Matt Butler: Spectacular, awesome, epic – and unsurprisingly deadly

The View From The Sofa: Helibase 74, Epic TV

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The Independent Online

The thing about the movie Titanic is that you already know the ending before you watch it. So it is with Helibase 74, a four-part series on wingsuit flying in Chamonix that started last week. It was well before the voiceover intoned “then, the unthinkable happens... there is an incident” that we knew that the first episode would not end on a happy note.

That is because one of the wingsuit flyers was Mark Sutton, one of the stuntmen who dropped into the Olympic Stadium for the dramatic James Bond-helping-Queen Elizabeth sequence at the opening  ceremony for London 2012. And, as many of us know, he died  recently. In a wingsuit crash. In Chamonix. During the shooting for Helibase 74.

That the film-makers decided to release the series, showing on the online channel Epic TV, was a little ghoulish. And the part when the 23-man crew pull up their vans at the bottom of the first mountain they will fly down – having jumped out of a helicopter – and Sutton looks worriedly at the camera and says, “It is covered in cloud”, is chilling in the extreme.

The idea of the show was to gather 23 of the world’s best wingsuit pilots (one wonders how they were contacted) to fly in a collaborative project that showcased the sport. As the organiser, Espen Fadnes of Norway, said: “To show off our sport and show we are professionals and able to do it in a safe and good manner.” Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but one part of his plan failed miserably.

Of course the participants know full well the danger they place themselves in the minute they part company with the chopper. And the makers are clear that the series is dedicated to Sutton’s memory. But the first episode’s title, “Risking everything for the ultimate flight” is jarring.

The footage of wingsuit flyers speeding down the face of a mountain clad in flying squirrel costumes that look like they are made out of sleeping bags is stunning. Wide-angled, auto-steadying cameras are mounted on flyers’ heads, the helicopters and on the ground to capture every plummeting human.

The shot of the opening flight, by Fadnes, is incredible. As his mid-Atlantic-accented voiceover says, “the second I dive out, there is silence. It is like ahh... yes...” – the jagged alpine panorama he sees is laid out before us. Then, as the ins and outs of wingsuit flying are explained to us (they start from 11,000 feet and travel up to 150mph) the ground comes up frighteningly quickly and Fadnes looks as if he could lop the tops off the pine trees, he is flying that close.

Three more jumpers make it to the valley below. All very jocular and adrenalin-fueled, as the flyers, complete with backwards baseball caps and beanie hats, say things like “sick”, “epic” and “awesome” to each other.

Then comes a sub-bass sound effect and the “unthinkable” comment from the narrator. Sutton’s  accident is, thankfully, not shown. The flyers recount how numb they felt as soon as news of the crash came. And the mood is summed up with the final words of the first episode, from the Colombian jumper Jhonathan Florez: “No mountain, no jump or anything is worth dying for.” And fade to black. But the question lingers: is making a spectacular TV series worth it?

It will be interesting to see how the second episode tackles the aftermath of the tragedy. Even if we know already how things ended.