If you’ve seen the new Tom Cruise clip from Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning and wondering “What is speed flying” or “How do I get into speed flying like Tom Cruise?” then rest assured there is an established way to learn this high octane, high adrenaline and extremely skilled sport. Cross Country Magazine editor Ed Ewing explains
What is speed Flying?
Speed flying is an air sport. That means we talk about the ‘pilot’ and the ‘wing’ ‘glider’ or ‘speed wing’.
It was developed from paragliding – Wikipedia even calls speed flying an “advanced discipline” of paragliding – but it mixes elements of parachute swooping, also known as canopy flying, to create a sport that allows pilots to fly at high speed down mountain sides close to the slope.
It was developed in the early 2000s when French pilot François Bon designed the first commercial speed wing, the Gin Nano. François Bon became a legend in the speed flying community, and completed some extreme and high altitude speed riding (speed flying on skis) mountain descents.
Along with another legend, the late Antoine Montant, Bon was the first person to speed ride the North Face of the Eiger – something the pair filmed for YouTube racking up millions of views.
In 2008 Bon then became the first person to fly a speed glider from the summit of South America’s highest mountain, Aconcagua (6,962m). He completed the 3,000m descent in a super-quick 4mins 50 seconds. “At that altitude you go really fast! I just fell out of the sky and past the rock walls” he said at the time. “It was incredible!”
With the publicity the sport experienced its first boom, attracting pilots from paragliding who were looking for a faster thrill. Unfortunately it also saw many accidents and fatalities in those early days. The combination of exhilaration, flying at speed very close to the ground is unforgiving and can be lethal in the event of an accident.
Today, pilots can learn to speed fly at schools around the world. Typically the way to learn is to learn to fly a paraglider first. That way the pilot gets a good grounding in the basics of paragliding, meteorology and what pilots call aerology – how the air flows over the ground.
Tom Cruise did it this way – learning to fly a paraglider in Morzine in the French Alps well before he transitioned to flying and filming on a speed wing.
Bastienne Wentzel, author of Paragliding: The Beginner’s Guide, explains: “Speed wings are as small as 7m2 to 14m2 and have large cells, short lines and trimmers to easily change their speed and glide ratio. The design ensures that these gliders stay overhead at all times, so they’re easy to launch.
“The harnesses used for speed flying must be light and non-bulky, so as not to hinder the pilot. They usually have no protection, and there is no reserve parachute needed because the short flights are usually too low to successfully deploy one.”
One crucial piece of safety equipment that is missing in the speed riding clip from Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I is a helmet. Although Tom Cruise does not wear one – presumably for filming purposes – it is considered an essential piece of kit by all experienced speed wing pilots.
Speed riding vs Speed flying
Speed flying is foot-launched flying with a speed wing – it’s what Tom Cruise does in Mission: Impossible.
Speed riding is the same sport, but on skis. You need to be a good skier (competent on black runs) to do this.
Find out more
Learning to paraglide takes about two to three weeks, depending on where you live. In that time you’ll go from first flight to qualified solo pilot.
From there, you will be able to explore all the other disciplines of paragliding, including speed flying and speed riding.
There are rules and guidelines around speed flying and paragliding – you can’t just buy a speed wing and launch it from the nearest mountain. Would you buy a Base jump parachute and jump off a cliff? It’s pretty much the same thing – training and experience will keep you safe.
To explore more about the sport of paragliding check out Paragliding: A Quick Guide. It’s a free digital download.
For more in-depth information, Paragliding: The Beginner’s Guide is the best introduction.