Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, May 4, 1999

Courtesy Chuck Priest
Chuck Priest soars above Oahu's North Shore
in his experimental wing suit.

Look! Up in the sky ...

No, it's not a bird, a plane
or Superman. But the man of
steel might want to buy one
of Chuck Priest's suits.

By Stephanie Kendrick
Assistant Features Editor


Logo Chuck Priest and Flip Hollstein look like wannabe super heroes as they parade out to the Dillingham Airfield and Gliderport in Mokuleia.

The sky divers are modeling two generations of Priest's wing suit, a design intended to turn diving into soaring.

Priest has taken up the work of his mentor, champion French sky diver Patrick de Gayardon.

De Gayardon was a part-time Hawaii resident and partner in Pacific International Skydiving Center.

He died at Mokuleia just over a year ago after a last-minute adjustment he had made to his suit fouled the lines of his parachute.

A pioneer in the sport, de Gayardon was refining the wing suit design. The suit was developed by the military but had not been used by sport sky divers since the 1930s when early models proved too dangerous.

The idea behind the suit, on which wings of fabric extend from the arms to the torso, is to allow sky divers to trap air and glide, slowing their fall.

Of course, they still fall. At a rate of about one foot down for every two forward, according to Priest.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Sky diver Flip Hollstein and designer Chuck Priest model
two versions of Priest's wing suit, which allows skydivers
greater mobility and more time in the air.

But the lift afforded by the wing suit allows for greater horizontal movement and more daring acrobatics.

"The suit is as acrobatic as you would dare to be," said Priest.

Sky divers using the suit have been clocked at speeds of 42 to 200 miles per hour. They can even pull into a stall.

"You put the wings out and it's so quiet you can hear yourself laughing," said Priest.

De Gayardon's apprentice, Adrian Nicholas, has been working on the wing suit design in France. He and Priest are not collaborating.

In a recent 13,000-foot jump, Nicholas flew 4.3 miles in his wing suit before deploying his parachute. It was a world record Priest hopes to break in the next few weeks.

It's an ambitious goal for someone who has been sky diving for less than four years.

An interest in film and stunt work attracted Priest to sky diving, as it had to ballet, dirt biking, martial arts and other disciplines.

Priest and his then bride-to-be learned to sky dive for $500 each. "Hawaii is the cheapest place to learn how to sky dive," he said. At the time, mainland schools were charging up to four times that amount, he said.

Although he was schooled in clothing design and had owned a business doing wedding gowns and evening dresses, when Priest moved to Hawaii seven years ago he made his living doing massage and carpentry.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Designer Chuck Priest suits up in the most recent design.
A highly engineered garment, the sky suit makes for greater
comfort in mid-air, but it's a bit awkward on the ground.

The first couple of years he was sky diving he would go to the field and swap massages for jump tickets.

Then he decided to try his hand at jump suits and pants.

His first set of suits were awful, said Priest, but his technique improved.

Priest founded Da Kine Rags Hawaii and has made about 580 pieces out of his Manoa home in the last year and a half.

He began by doing all the work himself. Then his wife quit her job and came on board. Now he has two more employees and is looking to hire four or five sewers by the end of the month.

It's not easy work. Priest has trained 10, but none have been able to work fast enough, or clean enough.

Priest is working to take the wing suit design a step further and make it structurally more like an aircraft than a suit.

The wing suits are not available for purchase, rather Priest is recruiting professionals to test prototypes. He also is looking into establishing guidelines for use of the suit.

"The soaring suit is an avenue that is going to go more and more mainstream," said Priest.

And, like any extreme sport, that means people will try it who should not.

Emergency systems are built into the suit. Parts of it can be removed quickly if they get in the way of the chute or hamper movement. But all he can do is make it as safe as possible and realize he cannot anticipate all the dangers, said Priest.

Champion sky surfers Marcus Heggli and Oliver Furrer are testing Priest's suits on the pro circuit, competing in France and Switzerland.

Heggli recently flew Priest's suit for three minutes before deploying his parachute from a height that would normally yield a free fall of 45 to 60 seconds.

With the wing suit, skydiving becomes high-speed gliding, said Priest.

"It's the next step closer to human flight," he said.

And Priest hopes to get closer still.

His ultimate goal is to design a suit sky divers can land without a chute.

The problem is gravity. "It's got you doing 100 mph down or across," he said.

Priest laughs at his own audacity, but it is the laugh of a man who thinks he just might pull it off.

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