Taking Flight With The Birdmen

60 Minutes Travels To Norway To Witness One Of The World's Most Extreme Sports

This story was first published Oct. 11, 2009. It was updated Dec. 16, 2009.

For hundreds of years, fully grown adults and very young children have dreamed about flying. People have made wings out of feathers and wood and jumped off buildings and cliffs in order to soar like a bird. And a lot of them have died trying.

Now, a small group of extreme sportsmen wearing specially made "wingsuits" have come about as close to flying as you can get outside the confines of an airplane, at least for a minute or two.

Some people call them "birdmen," and we first learned about them on the Internet.

The pictures we saw were so spectacular, 60 Minutes and correspondent Steve Kroft decided to assemble some of the sport's top athletes, and mount a small expedition with the latest high definition cameras to one of the most beautiful places on Earth to see what this is all about.

Photos: The Birdmen
Web Extra: "There He Goes"
Web Extra: "I'm Flying"

Going head first, one of the birdmen jumped off a cliff, soaring along the mountain's surface, and controlling his movements with the help of his wingsuit. When he whizzed by Kroft and the other jumpers - who were observing from halfway up the mountain - the sounds is not unlike that of a small jet airplane.

Kroft joined JT Holmes, an American professional skier from Lake Tahoe; Julian Boulle, a South African living in France and a skydiver and aerial photographer par excellence; and Tom Erik Heiman, one of our Norwegian hosts.

"I just love just feeling speed and watching that stuff go by," Holmes told Kroft.

During these fly-bys, Holmes said one can reach speeds of 140 to 150 miles an hour.

If you want to do this, there is no better time or place than the Romsdal valley of Norway during the summer solstice, a paradise of fjords and farms several hundred miles northwest of Oslo. Myth has it that Norway's trolls live there amidst the waterfalls and some of the tallest, sheerest cliffs in Europe.

Norwegians have been parachuting off of them for decades. Birdmen take the extreme sport to new extremes, dropping off a cliff and free falling until the air inflates the wings of their nylon suits and propels them forward.

"The dive creates the speed," Holmes explained. "And you use that speed to glide out, and, you know, fly flatter."

Gravity makes it impossible for them to go up, or even maintain altitude. For every two feet Holmes glides forward, he drops a foot. But the suit allows him to stay aloft three times longer than a skydiver.

"Within a few seconds of course, that suit, that wind is going to fill up that suit, it's going to pressurize and you're gonna have total control," Holmes said.

He told Kroft he's been flying with wingsuits for five years.

Asked what's special about the suit, Holmes said, "Mmm, you know, it's just like so many children dream. It's flying."

"You feel like you're flying?" Kroft asked.

"Well, I am flying," Holmes said, laughing. "So, yes, I do, very much, feel like I'm flying."

"Like a bird?" Kroft asked.

"Yeah. Just like a bird. A bird that can't flap his wings and go up," Holmes replied. "The birds probably laugh at us. They're probably just like, 'Look at these guys.'"

They have long grown bored of simply flying over the valleys. In order to maximize the sensation of speed, they need a visual reference point. So they fly just a few feet from the rock face.

"Sometimes you're flying so close to these cliffs, it looks like you could reach out and touch them and you are going 100 miles an hour, 140 miles an hour," Kroft noted. "There's not much margin for error there."

"It feels entirely in control. And the speed actually increases your stability and it increases your safety margin. Because with the speed that we're flying with, you can create lift. And you know you can pop up and fly away at any time. There's margin there," Holmes explained.

Asked how quickly he can turn, Holmes said, "I don't even know how to turn. You just do it. You just look where you wanna go and you just go there. And you just feel it and go."

"You're like, 'Yeah, let's go fast. This feels good. The faster I go, the more control I have.' And you just charge with it," he added.

To the extent that Holmes and the others ever get nervous, it usually comes at a time that many people might consider one of the most mundane legs of the trip, when the end is in sight.

Asked what the most dangerous part of the jump is, Holmes said, "The most important thing is to open that parachute, you know. Just that moment, when you reach back. And throw the pilot chute out there, which extracts your parachute. That's the most critical thing. I mean, if you don't do that, you're not gonna live through it."