What is Free Flight?

Free Flight Collage

In the animal kingdom, free flight is used by birds, bats and insects to travel between food, shelter and breeding areas. Some of the most spectacular animal migrations are those made by birds, for example high altitude flights by bar-headed geese over the Himalayas, extreme endurance migrations over 10,000 km by godwits and terns and sustained air speed records of 80 kph for days on end by great snipe.

Flight is also used by animals over smaller distances, for example raptors soaring on thermals to gain altitude and the aerobatics of flying swifts. Birds are widely considered the consummate champions of the skies, and the technology with which to study their aerobatic performances are now revealing incredible insights into their physiology.

The Arctic Tern migrates the furthest, with average annual roundtrip lengths of up to 70,900 km. Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures have been spotted flying at 11,300 m.

For humans, free flight includes harnessing dynamic and thermal lift in sailplanes, paragliders and hang gliders; falling with forward motion in sky diving, BASE jumping and wing suit flying and being buoyed up by gases lighter than air in balloons.

Steve Fossett set the altitude record in a sailplane in 2006, flying to 15,460 m. He was also the first person to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon. The furthest distances flown are 3,009 km by sailplane, 764 km by hang glider, 568 km by paraglider and 27 km by wingsuit. The highest speed reached by a skydiver is 557 km/h and in 2014, Alan Eustace jumped from the edge of space at 41,425 meters to set a new skydiving altitude record.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Coke Smith, SEARCH Projects, Bertrand Piccard. Records: FAI, 2017.