: he pulls the slide control towards him with his middle and ring finger – and is pushed back up from the descent by the connected electric drive as if by invisible forces. Salzmann’s efforts and efforts are rewarded as he imagined it: with a quiet moment of euphoria at over 1000 meters above sea level. Just before he opens the parachute, he electrifies the last few meters of the thrust, exhales and releases the parachute. In order to set the limits of his sport anew, he went to his limits himself.
It has become afternoon for the Three Brothers. Peter Salzmann has landed safely; he packs his umbrella together, carefully fixes the impeller on a specially made mobile holder that is somewhat reminiscent of a modified hand truck, and stows the rest of the equipment in his BMW iX3. A look back towards the mountains, then it’s home, family time. The exhilaration of the flight will continue to have an effect and accompany it. “For me, driving in this new electric BMW iX3 has parallels to my wingsuit experience. The sound is similar, plus the feeling of immediate acceleration.
It is impressive and it feels good to continue my sustainable path with this electric mobility. No matter whether on the street or in the air. ”Resting is out of the question for Peter Salzmann. The man wants to go even higher. The South Korea plan has only been postponed – there the energetic Austrian wants to fly between high-rise buildings. “I will have to train more, we will optimize the technique and boldly look ahead.”
Because the art of progress lies in breaking out of the familiar and breaking new ground.