There are aspects of the life of South Loop resident Alexey Galda that read a bit like a superhero backstory.
Mild-mannered theoretical physicist. Grew up in Siberia. Educated in Moscow and England. Regularly dons a blue wingsuit to jump out of airplanes at speeds north of 200 mph.
Galda, 35, is a competitive wingsuit flyer. He’s stood on podiums with the world’s best.
But it’s not something you’d necessarily know, even if you knew Galda.
“I don’t really advertise it that much. If people ask me, I am happy to chat and encourage people to do their first skydive. But it’s not something I bring up. It’s a separate life that I live. My main job is that I am a scientist and that’s who I am. My second life is in the wingsuit,” he said.
The fact that Galda isn’t an attention seeker is in line with the sport itself.
There’s no fame or fortune in it. It’s not spectator-friendly.
“If you look up and squint really hard you could see a dot,” he said.
“It’s just us, thousands of feet up, holding a certain body position for a couple minutes,” he said.
It’s a far cry from the “proximity flying” many people associate with wingsuits, where flyers glide through canyons, next to mountains and between buildings. The feats garner millions of views on YouTube.
For Galda, success in the sport is measured in distance, speed and time spent aloft — all within a certain altitude window.
His work as a scientist helps.
“My background in optimization and data analysis helped me develop specific strategies to optimize my flying,” he said.
“It’s very technical and data-heavy. Everything is recorded by a GPS device on the flyer’s helmet.”
Something that aids his analysis: his face. Galda wears an open-face helmet with goggles.
“It gives me more feedback on flying because you can feel the air with your face and hear it with your ears,” he said.
He is one of only about 200 people who compete internationally in the sport.
Galda was a kitesurfer and paraglider before getting into skydiving about 10 years ago. He got 200 jumps under his belt — a prerequisite for being allowed in a wingsuit — and never looked back.
Galda earned a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Birmingham in England. His work took him to the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory before taking a job with a biotech startup last year.
He trains in the warmer months at the Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Rochelle.
“You build up muscle memory so when you perform a jump in a competition, you basically get in a zone. You don’t really feel much other than trying to stay 100% focused, there’s no scare or excitement until the jump is over,” he said.
Competitions have taken him all over the globe.
Airport security is generally inquisitive about the parachute and wingsuit in his luggage.
“The explanation just takes a minute,” Galda said with a laugh.