To say that Ludo “Videoman” Woerth was an extreme sportsman is an understatement. In the words of his peers around the world, he was “gnarly” and “sick” – to them the ultimate compliment. When BASE jumping from cliffs, buildings or bridges became too vertical for him he turned to wingsuit jumping from planes or helicopters, gliding at up to 150mph, sometimes only five metres from the ground, or from rock faces and treetops, before deploying his parachute.
He was one of the world’s best-known wingsuit jumpers, skydivers who wear aerodynamic suits which allow them to fly and steer for miles and many minutes rather than merely to drop with gravity. The suits, sometimes known as squirrel suits, have fabric between the legs and under the arms to allow longer gliding. Woerth became known as Videoman because he strapped cameras to his helmet, belly and/or back, with a specially designed helmet visor to frame his shots, making sure his and his buddies’ jumps were recorded for posterity.
Last year, having jumped from two “trikes” – motorised hang gliders – he and the Norwegian flyer Espen Fadnes swooped past the Christ the Redeemer statue towering over Rio de Janeiro. Not having gained permission, they did it at sunrise to minimise any effect on regular air traffic. Fadnes went under the Redeemer’s left arm while Woerth filmed him from behind, to the astonishment of early-rising tourists on the ground who could hardly believe these were human “birds”. They passed by so fast they looked more like bats than humans.
Also last year, Woerth, Fadnes and another Norwegian, Jokke Sommer, jumped from a helicopter above Chamonix to try to fulfil a long-standing ambition, to fly under the famous and narrow Aiguille du Midi bridge which links two peaks 3,842 metres up in the Alps. The hanging bridge is little more than 20 metres above rocky terrain and 10 metres wide, and tourists are advised not to look down while crossing it.
With Woerth filming, the three made it through the gap to the cheers and whoops of people gathered incredulously on the bridge. Why had people come to spectate? “We’re watching some crazy people doing some crazy shit,” said one tourist. That and other Woerth jumps can be seen on YouTube, but are perhaps not advisable if you’re of a nervous disposition or don’t have a head for heights.
Woerth, Fadnes and Sommer ran a Wingsuit Boot Camp at Voss, in Norway’s Gudevangen valley, which attracted budding BASE and wingsuit jumpers from around the world seeking what Woerth and his friends still sought: “the perfect flight.”
Ludovic Woerth was born in the village of Kurtzenhouse, near Haguenau in Alsace in France’s Lower-Rhine department. It was in 1999, having just turned 20, that he became hooked on extreme sports, which he took up full-time and moved south to the Rhône-Alpes département to enjoy mountaineering and extreme skiing.
Having settled in Magland, near the French ski resort of Flaine, his skills and camerawork won him sponsorship from Red Bull. The new fad for wingsuit gliding caught his fancy in 2004 and he went on to carry out more than 1,000 wingsuit jumps and 2,000 BASE jumps (the term stands for buildings, antennae, span – i.e. bridges – and earth), free-falling, with a parachute rather than a wingsuit, from buildings, pylons, bridges and mountains.
He was wearing his Red Bull helmet and camera on 29 March when, along with two other well-known members of the global wingsuit community, the Swiss-based New Zealander Dan Vicary and the American Brian Drake, leapt from a helicopter above the Lütschental, a valley in the Bernese Oberland about 40 miles south-east of the Swiss capital, Berne. Vicary and his wife Lisa ran a BASE-jumping equipment store in Switzerland, a magnet for extreme sportsmen from around the world. One behind the other, the three men jumped from a helicopter at 2,750 metres for what was planned as a 70-second descent.
Witnesses said they appeared to misread the contours of the land and found themselves over a high Alpine meadow without enough elevation to make it to a steeper downward slope. It was not clear whether they had time to deploy their parachutes but even if so, it was too late. Woerth and Vicary were killed instantly while Drake died in hospital four days later. Some 80 wingsuit pilots have been killed since the sport took hold at the turn of the century.
Last August Mark Sutton, a former British army officer who had been watched by hundreds of millions around the world when he parachuted into London’s Olympic Stadium in 2012 dressed as James Bond and accompanied by a fellow stuntman dressed as the Queen, died in a wingsuit accident in the Swiss Alps. And in 2009, one of the world’s best-known wingsuit flyers, the 39-year-old Canadian-born naturalised American Shane McConkey, died after skiing off a mountain cliff in the Italian Dolomites in a Red Bull advertising stunt, planning to glide into the valley in his wingsuit. After doing a double back-flip beyond the cliff he failed to flick both skis off, went into a spiral and hit the ground before being able to deploy his parachute.
Before he died, Woerth was working on a device, a kind of airbag shock-absorber worn on the belly, which he hoped would avoid the need for a parachute.
Ludovic Woerth, extreme sportsman: born Kurtzenhouse, France 1980; died near Sengg, Switzerland 29 March 2014.