Wingsuit Progression Part Four: Making It Back Alive And Well
By Matt Gerdes and Taya Weiss
If it seems that there is a lot to think about on a wingsuit skydive—you know … not hitting the tail, not crashing into other people on the load, checking that other groups are flying inside their lanes, staying inside your own lane, being aware of the others in your group, navigating back to the DZ, holding your slot and flying predictably, watching out for other groups and open parachutes closer to the DZ, breaking off slowly and predictably, being sure to open your parachute in the right place (the place you agreed on when you were dirt diving), watching out for the open canopies from other groups, having a symmetrical and smooth deployment at the proper airspeed and altitude and then getting your parachute safely back to the DZ—well, that’s because there is a lot to think about.
Wingsuit flying is complicated and requires a significant amount of training, education, practice and dedication. It isn’t something you can just do a little here and there and still do it well. It deserves respect and your full attention. Your life is on the line, along with the lives of others. A wingsuit skydive presents many opportunities to make fatal errors. And don’t kid yourself about the risks to others: If you mess up in this sport, you can kill someone. It has happened before.
PHASES OF THE JUMP
In the first phase of the jump—the exit—avoiding a tail strike is the first concern. This is a joint effort between the wingsuit flyer and the aircraft pilot, but the decision to exit lies with the wingsuit flyer. It’s this simple: If the aircraft settings are incorrect, do not exit the plane (except in an emergency and when directed by the pilot).
The second phase of the jump—the flight—provides countless possibilities of colliding with other wingsuit flyers. You must absolutely be able to complete a stable exit, approach the formation safely, navigate within your established flight lane and determine where to open your parachute. You must know these things not only in theory but in practice, in the suit you are using. Brand new suit? Congratulations! Please don’t jump onto a zoo load with the cool kids, thank you! Take some time to familiarize yourself with your upgrade so that you know the suit inside and out before flying with others. An unstable exit, uncontrolled approach to a formation or an unstable deployment will endanger other skydivers on your load.
For the third phase of your jump—opening and flying back to the DZ under canopy—you must plan carefully. In order to safely fly to and deploy your canopy in the correct area, you must know the wind conditions at your exit and opening altitudes, as well as on the surface, before making your dive plan. You must also know what the non-wingsuiters on your load are planning to do. It’s easy to land off in a wingsuit, and many wingsuiters don’t take this seriously enough.
THINGS WINGSUITERS SHOULD TAKE MORE SERIOUSLY
Tail strikes: Although there have been fewer instances of injury to jumpers and damage to aircraft due to tail strikes in recent years, there are still way too many close calls. All too often, jumpers pass under the tail by a narrow margin, avoiding severe injury and aircraft damage by just a few inches. Wingsuit flyers need to pay closer attention to this and work together with pilots to achieve better safety margins. More information about aircraft settings is available at nextlevel.ws on the Knowledge Base page.
Mid-air wingsuit collisions: Collisions are a big deal, whether they happen within groups or with jumpers from another group. Wingsuit jumpers should be more afraid of mid-air collisions. Use the information in this series of articles to prevent them, and remember that as group size increases much beyond a 2-way, keeping track of everyone becomes impossible, which means you are trusting other jumpers with your life. Who are you flying with? Know the people on your jump. Plan the jump, and jump the plan.
Cutaways: All too often, skydivers take cutaways lightly: “No biggie, if it goes wrong, I’ll just chop it!” Losing your parachute should be your last concern. In a wingsuit, main-parachute malfunctions are a life-threatening emergency. There is no guarantee that you will be able to access your emergency handles, your reserve will open without line twists or that you will be near a safe landing area. Take measures to reduce the chances of a cutaway: Choose the right main canopy and practice deployment techniques like your life depends on it. More information is available in parts one and two of “Wingsuit Deployments” by Matt Gerdes in the August and September 2017 issues of Parachutist.
Landing off the DZ: Landing off should be treated more seriously than just having to buy a case of beer. Off landings can endanger yourself, the sport and the drop zone’s business. If you aren’t part of the solution (landing on the DZ every time), then you’re part of the problem (making wingsuit flyers look bad to the entire industry). And there are no excuses … this goes doubly when there’s less-than-perfect visibility. At one DZ, it’s a case of beer if you land off in clear skies. If you land off when there are clouds, it’s 10 cases. No joke.
Interacting with parachutes (fly-bys): People make unpredictable turns under canopy sometimes, particularly when they’re up high and not expecting to be visited by a meat-bomb. Sometimes the wind direction will change or there will be vertical movement in the atmosphere that affects your trajectory. Sometimes, when you focus on one parachute, you won’t see another. All these things make wingsuit-on-canopy action more complex than many people realize.
If you want to set up a careful fly-by of a friend and you both have the experience to plan and execute it carefully, then go for it. But keep in mind that there have been too many close calls involving wingsuiters performing fly-bys and going low to do it. An impromptu pass that you set up at 4,000 feet and complete at 2,500 feet doesn’t leave much altitude for a safe deployment. And while it’s a bad idea to do casual buzzes of our friends, remember that USPA Basic Safety Requirements prohibit fly-bys on students, including tandems, planned or not.
Wingsuit flying is fraught with risk, and it requires much training to become competent. It is also incredibly fun, and being responsible and having fun are not mutually exclusive (in fact, just the opposite). Although a very lofty aspiration, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels aerobatic demonstration team—whose members have knowledge of the aerodynamics of flight; a thorough understanding of their equipment; a responsible, progressive training plan; and a familiarity with the skills of those with whom they share the sky—provides an example that wingsuit flyers should strive toward. And like the Blue Angels, we should take our safety and what we do seriously. As the wingsuit flying discipline evolves like freeflying before it, those who put the most dedication and seriousness into gaining skills will also be the ones out there with the biggest smiles, making it look a lot easier than it is.
About the Authors
Taya Weiss, D-27874, and Matt Gerdes, D-32437, are dedicated to advancing wingsuit training to keep pace with the evolution of the discipline. Gerdes is the founder of Squirrel, a manufacturer of wingsuits and equipment, and the author of “The Great Book of BASE." Weiss is the founder of the Lightning Flight wingsuit instruction group and an organizer of the world’s largest wingsuit formations. Both are on the Next Level Flight team, an organization working to further the education of wingsuit pilots and BASE jumpers worldwide.