Wind ripped violently through the fuselage. A man in a dark helmet and shades shouted instructions to a fellow passenger in a lemon-yellow helmet and white-framed Oakleys, but his words were drowned out by the roar, so hand signals were exchanged. The yellow-helmeted one inched toward the five-foot-wide open door, looked at his comrade, and awaited the all-clear.
Then it happened. He jumped.
A vast empty space of concrete and grass stretched for several miles 14,000 feet below. The swirling wind beat against him as he spread his arms. His suit filled with air, and the webbed wings attached to his arms caught the wind.
Then, in a blinding moment, his body shot upward and back toward the airplane. His head came within just a few feet of the aircraft's tail, nearly causing a catastrophic midair collision.
The pilot radioed the airport below. "Your guy almost slammed into my rudder," he said in that stoic, pragmatic, The Right Stuff-like voice all pilots seem to share.
The man corrected his body position, evening himself with the infinite horizon, and began his descent. His shadow soared across the clouds passing beneath him. He was flying. Several minutes later, with the ground racing toward him, he unzipped his wingsuit sleeves to free his arms, pulled the cord on his parachute, gripped the toggles, and steered himself to a soft landing on the expansive grassy drop zone.
"Shit," he breathlessly said to himself, gathering his wits as well as his heavy canopy and rigging. "I almost died." He unstrapped his helmet, looked up into the cirrus-cloud-dotted sky, and pledged to do it all over again as soon as possible.
Mike Ramirez tenses up when he talks about that day in Sebastian — a windswept surf mecca about 158 miles north of Miami — when he wingsuited out of a twin-engine plane and almost killed himself along with several others. Rugged, broad-shouldered, and handsome, the 50-year-old mimes his every move as he tells the story of that mid-February day. He crouches, as he was taught by his skydiving trainer. Then he thrusts his body upright, spreads his arms, and arches his back. Still standing in position, he sighs in frustration and shakes his head. "I got out of my crouch way too soon," he concedes. "That almost did me in. Stupid."
Ramirez is nothing if not driven. Filled with an untamable desire for adrenaline highs, the North Miami Beach resident has been solo skydiving since early 2018 but only recently took up wingsuiting — the extreme free-falling sport where one jumps from a plane while wearing a nylon-webbed birdman suit that uses the wind to navigate through the sky at harrowing speeds.
Ramirez began the sport more quickly than most. United States Parachute Association rules state a skydiver can graduate to wingsuiting only after recording a minimum of 200 solo jumps. Ramirez did it at 201.
"Took me 90 days," he says with a sheepish grin. "Other wingsuiters and skydivers told me I should wait until at least 400 jumps, which is the ideal number. But I don't know — I just... I didn't want to wait."
Ramirez has lived his life in extremes. He's raced cars and hiked mountain peaks and, at one point, was known as the most well-traveled backpacker to come out of Florida, having visited more than 100 countries by the age of 32. Ask him what parts of the world he's visited, and he lists the places in rapid-fire succession like an auctioneer after seven Red Bulls. "Australia, Brazil, Greece, Thailand, Switzerland..."
He's been an extra in movies, including Marley & Me, The Specialist, and the Wesley Snipes action flick Drop Zone. He's gone camel-riding in Egypt while wearing nothing but a thong, hang-gliding in New Zealand, and bungee-jumping in Zimbabwe. He's frolicked with baby elephant seals in Antarctica and done stunt work for various local TV commercials.
Wingsuiting, he says, is different. It's an unbridled beast, an obsession. So he's become a member of a small, slightly insane group. And it can be deadly. Wingsuiters are constantly at the mercy of abrupt changes in the weather, equipment malfunction, and human error.
Tim Sartori is Ramirez's skydiving trainer. The fresh-faced 30-year-old expert wingsuiter with faded tattoo sleeves on both arms has more than 9,000 jumps to his credit. He says about 50 wingsuiters gather in Sebastian a few times a year. It's a tight-knit group that's wary of outsiders. Sartori says Florida's wingsuiting community is aware of the risks yet remain undeterred. "Sure, I've had a friend who died wingsuiting," he says in the blasé tone of a plumber describing a clogged sink, "but that's part of the sport."
In 3500 BCE, Sumerian King Etana was depicted on a coin flying on an eagle's back. About 4,600 years later, Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk, became the first man known to have flown using makeshift wings. Then there's the myth of Daedalus' son Icarus, who famously escaped imprisonment by flying away on wings made from wax and feathers; he ultimately plummeted to his death after soaring too close to the sun. Mankind has always been enraptured by the idea of flying like a bird with death below.
Modern wingsuiting rose to prominence in the late 1990s and gained a cult-like following in the YouTube era, but its roots can be traced to 1912, when French tailor Franz Reichelt jumped off the Eiffel Tower while wearing a pseudo-parachute suit he had designed. The 32-year-old Reichelt convinced French police he was using a dummy for his experiment and then leaped off the tower himself. While cameras rolled, he dropped straight down, landed headfirst and leaving a sizable crater.
At the time of his death, newspapers called Reichelt reckless. And that might be so, given his suit was nothing more than a patchwork of silk, rubber, and cloth. But Reichelt experimented with it for years. The modern wingsuit is merely a technically advanced and sound version of his design with more attention paid to wind, weight, and gravity. It includes nylon-webbed arms and legs that, when filled with air in flight, add surface area to the human body. It's always worn with a parachute to bring the jumper safely to Earth in an emergency. Because wingsuiters descend more horizontally that vertically, they must carefully calculate not only height but also distance before jumping. It's the sensation of flying — and perhaps the risk — that wingsuiters say makes their sport superior to any other.
Then there's base-jumping. The name is actually an acronym for "building, antenna, span, and Earth." It's a lower-altitude version of wingsuiting and considered much more treacherous than airplane wingsuiting. A base jumper is a wingsuiter who launches himself off cliffs, buildings, and bridges rather than airplanes, keeping with the spirit of Reichelt. The difference here, again, is sensation. Watching cliff walls and treetops zip by as one soars horizontally provides a seemingly better perception of flight.
Death and danger have followed wingsuiting ever since Reichelt's fateful fall. The inventor of the modern apparatus, Patrick de Gayardon, perished in 1998 while testing modifications on a suit. Mark Sutton, a British stuntman who gained fame for parachuting into London's Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Games as James Bond, was killed a year later after slamming into a mountainside in Switzerland while base-jumping.
In 2003, base-jumping champion Dwain Weston met a grisly end while attempting to wingsuit over the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado. The 30-year-old Weston and fellow wingsuit legend Jeb Corliss leaped from a plane 3,000 feet above the bridge for a stunt at the Go Fast Games. The plan was for Weston to fly over the bridge while Corliss passed under it. Weston reportedly miscalculated the wind and distance of the bridge and crashed into a railing at a 120 mph. The impact severed his leg. Corliss, who was following closely behind, found himself covered in Weston's blood. Weston's parachute carried him down into the gorge, where he bled to death. Corliss would later say that Weston's last words before leaping from the plane were, "Whatever happens, happens." Corliss also theorized Weston was trying to skim the bridge in an attempt to push the envelope — something common among many base jumpers and wingsuiters. Like Reichelt 91 years earlier, Weston's stunt and death were caught on film.
Where base-jumping calls for leaping off tall structures and cliffs at heights measured in the hundreds of feet, airplane wingsuiting finds its sport 14,000 feet above ground. Wingsuiters come to Florida from all over the world, particularly because Sebastian is considered to have one of the best drop zones in the nation due to the weather and the gorgeous, endless view of the Atlantic. Two nearby areas that also draw these daredevils are DeLand, just north of Orlando, and Zephyrhills, north of Tampa.
Because of its popularity, Florida has seen its share of wingsuiting tragedies in recent years.
On a sun-drenched day in March 2016, Sebastian Leal, an experienced skydiver with more than 400 jumps, donned a wingsuit and leaped from a plane. He immediately turned his concentration to his four wingsuiting partners attempting a formation in a coordinated dive. But within seconds, a sudden massive force smashed into him. Then, darkness. Leal had collided midair with one of the other wingsuiters 14,000 feet above the Zephyrhills drop zone.
"I never saw him coming," Leal says.
The collision sent Leal into free fall. He was unconscious. The emergency automatic activation device (AAD) on his chute deployed, ultimately saving his life. Footage of the accident was caught by Leal's helmet-mounted GoPro camera. It shows Leal leaping out into a vast cobalt horizon and then steadying himself for the formation attempt. Suddenly, the violent impact is heard, followed by the ghastly sound of hissing wind. Dizzying images of a spiraling cloudless sky mix with the blurred brown and green of the ground below. The screeching audio abruptly gives way to a haunting silence when Leal hits the ground, a crooked image of blades of grass filling the screen. He landed three and a half miles from the drop zone.
"One moment I was above the drop zone looking at my colleagues," he says. "The next I was waking up on the ground in pain."
Leal, who was 23 at the time, suffered four severed vertebrae, paralyzing him from the waist down. He now lives in Mexico City, where he continues to make progress through therapy following a procedure in which doctors implanted an epidural stimulator into his spinal cord. He also continues to base-jump with the help of friend. Leal says the wingsuiter who crashed into him was less experienced. A coordinated formation dive calls for participants to jump out of the plane one after the other as closely as possible. Leal says the other wingsuiter, who sustained minor injuries, probably leaped too soon.
"He just lost control and crashed into me," Leal says before pausing as if for emphasis. He then makes it a point to say not only was his accident a freak occurrence, but also he has no regrets, even after struggles with rehab and therapy.
"It probably took me a year to really understand how severe my injury was," he says. "When I left the hospital, I wasn't fully aware of how permanent it all was. But I remain positive. It's something that I do not regret. Wingsuiting is a sport that is very high-risk and something you have to have a lot of passion for. It's a sport where those of us who do it understand that it all comes with a lot of risk."
In 2014, 43-year-old Sebastian native Jeff Nebelkopf, a pioneer in wingsuit cameras and Leal's skydiving trainer, died from injuries he sustained in Sebastian when his main canopy malfunctioned and sent him into a hard spin into the ground.
Another of Leal's friends, Boca Raton resident Bond Springer, was killed after a 2016 midair wingsuiting collision in South Carolina in 2016. Springer, age 32, collided with fellow wingsuiter Avalon Wolf during a skydiving festival. Wolf survived with a broken leg. A search party found Springer's body in a nearby wooded area the following morning.
Mike Ramirez has lived his life like the wind. Born in New York City, he grew up in Levittown, a quiet lakeside suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The son of a postal worker and a housewife, Ramirez was a kinetic child, full of pent-up energy and tireless curiosity. He constantly sought outlets through sports such as baseball, football, swimming, and tennis. While his friends would run and hide behind trees and cars during games of tag, Ramirez would climb onto random houses' roofs and jump off when spotted.
But, he says, he found his calling when he moved to Miami in 1993. There he met a girlfriend who eventually invited him to travel to Portugal with her. "I had never been outside of Puerto Rico or the United States before that," he says.
The wanderlust bug bit him with a vengeance. After a week with his friend in Portugal, Ramirez wandered off on his own and backpacked through Spain, Morocco, and Ibiza. Then he decided to hit every continent and take it all in fully. He kickboxed in Thailand, took close-up photos of Komodo dragons in Indonesia, went on African safaris, and backpacked through the French Riviera. He skydived for the first time in New Zealand.
He calls his wanderlust an addiction.
"He's an adrenaline junkie constantly looking to push things to the limit," Christina Tamayo, his girlfriend of three years, says. "Once he puts his mind to something, he's doing it."
It's clear he's driven more by a lust for life than by adrenaline. Ramirez drinks up experience in huge gulps. "Now he's talking about base-jumping," she says. "That's even worse than wingsuiting. To me it's craziness."
Tamayo says she tries not to worry about Ramirez's adventure-seeking nature. She ribs him for being obsessive about his dangerous endeavours but says she lets him pursue his passions because that's who he is.
Ramirez says he hopes to take wingsuiting from the skies of Sebastian to base-jumping from the rocky cliffs of Colorado, California, or maybe even Switzerland. And he wants to become a base jumper nine months after first parachuting, which, according to most experienced wingsuiters, is neither advisable nor wise. He hopes to make a documentary about his quick ascent.
"Every jump gets me a step closer to base-jumping," he says while awaiting his eighth wingsuit jump in the Skydive Sebastian airport locker room. Then he hears the gusty winds howl outside and is momentarily vulnerable. "But I'm a little nervous — today especially."
There's a reason for his unease. Despite the cloudless spring sky, winds are gusting at a harrowing 30 mph at 14,000 feet. As he waits and hopes for the winds to die down a bit, his gaze keeps wandering out through a window. He rubs the gimpy left knee he dinged up during his last jump. He also ponders his near-catastrophic accident from several weeks ago.
Just then, another wingsuiter, a lanky man with a clean-shaven head and thick red beard, brushes past while carrying his rig.
"Drink a cold one for me when you come down," he tells Ramirez. "I'm out."
"You're not jumping?" Ramirez asks.
"Not today," the man says. "Too fucking windy."
Ten minutes later, a white and blue de Havilland Twin Otter's propellers roar to life, and the announcement is made for skydivers to gather for preboarding. There are four tandem skydivers as well as Ramirez and Sartori, who are the only wingsuiters going up. Sartori became Ramirez's trainer when the two met during accelerated free-fall training at Skydive Sebastian in May 2018. It's evolved into a typical coach-athlete relationship. Sartori is meticulous about the ways Ramirez needs to improve. Ramirez always listens intently and peppers his coach with questions. "Mike is a very good student," Sartori says.
"I have to be, or I'll be dead," Ramirez jokes.
Over the steady, deafening buzz of the plane's spinning blades, Sartori reminds Ramirez to arch his back, push out his legs, and turn his hands — something Ramirez has a habit of forgetting. The body's position is crucial in wingsuiting, lest one lose control in those unforgiving high-altitude winds. Turning one's hands downward allows for better steering and balancing of the body. Ramirez nods at Sartori. He stretches his neck. He flexes his knee. Sartori leaves Ramirez alone with his thoughts. The anxiety is palpable.
Once everyone is aboard, the plane begins its jerky dash down the tarmac. There is no door on the plane, only a hole for the jump. The abrupt lurch during liftoff is jarring but swift, and the ground quickly shrinks. Inside the cabin, no one speaks as the cacophony of wind and propellers fills the air. Nerves are on edge. At 12,000 feet, the plane turns into the fierce gusts to right itself for the skydivers' drop. The interminable, stark blue ocean touches the beige shore of Sebastian below.
With the plane steady, the all-clear is given, and the tandem skydivers spill out like a chorus line with their instructors attached to their backs.
The plane then continues climbing, and once it reaches 14,000 feet, Ramirez crouches and inches toward the exit with Sartori, who wears a GoPro camera on his helmet. A few last-minute instructions are given. Ramirez then grips a handlebar and locks eyes with Sartori just before dropping into the void. Several seconds later, Sartori follows.
Ramirez raises his knees toward his chest to accelerate a brief drop. He then steadies his shoulders and stretches outward like a flying squirrel, allowing his suit to fill with air. The winds are violent, but they safely turn his body up as his wingsuit has been designed to do, and he bullets forward through the sky. With the sun on their backs, he and Sartori are in complete control, zipping through the Sebastian skies at breakneck speeds.
After several minutes of flying, the vastly more experienced Sartori duck-dives ahead of Ramirez and disappears into a cluster of clouds. He turns his body and films Ramirez, who remains steady and focused.
The two soon spot the wide grassy drop zone adjacent to the tarmac. Scattered about the broad terrain are the skydivers who just landed, gathering their gear and making their way back to the airport.
With the clearing empty, Sartori comes in first. His chute catches a sudden jolt of wind, which rocks him back and forth like a pendulum. He uses his parachute toggles to steady himself and makes a flawless landing. He spots Nick, another experienced skydiver and wingsuiter, who has been standing at the drop zone with a pair of high-powered binoculars. "God, it's fucking windy up there today," Sartori tells him. "I think that should be all. No more jumps today."
In the distance, Ramirez appears as a gray speck on a great blue canvas. With his chute unfurled, he slowly aims himself at a spot 20 yards from where Sartori landed. Ramirez touches down and immediately stumbles. His chute gets caught by the wind and drags him across the turf, but he quickly gets back to his feet. Ramirez then beats the air out of his chute before he folds it and throws it over his shoulder for the short jaunt back to the airport. His face is flushed from both the adrenaline and the whipping winds. He blames the rough landing on his bum knee.
Not far away, at a private airport just east of I-95, is the Skydive Sebastian manifest building. Inside there's an unassuming makeshift memorial. One might miss it hanging among the myriad photos of wingsuiters and skydivers that fill the walls above the mini-lockers and cork bulletin boards. It's a collage of action photos of Jason Eisenzopf, a 30-year-old Skydive Sebastian instructor who perished from severe head injuries sustained after coming in too hard on a landing in 2012.
Standing several feet from the framed memorial, in the yawning arched entryway overlooking the sweeping whitewashed tarmac, Nick — who declines to give his last name — explains wingsuiting is a sport of risk versus passion.
"We do this because we love it," he says. The gruff, white-haired 55-year-old retired Green Beret then adds, "I've lost buddies in this sport, and I can tell you those guys loved it too. There's skydiving, and then there's wingsuiting. No offense to skydiving, which is exhilarating as hell, but this is a whole other animal. Once you've wingsuited, there's no going back. Nothing else captures the thrill of flying on your own. It's something that has to be lived, because explaining it doesn't do it justice."
Skydive Sebastian has been called a "Top 5 drop zone in the U.S." by SkyDive.com. Trainers and wingsuiters such as Nick emphasize that experience is the best teacher.
"Part of being a good wingsuiter is putting in the time," he says. "That's why Florida is perfect for the sport. The weather is going to be good most of the year."
Leal, the Mexico City wingsuiter who was paralyzed, also emphasizes the importance of patience. "People who try to hustle through the process can be a problem," he says. "You can never have enough jumps. Do at least two or three times the amount of jumps that the entry level recommends before you base."
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Three days after the jump, Ramirez is back home lounging on a couch next to an open balcony in his 11th-floor North Miami Beach apartment overlooking a large lake. On his laptop, he watches a video of himself wingsuiting. It's been edited and spliced with rock songs about danger zones and taking things to the limit. He talks about the documentary he hopes to make and about base-jumping, then pauses the video and stares down at the lake.
"My wingsuit is back in Sebastian," he says. "If I had it here, I'd jump down there right now. No joke. Right into the water. Water makes for soft landing."
Then he adds, "I'm going to keep wingsuiting until I'm dead." He resumes studying the video.
Down below, a white egret glides across the lake before settling on the edge of the water. It waits, looks about, then spreads its wings and takes flight again, effortlessly.