Stats Instructor Sets World Record for Highest Wingsuit Jump

Adjunct Instructor Aaron Smith, Ph.D., can calculate risk better than most people.  

Not only is he a statistician, but he currently holds the world record for highest wingsuit jump.  

Smith, a faculty member in the Department of Statistics and Data Science, set the record on July 1 by jumping from a plane at an altitude of 43,253.62 feet. For perspective, most commercial airliners cruise around 35,000 feet.  

The feat was the culmination of years of skydiving and wingsuit jumps. And it all started with boredom.  

“I really got started doing this on a whim,” he said.  

Three years ago Smith found himself stuck at home with nothing to do when COVID shut down the world. Refusing to give into the tedium, Smith spent his weekends trying kayaking, hiking, cycling and jet skis.  

“Nothing was really scratching the itch,” he said.  

So, he went skydiving. Smith still gets nervous before every jump, but that first one had him especially on edge. The potent blend of adrenaline and serenity in flight, though, had him hooked. No sooner had he landed than he was ready for the next jump.  

Multiple jumps with an instructor qualified him for his first solo jump. That was even more exhilarating. Smith compares it to feeling like a superhero.  

“It’s thrilling on a level I can’t articulate,” Smith said. “Every person should experience that.”  

The only downside: “Once you get good at something it’s boring, so you have to make it more dangerous,” Smith said.  

The next level was wingsuits. These special suits feature extra material under arms and between legs that allow jumpers to glide toward the ground. It’s closer in a lot of ways to true flying than skydiving, and Smith was hooked after the first try.  

As Smith mastered the technique, he began casting around for a worthy challenge. He found it in a high altitude jump site in Whiteville, Tennessee (near Memphis). No sooner had he called than the proprietor asked him if he wanted to break a world record.  

“It wasn’t on my radar. But it was feasible, so I said ‘yes,’” Smith said.  

The actual jump wasn’t the only danger waiting for Smith at the top of the world. The thin oxygen and freezing temperatures require excellent cardiovascular health; a previous attempt at that altitude killed a skydiver named Tom Noonan in 2021 before he even left the aircraft.  

Smith spent weeks running as hard as he could to build up endurance. He paired that training with ice baths three times a week to build cold tolerance.  Even then the jump was a taxing mental and physical test. But he gained not only a world record, but renewed self-confidence. 

“I developed the ability to handle all these problems successfully,” Smith said. “It feels good to work myself up to that.”  

A first-person perspective of Aaron Smith’s record-breaking wingsuit jump.

Of course, the satisfaction is short-lived. Smith is already eying a wingsuit distance record to break sometime in the future.  

For now, he’s content with local skydives and evangelizing the benefits and rewards of the sport.  

“Skydiving is for everybody,” he said. “You gain a tremendous sense of accomplishment and freedom.”  

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