Skydiver stuntman death shows extreme sport risk

The "wingsuit" skydiving discipline which cost London Games stuntman Mark Sutton his life is an extreme sport whereby participants in seach of an adrenaline high happily take the high risk into account - with sometimes tragic consequences.

Former army officer Sutton, 42, wowed the world by parachuting into the London 2012 Olympics dressed as James Bond but died while wing-diving in Switzerland's Alpine region of Valais after crashing into a mountain ridge on Wednesday during an extreme sports gathering.

"With an impact of between 200 and 250 kilometres (125-150 miles) per hour, he died instantly," a policespokesman said.

French wing-diver Roch Malnuit, who was part of the same group as Sutton but did not witness the accident, stressed that Sutton was "anything but a hot-head" participating in a sport where divers don special jumpsuits to add surface area to the human body, gliding like birds before opening parachutes to land like a regular skydiver.

Yet the dangers of the pursuit have been laid bare with Sutton not the first to lose his life in a sport developed in the 1990s.

Frenchman Patrick de Gayardon, considered its founding father, died in a parachute accident in 1998 at the age of 38 while a 24-year-old German wing-diver died last month after hitting a rocky outcrop.

And in 2012, local authorities in Chamonix banned the sport temporarily after an accident which killed a Norwegian, and another which left a South African severely injured.

Jerome Rochelle, a 48-year-old coach with 80 jumps to his name who goes by the nickname of Jeronimo, told AFP that "the wingsuit is a very technical activity, closer to piloting than freefall where you follow 'lines' just a few metres from the ground."

With those risking the pursuit comprising a small group of people, Jeronimo had met Sutton.

"It was three or four years ago at Lauterbrunnen, in Switzerland," he recalled.

Sutton was a renowned specialist in his field, using his passion for jumping in tandem with his prowess for filming as he went. Indeed, Sutton filmed Gary Connery, who dressed as Queen Elizabeth II for the Olympic stunt, for the duration of a wingsuit flight effected without a parachute.

Actually landing without posing a danger to oneself requires a parachute as well as the wingsuit in order to allow a diver to break his fall.

But it is the two-minute jump itself which provides the ultimate adrenaline high as fans of the sport hurtle groundwards at speeds approaching 200kph (125 mph), while looking to follow a 'line' just a few metres away from the cliffside or mountainsides.

"Often you repeat the same line several times," explains Jeronimo. "The risk is that if you follow an improvised line with less points of reference then you lack information on the relief."

Sutton and his jump partner leapt from a helicopter from a height of 3,300 metres. But generally wingsuit divers - France has around 100 regular participants within the para-Alpine association affiliated to the French Federation of Alpine and mountaineering clubs - leap from cliffs or mountainside faces and ridges.

Once launched, the diver's goal is to cruise for as long as possible, arms and legs akimbo, allowing the suit's vents to fill with air and pressurise it to bolster shape and rigidity.

Top protagonists can manage to undertake flights attaining what they term finesse level three - that is, flights which take the diver three kilometres from their start point per kilometre variation in height.

"You have to know how to deal with this kind of feeling" generated by wingdiving. "You can't let yourself get carried away," says Rochelle.

"But the current trend is to follow a line very close to the ground which is very risky. The tiniest mistake, a little bit of valley breeze, can destabilise you," he warns.

The statistics bear out his words of warning with 20 deaths a year worldwide outstripping any comparable discipline of extreme sports.