The skydiver who fell to his death in a California vineyard was wearing a specialized jumpsuit that resembles a flying squirrel and was undertaking an extreme but growing sport that can send people soaring through the air at speeds of more than 200 mph.
Matthew Ciancio, 42, crashed Wednesday afternoon after undertaking a jump with the Lodi Parachute Center, about 30 miles south of Sacramento.
The Federal Aviation Administration says it's investigating and has not announced a cause of the accident.
Bill Dause, a spokesman for the Lodi Parachute Center, said witnesses told him that Ciancio jumped from 13,000 feet and released his parachute at about 4,000 feet.
Dause said the witnesses saw Ciancio and the chute spinning wildly, and it appears that Ciancio failed to deploy emergency procedures — which include releasing the bad parachute and pulling the cord of a backup chute.
Dause said it appears that Ciancio released the main chute, "but it was too late."
Such jumps, which rely on the use of a specialized jumpsuit often referred to as a wingsuit, squirrel suit or birdman suit, is one of the most extreme forms of BASE jumping, an acronym for leaping from a building, antenna, span or Earth.
The United States Parachute Assn. does not track the number of people who skydive in wingsuits, but a representative said it's a growing number.
"It's definitely grown in popularity a lot over the last several years," said Nancy Koreen, director of sport promotion with the association.
The wingsuit jumpsuit is made of two arm wings and a leg wing, which are supported by the use of inflatable pressurized nylon cells. Wearing the suit increases lift and allows the skydiver to fly horizontal distances at a slower descent rate, increasing their time in freefall.
A wingsuit flier uses his body as well as the suit to control his forward speed, direction and lift. A beginner wingsuit has smaller wings, while more advanced ones have much bigger wings.
As a wingsuit flier gains experience, he can increase his forward speed, reduce his downward speed and fly more advanced suits, Koreen said.
An experienced and efficient flier in the most high-performance suit can achieve descent rates as low as 25 mph — 80% lower than a regular skydiver's — and horizontal speeds of up to 220 mph, Koreen said.
She said a skydiver who wants to jump wearing a wingsuit must first complete 200 regular skydives.
"You want to have that base of knowledge because it's a more advanced discipline," Koreen said.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said investigators plan to talk to first responders and any witnesses to the accident, review any video evidence and examine the skydiver's parachute to determine whether it was properly packed.
Including the most recent fatality at Lodi, there have been eight wingsuit skydiving deaths in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2011. There are an estimated 3.5 million to 4 million skydives in the U.S. each year, according to the United States Parachute Assn.