In the film “Crosswind” by Patrick Passe, Omar Alhegelan is mind-blowing as he elegantly whizzes around the sky on his feet. (If you consider yourself a freeflyer but have never seen “Crosswind,” put down this magazine for an hour and go online to do your homework.) When the film came out in 2001, you could count on one hand the number of people who could pull off something like that, but today it’s common to see feet-first angle jumps at most events. It’s great that jumpers are finally catching up to what the pioneers were doing 16 years ago, but with so much freefall traffic and so many people trying new things, it’s essential for everyone to learn how to be safe so we can keep on playing.
The principles of feet-first (aka head-up or upright) angle jumps are naturally very similar to head-first (head-down) angle jumps. So, before attempting feet-first angle jumps, familiarize yourself with the basics of angle flying. All the same principles apply: flying quadrants, keeping heading with the group, how to fly if you’re left behind, etc. Here we present information about how these principles apply to flying feet first and will focus on the two most vulnerable points of the jump: the approach and the breakoff.
Let’s start by clarifying some terminology. We’ll denote the body orientation by the body part that hits the wind first (the feet or the head) and then by which side (back or belly) faces the relative wind. For example:
• Feet first or head first on the back side (moving forward with the back side facing the relative wind)
• Feet first or head first on the belly side (sliding backward with the belly facing the relative wind)
Now let’s get to the heart of it.
Approaching the Formation
As with any type of freefall approach, your first priority is to get on level with the formation and only then approach your slot. Make sure you aim to the side of the formation in case you overshoot. Since the feet hit the wind first in feet-first angle jumps, the level is based on your feet rather than your head.
Like on any other angle jump, the flatter you get, the more the burble of the person in front of you will affect you. (The flatter you are, the more the person in front is actually underneath you, which means more of his surface area blocks the wind.) You can avoid hitting this burble in two ways:
1. Flying offset: In an offset formation, no flyer is directly in front of another flyer but rather they are offset to the right or left and therefore cannot burble one another.
2. Adjusting level: If you are head up on your back side, fly with your feet a bit behind the leader’s feet (relative to the direction he is pointing). If you are head up on your belly, fly with your feet a bit ahead of the leader’s feet (relative to the direction he is pointing).
The flatter the jump is, the greater distance there will be between your legs and the leader's.
Adjusting level makes it challenging to keep eye contact while maintaining an efficient body position, so it requires practice. However, most feet-first jumps are steep enough to allow you to have your legs on the same level as the leader’s legs without burbling him.
Make sure you get on level before you get close to the formation because this will allow you to see everything. Luis Adolfo Lopez-Mendez from the Fly Warriors elaborates, “When approaching, always keep your visual contact on your approach line and the slot you’re taking to avoid hitting or crashing into someone who is trying for the same slot in the formation.”
If you are on your back and are too high, accelerate vertically before pushing forward. If you dive down while moving forward, it is difficult to see what’s below you, which may cause a collision. If you are below the formation’s level, absolutely don’t move forward underneath it. Hitting the formation while rising from underneath it is very dangerous. Mason Corby, an organizer and coach based in Australia, warns that changing speeds or angles too quickly can lead to corking. Corby says, “I see it happen on the approach to a formation,
when people are far away and give too much input to get there or when they second guess themselves and change body positions radically and without control. What they need to do is just calm down and hold the position to see the reaction they get from each input.”
Approaching head up on your belly side is much like approaching head first. Corby suggests waiting in the knee-flying position and allowing the formation to come to you. He explains that it’s easy to misjudge how quickly the formation is moving at you, so you may collide with it at high speed. But waiting in a knee-fly position, he explains, allows you to add speed quite quickly if needed to avoid such a scenario.
In the beginner stages of feet-first flying, most people have more vertical movement than horizontal. That’s why there are different recommended breakoff procedures for those with more or less experience and ability.
If your group can’t fly slot-specific formations, it’s best to break off from a static (one that has no horizontal movement) sit-flying formation such as a “campfire” formation. To do this, gradually slow down and transition into a static sit-flying position at around 7,000 feet. Then proceed to a static head-up breakoff at a normal altitude (generally 5,000 feet for small groups). The two most common ways to break off from a beginner static head-up formation are:
1. On your feet, turn 180 degrees away from the center of the formation. Look up to make sure no one is above you, then slowly transition to your belly while maintaining the heading. Once you are on your belly, you can look ahead and, if it’s clear, start tracking on your belly away from the formation.
2. Slowly transition to your back-flying position. This will slow down your fall rate and will give you more time for your breakoff. To transition to your back, gently release the pressure from your feet and allow yourself to roll onto your back. Make sure you look up to clear the airspace above you before going to your back. Once you are on your back, your feet will be facing toward the center of the formation and your head will be facing away from the center. Now you can perform a half barrel roll onto your belly, look ahead and, if it’s clear, start tracking on your belly away from the center of the formation.
Some people have a habit of transitioning to their backs and flat tracking away on their backs. The problem with this is that if you are flat on your back, you can’t see where you are flying. On static head-up big-ways, the flyers transition to their heads and then perform a head-down breakoff (through their backs). The transition to the head allows them to clear the airspace in front of them before flying on their backs. But a transition from back-flying to flat tracking does not allow this.
As the popularity of head-up angle flying grows, experienced jumpers are still exploring how advanced groups should handle breakoff. The big question that is still undecided is what type of transition is safest when making the return to a head-first track for breakoff. However, there is consensus on two points:
1. Breakoff altitude for upright movement jumps needs to be 1,000 to 1,500 feet higher than for normal, head-down movement jumps of the same size. Jumpers often have a higher vertical speed and therefore lose altitude quickly during breakoff on feet-first jumps. Additionally, the transition eats altitude, so breaking off higher is a good idea.
2. It is important to fan out and clear your departure line before making any sort of transition. (In other words, the initial part of the breakoff—fanning out—happens on the feet.) Once you have cleared your departure line, you can start flattening out and make your transition to a head-first position.
If you are flying feet first on your back, a cartwheel transition will allow you to keep an eye on the direction of flight. Another option is to back flip to a belly-side head-first position. If you don’t feel comfortable doing one of these transitions, you can just flip forward to your belly-side head-first position once you have cleared your departure line.
If you are flying on your feet on your belly side, you can choose between performing a front flip or a cartwheel.
Whichever transition you choose, you may float up or lose heading. Make sure to note your heading before the transition and adjust afterward, if necessary. Be aware of your fall rate and do your best to keep it the same after the transition.
Choosing the appropriate type of transition for your skill level is very important. Lopez-Mendez says, “Be honest about your skills and make sure you choose a transition you can control. It’s very important that you don’t lose your orientation or direction and end up coming back to the center of the formation or against the flow of the breakoff.”
World champion freeflyer Matt Hill strengthened this point by saying, “Especially on big-ways or groups of four or more, people need to execute a transition that they've previously tried and pulled off properly more than once in a small-group environment.”
If you’re experienced in flying flatter feet-first angles, you can choose to flatten out on the breakoff. Corby provides this reminder to avoid corking out by transitioning slowly and gradually: “Relax as you flatten out. Let your feet overtake your hips, but when it feels like you are about to cork, stop going shallow and maintain the steepness you can hold safely.”
Most importantly, before you go on a large-group jump, make sure you have the skills to fly safely, break off and get away from everybody. Like when learning any other skill, you should start by getting one-on-one coaching and practicing in very small group environments until you’ve perfected the skills necessary to safely jump with larger groups. If you are just starting to learn how to fly feet first, there is no need to do so in a completely stretched-out position. It is easier to learn at a slower vertical speed by keeping some bend in your body. Feet-first flying is challenging and fun, but—excuse the pun—it’s important not to get in over your head while attempting it.
About the Author
Sharon Har-Noy, D-33082, is a freefly coach and load organizer. As part of team Joyriders XP FreeFly, she travels the world teaching and sharing her passion for the sport.