Jhonny Florez: Colombian wingsuit flyer and Hollywood stuntman who achieved a world record by jumping from 37,265ft

Throughout Latin America, Flórez was known as el hombre pájaro, 'the bird man'

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The Independent Online

At the age of 32, Jhonathan Flórez, widely known as Jhonny, died doing what he loved best: flying like a bird under his own power at speeds of up to 200mph. One of the world’s fastest and longest-distance wingsuit flyers – who skydive and glide using body suits with winged arms – the Colombian daredevil slammed into the side of Mount Titlis in Switzerland while testing a new suit for the upcoming world championships in China. His family said he is believed to have died instantly.

Throughout Latin America, Flórez was known as el hombre pájaro, “the bird man”, a skydiver, wingsuit flyer and Base jumper – the latter acronym referring to those who leap from buildings, antennae, spans (bridges) or earth (mountains). He had a reputation as a “proximity” flier for gliding as close as possible to the landscape.

In 2013, he was crowned champion at the annual event of the World Wingsuit League on Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie, China.  “There are no Olympic medals in my sport, but I feel I got my gold for myself and my country, Colombia,” he said. (A rival  wingsuit World Cup was inaugurated at Netheravon airfield, Wiltshire, in May this year, hosted by the Army Parachute Association and organised by the World Air Sports Federation, FAI).

Flórez held two world records, set on the same flight in April 2012 over La Guajira in his native Colombia: the longest time in the air in a wingsuit, nine minutes and six seconds; and the jump from the highest altitude, 37,265 feet (from an aircraft, starting at -45C and using an oxygen tank). He formerly held speed and distance records, but both currently belong to Japan’s Shin Ito, who has reached a speed of 225.6 mph and travelled almost 18 miles in a wingsuit.

Flórez won a coveted place on the elite Red Bull Air Force, a team of skydivers, Base jumpers, wingsuit flyers and ski-Base jumpers (those who ski off mountains before opening their parachutes). With the team, he “buzzed” the famous Christ the Redeemer statue above Rio de Janeiro. He and Red Bull teammate Cedric Dumont of Belgium became the first people to fly unaided, but for their wingsuits, over the famous Nazca Lines in Peru, believed to have been carved out by the Nazca civilisation around the 5th century AD, and now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Flórez scared more than a few of his fellow Colombians who had gathered around the iconic Monserrate church on the mountain which dominates their capital, Bogotá, when he and his English pal, James Boole of Birmingham, jumped from a helicopter in 2013 and swooshed past the church tower at 100mph.

Jhonathan Flórez Patiño (the Christian name spelling is common in Latin America because the “Jh” produces the sound of the soft English-style J, rather than the more guttural Spanish J, or jota) was born on 3 April 1983 in Medellin, the picturesque Colombian city whose name was long sullied by the murderous cocaine cartel of Pablo Escobar. Flórez was only 10 when Escobar was killed by the Colombian police and Medellin gradually ceased to be the most dangerous city in the world. As a joke, after taking up skydiving, he called one of his teams   “the Colombian Cartel”.

In his latter years, he was in demand in Hollywood, both as an aerial stuntman and as a cameraman with a POV camera attached to his helmet. Shortly before his fatal accident, he had been stunt-skydiving for an upcoming remake of the popular 1991 action movie Point Break. In the original, the FBI character, played by Keanu Reeves, skydives from a plane, without a parachute, to chase the bad guy played by Patrick Swayze. In the new movie, due out at Christmas, Flórez is in action doubling for one of the new lead actors.

“Before I jump, of course I am nervous,” Flórez said shortly before he died. “But the moment I jump, I have the biggest smile on my face.”

Jhonny Flórez lived the last few years of his life in Sacramento, California, with his wife, Kaci, a yoga instructor. But the couple spent most of their time travelling the world to extreme sports events and competitions. They had no children. He is survived by Kaci and several brothers and sisters.

Jhonathan Flórez Patiño, extreme sportsman; born Medellin, Colombia 3 April 1983; died Mount Titlis, Engelberg, Switzerland 3 July 2015.

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