An icy alpine wind blows in his face, but Peter Salzmann smiles anyway – the moment the Austrian wingsuit pilot has long been looking forward to is finally here! The helicopter takes him up to a height of 10,000 feet (3,000 m). You can already make out the outline of the Drei Brüder or “Three Brothers” mountain peaks through the cloud cover. In a few seconds, Salzmann will fulfill a long-awaited dream – that of basejumping in a wingsuit that, thanks to an electric motor, will allow him to fly over the “Three Brothers”. During the approach, Salzmann goes through all the processes in his mind one last time, almost meditatively. He closes his eyes, flies the stretch ahead in his mind’s eye, lightly moving his head, upper body and hands as he does so. Three years of work, research and testing for this one moment. He exhales, supports himself briefly on the left and right sides of the open helicopter door… and jumps.
Flashback: Salzburg, 2017. The idea for this visionary project arises spontaneously after work one day. “At the time, I was developing suits for skydiving and basejumping with a friend and basejumping mentor,” Peter Salzmann explains. “In a relaxed atmosphere one evening after a day of testing, we threw out lots of ideas about how we could improve performance. One of them was a supporting motor – and it’s an idea I just couldn’t shake. I found the idea of being able to jump from my local mountain wearing the wingsuit and land in my garden fascinating.”
The Austrian has always dreamed of flying. As a small boy he would jump off anything that raised him above the ground and land on mattresses or pillows. “Flying is freedom. It’s the ultimate expression of striving for the unknown and discovering new horizons,” says Salzmann. As a stuntman, basejumper, flight instructor and wingsuit pilot, he actually managed to turn flying into his profession – a full-time occupation that has allowed him to follow a path that he always saw mapped out for him. “I only want to do things that are close to my heart,” reports the 33-year-old. “Yet I always knew there was more.”
The wiry, toned athlete comes across as relaxed and down-to-earth, but with a charisma that instantly casts a spell over you. For weeks, Salzmann worked in his garage at home on ways to implement the idea of a wingsuit with assistive propulsion technology with the aim of propelling on his sport and entering new, unknown territory. The Austria native wants to increase his gliding time, take off from greater heights, fly further than ever before and land safely in a suitable place. “I quickly came up with the idea of an impeller, in other words a propeller enclosed by a ring or tube-shaped housing. However, a fuel-powered or conventional motor was out of the question,” Salzmann points out. “Sustainability is very important to me, and something I try to live my everyday life by. I enjoy nature from the air and on the ground – that’s why I aim to consistently follow the path of sustainability even when it comes to mobility. With the fully electric BMW iX3, I can now do that when preparing for my latest jumps – and thanks in no small part to the support of BMW i, the progress in electrification has made my dream possible.”
KEY TO THE DREAM: CONTACT WITH BMW
There comes a time in life when you have to decide whether you want to continue doing what you’ve always done, or whether you want to try something new. Peter Salzmann wants to progress, but he also knows that he needs expert help to do so. And he finds it at BMW i in 2017. “Our future-oriented approach with electric propulsion systems and innovative materials and technologies were a perfect fit for Peter Salzmann’s unusual but fascinating idea. In my opinion, Peter Salzmann perfectly embodies the attitude of the BMW i brand with his unique vision, his passion and his courage. I was also very impressed by his physical effort, combined with in-depth technical knowledge and a very clear understanding of the brand,” says Stefan Ponikva, at the time patron of the project at BMW i and now Vice President Brand Experience.
With one eye on the simultaneous development of the fully electric BMW iX3, the solution was obvious – they would develop an electric wingsuit together. They would develop an electric propulsion system for lofty heights – powered by renewable energy, compact enough to work with a regular wingsuit, and with limited heat generation – an enhancement of the well-known fly suit design that would enable an immediate start and a truly agile flight experience. “I enjoy tackling challenges like this. Developing new suits, testing new equipment and promoting the sport of wingsuit flying in different ways – that’s what drives me,” says Salzmann. “And in BMW I’ve found the perfect creative partner to realize the project with the highest safety standards and all the necessary development steps.”
At the same time, close contact was established – through BMW i – with Designworks, the BMW Group’s design innovation studio. The studio provided Salzmann with experts to work with the wingsuit pilot on developing the fly suit adapted to the new propulsion technology, and the electric impeller. “From a technical standpoint we brought in Designworks, who are experts in bringing together the needs of mobility and other sectors,” added Ponikva. Realizing this vision together with his team was a personal moment of joy for him. “Only an electric impeller is lightweight and agile enough to enable regular wingsuit flying and basejumping. Light enough to climb mountains with, agile enough to fly tight turns and maneuvers, and yet quiet enough not to disturb the purity of the flight.”
THE FIRST STEPS TOWARDS AN ELECTRIFIED WINGSUIT
Ideas became sketches, sketches became digital models, and digital models became the first prototypes. “The very first one was made of cardboard – and I built it so that I could get a feel for the size of the fly unit, i.e. the impeller unit including the batteries and everything that goes with it,” explains Salzmann. Two models were produced, one large and one smaller unit. The next step was an aluminum prototype that did not, however, contain any impellers or electronics. It was used to simulate the weight and dimensions and was worn by Salzmann with a harness and breast piece.
“The development process was a constant up and down, we were always facing new challenges,” reveals Salzmann. “Initially we were going to put the propulsion unit on the back. But after the initial drawings and discussions with aerodynamics experts, we decided to move the fly unit to the front.” Salzmann and the team also quickly had to abandon the plan to use the larger version of the impeller, and the extra 40% of output it offered. “The very first time I tried the fly suit on, it was clear to me that the whole thing would be too heavy and that I would only have limited movement. The thing is, comfort and feeling safe are the most important things when jumping, and I also need freedom of movement so that I can open the parachute later.” The engineers therefore focused on the smaller model – still around 40 inches (1 m) wide – which was then fine-tuned via wind tunnel testing. The final fly unit, with its two propellers, each around 5 inches (13 cm) in diameter, ultimately resembles a futuristic mini-submarine. It gets its electricity from a 50 V lithium battery, weighs in at around 26 lbs (12 kg) and is attached to the pilot’s breastplate by means of a hinge unit. The two carbon impellers in the lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum structure have a combined output of 15 kilowatts and run at a speed of around 25,000 rpm.
WINGSUIT TEST FLIGHT IN THE WIND TUNNEL
The first series of tests with the fly suit were carried out in the AEROLAB, BMW’s horizontal wind tunnel. The wind tunnel testing was used to validate and compare the various impeller variants and wingsuits. “During the first few runs we tested the entire ensemble with a dummy, but with the original impellers and wingsuits, and measured all forces and moments. We then decided on a variant of the impeller and the specific positioning,” explains Salzmann. The next step involved a trip 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 control a flight with the impeller. This skydiving wind tunnel is the only one in the world where a wingsuit pilot can fly indoors. Here I was able to simulate the flight and also test whether I could open my parachute without problem. And it felt so stable! I knew then that we were on the right track.” With this preliminary design of the propulsion unit, Salzmann then performed 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 with the impeller, battery technology and the necessary electronics built in, and then it was time to hit the air.
Salzmann completed more than 30 test jumps with the fly unit. “After evaluating the initial jumps, we came to the conclusion that the impellers were still not getting enough air flow. We therefore integrated additional air inlets into the wingsuit.” The propulsion system was designed in close cooperation with BMW i and Designworks and optimized down to the smallest detail. Another discovery was that the weight was too high and had to be reduced. “And we had to come up with an emergency cut-off solution for the fly unit, develop a steering facility and position an on/off switch in such a way 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.”
FROM KOREA TO THE ALPS
It’s early morning and the sun is slowly rising over the Drei Brüder peaks in the Hohe Tauern mountain range in the Alps. The countdown is on; in half an hour Peter Salzmann will launch the pivotal jump. The electrified wingsuit has been checked down to the last detail, every screw and every seam on the equipment inspected. While the prospect of jumping from 10,000 feet (3,000 m) or more would definitely make others nervous, Peter Salzmann remains cool and carefree. Calm, but visibly energized, he explains to his team how he intends to complete the flight. It was actually supposed to have taken place on the other side of the world – Salzmann originally planned to complete this jump in Korea in the spring of 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, relief was finally forthcoming. When the pandemic began to abate, the project got back on track and the new location in Austria was found. The team was able to resume planning, equipment testing and test jumps. Now, a few months later, Salzmann’s dream of flying in a way no-one has ever flown before is about to be realized.
Is he nervous? No. “There’s always a certain amount of tension, of course, and that’s a good thing. You always have to be aware of the consequences of mistakes. With this amount of speed and physical strain, everything has to be done right. Over the years I’ve cultivated a level of experience that now gives me the security of sitting in the helicopter with a smile, even if that might surprise some people out there. When the chopper takes off, the equipment has been checked and I’ve gone over the processes point by point in my head. For me, the journey up is now just one thing: pure anticipation.” A jump not only requires mental strength, but also physical fitness, explains Salzmann, assuming a flight position to illustrate. “The load on the body is enormous, especially with additional equipment. I can keep my arms in this outstretched position for about five minutes. I’ve 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. Viewed from the ground, the wingsuit pilot is initially just a small dot in the sky, but quickly gets closer. As the helicopter veers off, Salzmann quickly picks up speed in his fly suit. He rushes past rock faces with a gap of just a few feet (1-2 m) as heads towards the valley. In flight, Salzmann always focuses on specific points along the mountain in order to maintain his course and to be able to react in good time if necessary. Yet the Austrian is very much in his element.
For three years he has given everything for this moment. In the past two years he has jumped more often than ever before – and faced situations where he went outside the envelope. Then, the time has come: he pulls the slider towards him with his middle and ring fingers – and is pushed back up from the descent, as if by invisible forces, by the electric propulsion system he has activated. Salzmann’s efforts and toil are rewarded, just as he imagined – with a quiet moment of euphoria at a height of over 3,000 feet (over 1,000 m). Just before he opens his parachute, he enjoys the last few electrified yards or meters of thrust, breathes out, and pull his ‘chute. In order to redefine the limits of his sport, he pushed himself to his own limits.
E-MOBILITY FOR EVERY TERRAIN
It’s now afternoon at the Drei Brüder. Peter Salzmann has landed safely; he packs up his parachute, carefully attaches the impeller onto a specially made mobile holder unit that is a little reminiscent of a modified hand cart, and stows the rest of the equipment in his BMW iX3. A look back toward the mountains, then it’s time for home and family. The feeling of exhilaration from the flight will stay with him on his journey home. “For me, driving this new electric BMW iX3 has parallels to my wingsuit experience. The sound is similar, as is the feeling of immediate acceleration.
It’s impressive and it feels good to be continuing on my sustainable path through electromobility, whether that’s on the road or in the air.” Peter Salzmann is not one for resting on his laurels. The daredevil wants to go even higher. The South Korea plan has only been postponed, not cancelled – the energetic Austrian wants to fly between high-rise buildings there. “I will have to train more. We will optimize the technique and look ahead boldly.”
The art of progress, after all, lies in bursting free of the familiar and breaking new ground
PHOTO CREDIT: BMW innovation