Wingsuit Progression Part Three: A Wingsuit Skydive From Start To Finish, An Incomplete Guide
By Matt Gerdes and Taya Weiss
After exiting properly for your wingsuit skydive (covered in “Wingsuit Progression—Part Two: Exits,” July Parachutist), you still have the rest of your jump ahead of you. All skydives require planning and careful execution, but wingsuit skydives require just a little extra.
After Your Exit
As you exit, angle away from jump run at about 30 to 45 degrees. This will not only decrease the chance of a collision with someone in your group if you exit unstably (which would make you fall faster than a wingsuit flying below you), it will also help prevent a collision with the following group, because that group will no longer be directly above you. The formation’s base (the first flyers out the door) should set the angle away from the plane and off of jump run. If the group will be navigating to a flight lane on the opposite side of the plane’s door, then dirt dive the plan and make sure everyone understands when and where to build the formation and when to begin the pattern turns. Later groups will need to give your group adequate separation, and both groups must maintain awareness of each other.
Let’s say there are three wingsuit groups on the plane and three lanes of flight at the drop zone, two on the left side of jump run and one on the other. The first group exits to fly a left-hand pattern. The second group—which has carefully planned the build and first turn so it does not interfere with the other groups—exits for a right-hand pattern. Then, after carefully checking the second group’s position and line of flight, the third group exits for another left-hand pattern.
If the jumpers are leaving from a tailgate aircraft, this exit plan should be very straightforward for all the groups. However, correctly flying a right-hand pattern after exiting from a left-side aircraft door is difficult, especially for larger groups. The group flying the right-hand pattern should be small or consist of experienced flyers or both. The right-hand pattern is not suitable for every group or every level of wingsuit pilot, so load the plane and plan the exit order with this in mind.
Approaching the Formation
Small- to mid-sized groups often have difficulties when the last half of the group finds itself above and behind the formation with both vertical and horizontal distance to close. Generally speaking, the horizontal gap is easier to close than the vertical, and success depends primarily on the speed and glide ratio of the base and the abilities of the trailing pilots. Closing the vertical gap is a more technical move. We’ll cover the basics here, but jumpers can’t learn the techniques through a magazine article and should seek out an experienced wingsuit pilot for in-depth coaching and debriefing.
When attempting to close vertical distance:
• Don’t dive directly at the formation. Aim for an empty location behind, below and to the side of your slot. Do not dive directly at your slot; approach it safely from the side your slot is on.
• Remember that your glide ratio will increase when abruptly recovering from a dive. This means that if you dive at the formation and then suddenly slow down, you will pop up relative to the formation.
• All moves to slow down should be gradual and smooth, and you should execute them only when you are fully aware of and can view nearby jumpers. When you are learning these techniques, practice with a coach and with very small groups. Slow down earlier than you think you might need to until you dial in your suit's responses. When you upsize suits, follow the same conservative progression until you are capable of approaching consistently and with total awareness of those around you.
• You can extend your glide path instead of diving: Fly out to the side and then re-approach on level from the side that your slot is on.
• Clear your airspace before any move.
Holding Your Slot
When you’re flying in a formation, you’ll have a partial view of the wingsuit pilots next to you, the base or both. If you can see the formation, you’re not in it.
In most formations, the flyers will ideally be within a few feet of each other. When dialing in your slot, the flyer next to you, as a whole, is too large of a reference point. Instead, pick a point on that person. You should have a plan as specific as you would during a freefly formation jump, minus the actual docks (e.g., your hand will be next to their foot or your head next to their hand). Visually refer to a specific point such as a part of their suit, their chest strap or their wingtip gripper. By choosing a specific and small reference point, you’ll reduce the variance. Aim small, miss small.
Although it is everyone’s responsibility to navigate back to the drop zone, one flyer in the formation should be in charge of this task.
Your wingsuit group must follow a specific line of flight. Even if no other wingsuit groups are on the plane, other skydivers may be deploying their parachutes along jump run, including tandems and students who will deploy higher than other jumpers and therefore are most likely to be in the path of lost wingsuit pilots. When there are other wingsuit groups on your load, navigating along the intended route is crucial even if you are two miles from the DZ.
If you’re at a DZ with airspace concerns (which is true for most DZs), then getting lost or straying from your intended pattern could spell trouble not just for your group and those in the air with you, but for the entire sport. Don’t get lost. Fly inside your lane; land on the DZ.
Maintaining Awareness of the Group
How many people are in your group? Where are they? As group size increases, it becomes more important for each person to fly in control, because it rapidly becomes impossible to keep track of everyone in the formation. Even in formations as small as 5-ways, you may not be able to see most of the people, depending on your slot. What this means is trusting the people around you to maintain heading, speed and directional control in order to prevent a collision within the group.
Think about this the next time you are part of a hastily planned (or unplanned) zoo load that includes a few people you don’t know. Think about what a responsible freefly organizer would say to random jumpers who walk into the loading area and say, “Hey guys, I think I can fly head down pretty good or like, whatever, so can I be a part of your cool jump?” The polite and professional answer is, “We’d love to jump with you on a future load after talking about your experience and finding a slot for you in an appropriate group.”
Other skydiving disciplines take collisions seriously, and wingsuit pilots should, too. The closing speeds that are possible when flying wingsuits are scary: They can be equal to or greater than the closing speeds that occur when a freeflyer corks in the middle of a crowded vertical formation. We, the wingsuit community, need to start taking this more seriously.
When finishing the jump, the idea is, once again, to avoid crashing into anyone else. As you change your heading at breakoff, do so while maintaining the angle of attack and speed of the formation. Only once you have cleared the airspace ahead of and around you on your new heading should you consider changing your speed and angle. As with any skydive involving horizontal movement, no one should turn more than 90 degrees off of the formation’s line of flight.
Opening Your Parachute
If you haven’t yet, read parts one and two of “Wingsuit Deployments” by Matt Gerdes in the August and September 2017 issues of Parachutist.
Wingsuit-Specific Traffic Issues
Here’s an incredibly dumb and all-too-common scenario: A jumper finishes a super-fun wingsuit multi-way. Following breakoff, the jumper does some backflying, bombing down jump run until about 4,500 feet. The jumper is now low, moving quickly, not looking at the flight path and headed in the direction of the landing area where every other person under canopy is headed. Sound familiar?
As you’re flying back to the DZ, expect canopy traffic. Even though your wingsuit group exited last, you may still be in the air with tandem pairs, students and others who pulled high. If there are multiple aircraft operating that day, you could also encounter parachutists from other loads. You need to watch out for each other. At many DZs, manifest is not fully aware of how long a wingsuit can stay aloft, which means that aircraft dropping loads behind you could deliver many more parachutes onto jump run before you’ve made it back to the DZ. If there is another plane flying, assume that the normal jump-run opening zone will have parachutes in it.
As for tandems, they have the right of way. Know that if tandems are on your plane, they will be in the air with you both while wingsuiting back to the DZ and while landing. Know the rules, plan your pattern and yield to them.
Next month: Part Four—Making it Back Alive and Well
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.