The new sport of speedflying. (Photo: Mal Haskins)

High as a kite: speedflying is taking off

  • BY Lucy E. Cousins |
  • February 25, 2011

A burgeoning group of adventurers are spreading their wings as they take on the daring new sport of speedflying.

FROM A DISTANCE YOU could be forgiven for thinking speedflying is just like paragliding.

True, it does involve people jumping off ridiculously high peaks attached to a chambered canopy, but that's where the similarities end. In fact, this fledgling extreme-adventure sport combines the experience and skill set of skydiving, paragliding and off-piste skiing – and the result is a fast, heart-pumping, non-stop descent over normally inaccessible terrain, at breakneck speeds.

Speedflyers use small high-performance gliders or parachutes to descend mountain faces either with skis (to allow interaction with the terrain and therefore increase speed) or without skis (if there is no snow or the terrain is rocky). "Imagine going down the biggest, fastest ski run you have ever experienced without worrying about going over cliffs or edges," explains Mal Haskins, an Australian veteran of the sport. "With speedflying you use a small canopy that allows you to turn away from the terrain if there's a drop.

You can attempt ski runs that you wouldn't normally be able to do." And Mal should know. He's been speedflying for five years now and is one of the best in the Southern Hemisphere. Based in Wanaka, New Zealand, Mal first discovered the sport through watching videos on YouTube and, as it seamlessly combined his love of mountaineering, paragliding and speed, he bought a speed wing glider and started to teach himself at low altitudes.

After a while, he thought he might as well run off the side of Treble Cone and, although jumping off a 2100 m mountain might not be the logical next step for everyone, it is that sort of trial-and-error approach that has helped the sport grow in popularity. Speedflying originated in 2006 when French free flyer Francois Bon made the first recorded speedflying descents of Mt Blanc and the Eiger with the newly designed 'speed wing'. However, the concept originated from parachute swooping, also known as 'canopy piloting'.

VIDEO: Speedflying the Eiger


In the late '90s a group of swooping enthusiasts, named Team Extreme, pushed the limits of mini-gliders using them to descend mountains in the USA and France. Several years later a group of paragliders in France used skydiving parachutes and skis - and a new concept in free flying was born.

''The sport of speedflying blows away all previous conceptions of what skiing is, of what flying is, of what a human being can do in the mountains," Francois explained in 2007 during the very early stages of the sport. "Speed flying allows us to dance down and over the mountain, like a bird with skis."

As speedflying gathered momentum, glider manufacturers such as Gin and Ozone began to produce speed wings. They designed canopies that inflated similar to a paraglider, but with the descent characteristics of a high-performance skydiving canopy. And other companies began to produce harnesses allowing the pilot to stand for skiing like a skydiver, and sit like a paraglider when needed (but without the seat board), making them safer and more user-friendly.

However, despite all the safety precautions, like most extreme sports speedflying is still dangerous. Speed wings can reach speeds of more than 100 km/h (Francios reached 150 km/h as he descended Mt Aconcagua in Argentina two years ago), and flying so close to the mountain requires an acute knowledge of the terrain and the local weather patterns. Only last year one of the sport's most innovative pilots, Mathias Roten, fell to his death while speedflying in the Lötschental, Switzerland.

This is a fact that doesn't escape Mal as he prepares for his next big expedition, Speedfly 8000. He and fellow pilot Dugald Peters will attempt a speedfly drop from an 8000 m plus mountain on 2011. It hasn't been done before and they are aware of the risks they face.

"With high-altitude mountaineering getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory. When you combine it with speedflying, you are getting to the top in order to do what you really want to do: speedfly down," Mal explains. "What Dugald and I will face is getting to the summit within a summit window but making sure it coincides with a flight window, when conditions allow us to make an attempt at launching, descending and landing safely, without killing ourselves!"

And although he laughs at the thought of it, Mal's experience as a high-altitude mountaineer and guide makes him especially aware of the dangers. He has already launched off three peaks higher than 5000 m in the Himalaya using speed wings and in 2008 he successfully climbed Lhotse (8516 m), which he admits was "bloody hard work".

At the moment the pair has their sights set on Shisha Pangma (8027 m) in the Himalaya in May 2011 when the pre-monsoon season encourages the upper level jet-stream winds to lift from the mountain, creating the perfect conditions for flying. But speedflying the world's 14th-highest mountain won't be easy, especially as they have to fit training in around jobs and the weather.

Over the next while they'll focus on ski touring, speedflying and avalanche survival. In December they planned to speedfly the challenging Mt Cook (3764 m) in New Zealand. "People have flown off the summit [of Mt Cook] using paragliders but no-one has done a speedflying descent," Mal explains. "Speedflying is so weather dependent, it's not just about the pilot's ability to get to the top, it's also their ability to judge the right conditions to make a safe launch."

But making a safe launch isn't just a matter of practise. With no official regulating body and ski resorts reluctant to accept speedflyers, the danger is that pilots in some countries will be forced to fly in remote areas away from emergency care and networks of peers who can learn from each other's experiences. However, the close-knit speedflying community is only too aware of the potential the sport has. From Japan to Russia, each year it attracts more and more participants, who share their videos and their experiences through online forums.

There are an estimated 3500-4000 people who practise speedflying worldwide, including in New Zealand and Australia. The majority perform it in Europe, where some ski resorts have dedicated speedflying areas. "[Pilots in Europe] are definitely pushing the boundaries in canopy sizes and they have bigger funding for doing events, like the annual Speedflying Pro," admits Mal. "But I wouldn't be surprised if you see something like that happening in the New Zealand Alps sooner rather than later."

Which would be welcome news to New Zealand's burgeoning speedflying community, which can boast the Southern Hemisphere's only speedflying school. In the meantime, Mal joins the hundreds of others who are writing the rules of a new sport that blurs the lines between what we can and can't do within the bounds of gravity.

Speedflying vs speedriding

There is still a lot of controversy as to what to call the sport. Historically, 'speedriding' was the act of using speed wings with skis, and 'speedflying' referred to ground-launching speed wings without skis. The term 'speedflying' is, however, now generally accepted as an umbrella name to describe both disciplines. Where to learn Although in Australia there is a small community of speedflyers who mainly ground-launch off cliffs the sport has really taken off in New Zealand, which has great ski slopes to support it.

Do I need a licence?

The New Zealand Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association is working through a rating system for speedflying - but as of now, if you have a paragliding licence, you are covered. If you don't, then you are officially outside the scope of the current law and Civil Aviation Authority.

Source: AG Outdoor, (July/August, 2010)