In addition to sustainable and innovative electromobility for the road, BMW is also bringing the art of progress to the skies. Together with wingsuit pilot Peter Salzmann, they developed a wingsuit with an electric propulsion unit that allows athletes to perform climbs, redefining the limits of their sport.
He feels a cold Alpine wind across his face, but Austrian wingsuit pilot Peter Salzmann smiles. The moment he has eagerly awaited for so long has finally arrived. The helicopter takes him up to an altitude of 3 000 metres. Through the clouds, you can see the outlines of the mountain peaks known as the ‘Three Brothers’. In a few seconds, Peter will fulfil a dream: performing a skydive in a wingsuit with an electric propulsion unit that allows him to climb again and fly further than any wingsuit pilot before him. Peter has spent three years getting to this point, years of hard work, research and testing. He exhales, braces himself momentarily at the open helicopter door and jumps out.
The first idea
In Salzburg in 2017, Peter’s idea for the visionary project arose spontaneously one day after work. At the time, he was designing suits for parachuting and base jumping. After a day of testing, he and his colleagues were tossing around ideas for how to improve the suits. One of the ideas was an auxiliary propulsion system. “I couldn’t get it out of my head,” Peter says. He had always dreamt of flying. “Flying is freedom. It’s the ultimate expression of striving for the unknown and discovering new horizons.”
For weeks, Peter tinkered in his garage, looking for ways to implement the idea of a wingsuit with auxiliary propulsion technology to advance his sport and break new ground. An athlete as well as a trained sports scientist, he calculated and measured every detail: weight, wind speed, trajectory. He wanted to improve his gliding time; he wanted to start from a higher altitude, fly further than before and land safely at a suitable location. His idea was to create an impeller: a propeller enclosed in tube-shaped housing. But as sustainability is very important to him, he didn’t want to rely on conventional fuel-powered propulsion.
I couldn’t get it out of my head.
– Peter Salzmann
BMW i opens the door to a dream flight
Peter wanted to make progress, but he also knew that he needed expert help to do so. He found it at BMW i. Considering that the all-electric BMW iX3 was under development at the time, the solution seemed obvious: Peter and BMW would together develop a wingsuit with an electric motor. It would be powered by renewable energy, generate minimal heat and be compact enough to operate with a normal wingsuit. Experts from Designworks, an independent design innovation studio that acts as a think tank for BMW Group, were brought in to develop the electric impeller and a wingsuit adapted to the new propulsion technology.
We were faced with new challenges again and again.
– Peter Salzmann
The electric-motor wingsuit
“The development process was a constant up and down; we were faced with new challenges again and again,” Peter recalls. He was involved in the development at every level, down to the smallest adjusting screw. The final unit had two propellers, each approximately 13 centimetres in diameter, and resembled a futuristic miniature submarine. It was powered by a 50 volt lithium battery, weighed 12 kilograms and was fastened to the pilot with a hinge device on a chest protector. The two carbon impellers in the lightweight structure of carbon fibre and aluminium together have a power output of 15 kilowatts and move at a speed of approximately 25 000 rpm.
Testing the wingsuit
Some initial testing of the suit was done in the AEROLAB, the horizontal wind tunnel operated by BMW. Then it was onward to Sweden where the wind tunnel in Stockholm is the only one in the world where wingsuit pilots can fly indoors. He then conducted the first test jumps from a helicopter to get a feeling for how the equipment affected flying behaviour. Peter performed more than 30 test jumps with the impeller unit, making adjustments after each one.
A jump requires not just mental strength but also physical fitness. The strain is enormous, especially with extra equipment. For months, Peter did special exercises every day to strengthen his torso, neck and shoulder muscles.
It’s the year 2020, in the early morning in the Alps. The sun is slowly rising over the Three Brothers. The prospect of a jump from a height of more than 3 000 metres would definitely make others nervous, but Peter remains calm and unconcerned. 3, 2, 1, go! He gets the long-awaited signal via radio.
Seen from the ground, the pilot and his two friends, who always join him as wingsuit co-pilots during a jump, are initially just three small dots in the sky, but they quickly get closer. As the helicopter veers away, Peter and his friends in their wingsuits rapidly pick up speed. They rush past the mountain cliffs toward the valley in a three-man formation. For three years, Peter and his team have given everything for this moment. In the two preceding years, he made more jumps himself than ever before.
Then it’s time: he pulls the accelerator lever toward himself. While his two friends continue to fall, he is lifted up again by the electric propulsion unit as though by invisible forces and makes a steep climb over the summits of the Three Brothers. His efforts and exertions are rewarded as he had imagined with a quiet moment of euphoria at a height of over a thousand metres. Flying entirely under electric power, he enjoys the last few metres of thrust and then exhales before activating his parachute. He’s made history.
Flying is freedom. It’s the ultimate expression of striving for the unknown and discovering new horizons.
– Peter Salzmann