Perhaps you’ve seen the videos. Some lunatic strapped in to a bright-red wingsuit, jumping off a cliff in the Alps and gliding across majestic landscapes at blurring speeds — inches from a sheer cliff wall, or a meter over jagged rocks. There’s really nothing like it on earth. Shared on social media, it’s the type of clip that pulls your eyelids over your forehead and reminds you that you haven’t really lived.
Roberta Mancino is one of the sport’s greats. She’s a rare woman in an aggressively male sport, but what sets her apart is her creativity and her desire to execute jumps that others would never dare, like splitting two skyscrapers in Panama City or flying over an active volcano in Chile — the first person ever to do so. She isn’t particularly shy, either, having recorded several skydives completely au naturel. And she swims with crocodiles and tiger sharks for kicks.
The Italian extreme athlete just wrapped up the latest round of RedBull Aces — a thrilling mid-air competition pitting wingsuit pilots against each other in a slalom race around gates suspended by helicopters. And now she’s off to train for her next big stunt: jumping out of a plane, and skydiving back into the same plane. Yes, for real. We got her to pause long enough to talk to us about her life as an airborne adventure junkie, including one near-death encounter with a cliff in Switzerland.
How did you discover wingsuiting?
I’ve been skydiving since 2000, and I started wingsuiting in 2009. It makes you feel like you’re flying much more than just falling, like in skydiving. I always wanted to fly, that was my dream since I was very little. I started with paragliding but my real dream was to go skydiving and learn how to fly.
How do you graduate from skydiving to wingsuits?
In general it takes about 200 skydives to start to wingsuit, but I started much later just because I wanted to be really safe. I already had thousands of jumps before I started to wingsuit, but from 2009 on I never stopped. All my skydiving training was mostly to train for BASE jumping — to be able to jump off different things like a building. When you proximity fly, when you BASE jump and fly by something, then you can really feel the speed, and you feel like you’re flying like a bird. It’s a beautiful sensation that gives you lots of freedom. I mean, you feel part of nature when you’re in the mountains flying over rocks, trees, and beautiful locations with waterfalls. And even in the city it looks and feels cool.
Can you describe the sensation of flying by a building at 160 mph?
You know, I always say you kind of feel like you’re in a Bond movie the whole time, that’s what it’s like for me. It’s very exciting and I love this feeling of speed and freedom. Right now we have one of the best competitions in our sport in RedBull Aces. It’s all about speed and flying. We have to go around gates that hang from helicopters. So we curve around those gates with four people competing and the fastest one wins the competition.
Do you race at the same time, or is it one-by-one?
We race four people together. We are in a big helicopter and when it starts, we all jump together. Then we start to look for the gates hanging from four helicopters up in the sky, and we have to go around them. So, you hit the first gate, for example, on your left, then the second one on the right. Then, the third one on your left and then the last gate, the finish line is on the other side. So, it’s a really cool competition. We feel like Formula One drivers in the sky. And everything is 180 miles per hour. We are all flying to the same point, and there can be a collision with the other jumpers so you have to be careful. It could be dangerous because you can hit each other. Maybe just a black eye or you get a little bit sore, but nothing crazy.
How do you go faster? If you can explain it to somebody who’s never done the sport.
You want to stretch the wingsuit, so you stretch your whole body horizontally. You have to push from the shoulder to the toes, and stretch as much as you can. Then you have to find the right angle of your body to not be too flat — because if you go too flat you glide and you don’t go fast. But if you go too steep then you just go straight down, so you have to find the right glide. It takes thousands of jumps to understand. Every little movement makes a change in the angle of your body — like if you look up, for example, you slow down. If you put your head down then you go steep and you go faster.
Is speed the best part about BASE jumping?
Yes, yes. It’s all about speed. When you’re skydiving you don’t understand how fast you’re going because you don’t have anything related to you to look at. But when you BASE jump you can see it. When you fly next to a wall, you see the wall go by and you know you’re going very fast.
Are there many female racers?
There are only two girls right now in those races. There are no other girls just because it’s a hardcore race. I mean, the guys are fast and aggressive and it can be scary.
Tell us about the jump you did in Panama City, flying between two buildings. How did you decide on that?
I lived in Dubai for three winters, and I was looking at the buildings out there and just thinking how amazing it would be to fly in between those buildings and do something in the city. It was a dream of mine. You always want to find something that can push your limits and to see how precise you are when you fly. I would’ve loved to do it in Dubai but it was very hard because I’m a woman. It was impossible. They wouldn’t let me do it. So I contacted some friends, my students who were in Panama. Then I went there a few times to scout locations and found those two buildings, and it was easy to get permission. The gap in between the buildings was not too small — I needed to have enough space to have somebody follow me on the side.
We had some crosswind that made it more dangerous. A storm was coming and the wind was picking up and that’s why on the video you can see my face at one point, as soon I pass the buildings I just kind of scream. I got scared because I didn’t expect such push from the crosswind. That’s okay after you pass the buildings and there’s nothing there, but you don’t want that to happen when you’re in between.
What about being the first person to fly over an active volcano? Where did you get the inspiration to do that jump?
Okay. So, all those jumps I do can be dangerous, but they’re stunts. They’re not jumps that you do over and over again. You train all year and then you go and you do a first jump that’s very safe, like flying high above, just to check the place. And then the second jump you go much lower. Something can always happen, but there’s lots of preparation. At the volcano, weather conditions can change and make the jump more intense, but we were so lucky, we had the best conditions and there was no wind at all. The only thing is, when you fly above it you feel the turbulence from the heat, because the volcano is really hot inside. All the hot air comes up and it’s almost like you feel the lift. The flight was pretty much like any other jump, except the landing spot was far away, so we had to fly out and glide for a while before pulling the parachute. And the landing can be technical because the terrain is unique, there are rocks in some places.
To fly over a volcano is just incredible and unique, and it looks crazy because you see all the fire inside. People asked me if I was worried that it might explode when I was flying by, and I was like, no way. I mean, how unlucky could you be? But a few weeks later we heard from friends that the volcano was firing the whole night. So we laughed a little bit.
When we flew there nobody had done it before, so we had no idea what to expect. That’s why those are the best projects, because you don’t know what’s going on until you’re there and you find out. It’s all about the adventure, and that’s what we do. And then there’s the connection with nature and beauty. I mean, flying is such a good feeling — when you fly with your body, it’s not the same as in an airplane. It’s you, you are the airplane.
What’s the most scared you’ve ever been during a wingsuit BASE jump?
I was in Switzerland and I was standing on top, at the end of the cliff. The day before and all that morning it had been raining a lot, so the tall grass where I was standing was very, very wet. When I stepped to push to jump out, I lost my balance. So instead of jumping off I just fell off the cliff in a completely wrong body position. You always want to jump out far and straight, but I crashed with my butt on the rock— I was half–upside down. I have to say it was the scariest experience I’ve ever had.
How did you recover?
I recovered with just instinct I think. I have almost 9,000 skydives, so I’ve been in the air a lot, and that’s why you want to jump so much. You want training in those situations, and if I didn’t have that experience I probably wouldn’t be here now telling you the story. It’s happened to other people and they have not been so lucky.