Take your wingsuit aerodynamics knowledge to the next level with this video tutorial as we dive down the rabbit hole of Angle of Attack. Learn the 2 biggest pitfalls of flying at high AOA, and why they’re so deadly in the Wingsuit BASE arena.
Take your wingsuit aerodynamics knowledge to the next level with this video tutorial as we dive down the rabbit hole of Angle of Attack. Learn the 2 biggest pitfalls of flying at high AOA, and why they’re so deadly in the Wingsuit BASE arena.
This is the headline I see rapidly approaching, if we don’t collectively get our act together. Here is a sanitized version of what I sent out to my friends recently. Names and dates have been changed to protect the guilty. If you know the site, you know the site. If you don’t know the site, imagine this could be your secret hidden gem of a bridge, building, antenna or cliff that you protect with a vengeance. Now imagine your friends are casually holding boogies right at the exit in broad daylight.
“Hey guys, I really hoped to catch you all before you left LC yesterday. As it turns out, I missed you by about 15 minutes. Anyway, I had some serious issues spinning in my head on my solo hike out yesterday, and I was able to share them with X, Y and Z (folks still in boogie camp). I’m happy to report that my concerns were received with a resounding success and consideration. I want to share the same concerns with you four as well, with hopes of the same reception.
Ok, a little backstory. LC has been jumped at various locations since the late ‘80s. The first fatality was in ‘93 (BFL #26). Even though it was legal, local jumpers from Phoenix would hide the exit locations by blindfolding newbies on the highway before getting on dirt roads, and blindfolded again on the way out. This was pre-smart phone, pre-GPS, using old school methods of keeping access locked down. Ask (short tattooed pierced guy), he received the same treatment in the early 2000’s. Knowledge started to dribble out eventually, though. The ‘Samurai’ from France did his own topo studies, hopped on a plane to USA, figured out a way to the exit, opened RTG solo on a P2 or V1 (I forget), returned to France, and discretely showed the video to a few friends… that’s how Americans found out about RTG! This was early to mid-2000’s.
By this time, the upstream exits in LC, with their bigger rock drops but shorter overall height, were starting to see more action. Apex Base starting doing commercial heli boogies via expensive Navajo permits. Avery would charter a helicopter for private Team Ill Vision boogies, jump heli loads all day at the canyon, then fly to Cameron for hotels at night. Luigi Cani did a motorcycle basejump MTV Stunt Junkies episode into the canyon. Troy Hartman did his own Stunt Junkies episode flying an airplane through LC Canyon, along with basejumping and wingsuiting. All of this commercial permit heli access cracked the can wide open for LC. Hiking access out of the canyon, once tightly held secret by old-school locals for decades, now started to be found by the new-school generation of jumpers who entered BASE via an FJC and a brand new commercially available base rig. And shit started going down hill.
In 2008, (a still very active friend) did a solo jump at last light, with only a lighter, a headlamp, and an “I’ll find a way out” attitude. No water, food or overnight gear. He spent all night in the canyon shivering in his canopy. The sediment in the river kept him from drinking any water. The next morning, (2 other still-very-active friends) spent hours down-climbing an unknown route to find his ass, bring him some food and water and get him to a rope section. Injuries also started happening more frequently out there. By 2009, word on the street was that helis were now completely unnecessary. The hikeouts were legitimately established and the shit-show was in full force. In mid-2009, I was part of an all-time-high 19-man boogie, with probably 10 cars, a tow-behind trailer with air conditioning, dogs, cactus fires, alcohol (the Navajo nation is dry, so illegal), and tricycles ridden off exit points. It was Twin Falls attitude in LC. I’ll admit, it was great fun. Around the same time, Travis Pastrana did multiple motorcycle basejumps for a Nitro Circus episode into LC, and left smashed bikes down in the canyon. Classy.
No fucks were given by anybody. I remorsefully include myself in this embarrassing chapter of disrespect.
We weren’t aware of Navajo ranchers pissed that helicopters spooked their free-ranging cattle. Mandatory herd checks now stretched out much farther and more intensely due to spooked cattle scattering for miles. We weren’t aware that Navajo authorities were pissed off about our large vehicle party gatherings on exit points very close to sacred ceremonial sites on and below the rim. These and other very legitimate concerns prompted the Navajo Nation to ban all basejumping and rock climbing in late 2009 on their website. This policy is still in effect today, and is front and center on the Navajo Parks & Recreation website. We did it to ourselves.
LC went underground, with groups of 2-3 quietly sneaking in and out by following the most basic rules asked by the Navajo for camping and hiking access. Some of us fell off cliffs while scrambling around on the rim. Luckily, we had gear on our backs to save ourselves. Even with injuries, unplanned overnights down in the canyon and rescues over the years, a small core of respectful, discrete and proficient jumpers have been able to consistently appreciate the privilege and beauty that LC offers. We’ve actively engaged the local ranchers, inhabitants and authorities on numerous sensitive and cultural topics ranging from user impact, river mythology, commercial development rumors, and livestock ranging. LC is one of the most stunning places on the planet, quiet and stupidly remote. Big boy rules apply here, with the most unforgiving logistics, preparation and fitness required. It keeps the lazy basejumper crowds away.
This is not my land. It’s ancient Navajo land. We still find arrowheads. I love it out here.
Three winters ago, Dr. Dave (BFL #224) went in off RTG. A beautiful and impressively massive cairn was built by Ralph G in Dave’s honor on a majestic promontory deep in canyon country. Ralph would later go missing himself in Canada, likely on a solo wingsuit basejump. Chris LaBounty (BFL #286) and I had numerous amazing adventures in LC, saying ‘Hi’ to Dr. Dave and Ralph whenever we saw their cairn. If you can’t tell, I’ve got some emotional capital invested in the area.
Authorities from the Navajo Nation and National Park Service came out for Dave’s fatality investigation. At the time, (a friend) denied jumping with the group. Video was recovered off Dave’s body proving otherwise. In a bizarre twist of circumstances, my friend was convicted of lying to a federal NPS officer, with full sentencing, fines and federal probation. So, as of very recently, all relevant authorities are fully aware that RTG is an active basejump exit!
Which brings me full circle to (recently): Two of us showed up to find three vehicles easily visible on the horizon parked almost directly at the exit. A laid out packing tarp, pull-up cords, packing clamps, helmets, goggles, and six stash bags all strewn around. Nobody to be seen. The camp looked like it just got dropped in from a Twin Falls boogie. WTF? Then seven jumpers walk up from scouting nearby exits. Seven! This is where I’m throwing shit towards you four who left before I could talk with you. Whatever happened to being subtle, discrete, small footprint, and low visibility? The Navajo and NPS know exactly where our exits are and you set up a boogie camp with no attempt to hide? Here’s what we’ve been doing for years to avoid highlighting ourselves. We camp at X… not at the exit, nor anywhere visible near it. We pack quickly with a lookout and hide our base gear immediately. If there are other non-jumper folk camping at X, we find a hollow or depression to park in and minimize our visibility to them. This approach has worked phenomenally well for over seven years now. But recently, we’re seeing more jumpers getting lax and camping essentially right at the exit in 1’s and 2’s. Your camp was by far the largest and most casual we’ve ever seen at RTG. But here’s the problem… you are all experienced enough to know better, AND you were setting a shit example for the new guys you brought out. They will emulate the same approach and bring out more newbies, setting up more of a shit-show scene at the same location. Combine this with the increased Navajo ranger presence this season and folks, we’re well on our way to getting hammered by either Navajo or NPS… again.
Zoom out for a second.
Yosemite was legal until basejumpers pissed off local authorities.
LC was legal until basejumpers pissed off local authorities.
This year, basejumping is illegal in all of Austria because basejumpers pissed off local authorities.
Only 2 months ago, Chamonix was legal until basejumpers pissed off local authorities.
Even though LC is still illegal, we have an established working protocol that works well for qualified, discrete and respectful jumpers. We’ve worked hard for this. We’re well on our way to losing this balance, if recent events are any example. This is my personal attempt at self-policing, self-regulating, community calling-out, whatever you want to call it. If I don’t do it, nobody else will. And I don’t want to lose pristine exits that I have fond memories and departed friends attached to.
Come on people, you’ve all been around a long time. You all know better.
Basejumpers are our own worst enemies. This episode underscored that statement for me, yet again. Get your shit together and set a better example.”
Editor’s correction: Basejumping in Austria has been illegal for over 10 years. 2016 has apparently seen a significant reinforcement of this law, frustrating those working diligently to maintain a meager balance. To quote a local Austrian who brought this to my attention, “I feel with you on the self policing thing. We’re running into the same problems here in Austria… Do you have any suggestions on what we actually should do?… I thought about this a lot already, and I talked a lot to other jumpers here, but we’re kind of out of ideas on how to keep a small group of stupid guys messing it up for everyone. Talking nice to them, holding speeches, praising base ethics didn’t do a thing. Ignoring them also didn’t help. So I’m very open to suggestions, but trying to educate only works on the ones that care already.” Frustrations are felt globally. This is a cultural challenge. Lead by example. Correct with initiative. Have fun. Don’t die. Remember the priorities.
Eric, 30, of San Diego, CA, woke up in a French hospital with no memory of how he got there. He tells his full, unflinching story to Topgunbase.
TGB: Eric, congratulations on surviving. Dude, you’re one lucky f***er.
Eric: Thank you, and yes, I’m incredibly lucky. Thanks for helping me share my story. If I can help even one person stay alive by not repeating my mistakes, it’s worth the public confession of my less-than-stellar progression. I owe it to everybody who’s following in a path similar to mine. They deserve my honest attempt at deconstructing how I ended up flying into trees with nothing out.
Can you give us an overview of your skydiving and BASE progression?
I’m shaking my head right now admitting this. Honestly, my first exposure to the sport was literally watching Jokke Sommer on YouTube. I’m not joking. Followed immediately by “I want to do that someday!” At the time, I was 26 years old. I slammed through AFF, sprinted to 200 skydives, and started flying an Acro wingsuit. I had 300 skydives my first year in the sport. I quickly transitioned to a Phantom 3, put about 200-300 jumps on it and switched to a used Vampire 4. I took a BASE FJC almost exactly 2 years after my first skydive. Shortly after that, I ordered a new Vampire Race. Currently, I’ve been skydiving for 4 years (900 total / 550 wingsuit), and basejumping for 2 years. I only have about 80 slider-off jumps, about 40 tracking jumps, and 105 WS base jumps. My WS BASE progression was: 1 balloon wingsuit jump, 2 basejumps on a Havok, then all WS BASE on my new V-Race since then.
Your jump numbers seem a little even and round. Are you estimating or do you log your jumps?
Umm, I don’t really log… no. Well, I log my basejumps. I stopped logging my skydives around 100 jumps. I logged my base jumps for around the first 80, then started just adding to the total after a group of several jumps.
So, with 105 wingsuit basejumps to date, tell me a little about your WS BASE progression?
Well, right from the very beginning, from watching those YouTube videos, I was intent on flying proximity lines. I wanted to fly them ‘well’ and ‘deep’, that was important to me, gunning for the sizzle-video flights I’d seen from the start. I honestly tried really hard to prepare, in what I felt was honest training. But I feel like I kinda lied to myself about my skillset and preparation. I got complacent and, well, look what happened. I knew I was shortcutting some things. Personally, I believed I could grasp ideas and skillsets a bit quicker than most people. But I now admit I wrongfully based that idea on completely unrelated experiences.
How many WS basejumps did you have prior to your first flight in Chamonix?
About 70 WS base jumps.
Did anybody assess your wingsuit BASE skills elsewhere, prior to you showing up to Chamonix?
I actually did have a friend tell me after jumping with him at Panorama that I was ‘good to exit Brevent’. He also made an offhand comment about me flying a little slow. In hindsight, I feel like he was telling me my exit and start was good for Brevent, but I figured the speed comment was something I’d focus on more when I actually was jumping Brevent. Obviously, I needed much more work on flying my V-Race well in full flight.
This was your second trip to Chamonix this year, jumping both Brevent and Midi. What was your gameplan on this particular jump?
It was my second jump of the day off Aiguille du Midi. My idea was to fly a right line towards the refuge to test how different inputs would improve my approach for a fly by. I’d aim toward the mid-station, and see how high I was flying. If I didn’t like how high I was, I would just turn left to fly Cheese Grater line instead. As it turned out, I noticed early that I’d be too low to fly over the refuge, so I flew Cheese Grater
How many times have you flown the Cheese Grater line?
Maybe about ten times, but usually I disconnect half-way down the line, so I can make my normal LZ by the lumber yard area. On one previous occasion, I stayed on the line longer, and still made the same LZ. This was my second time staying on the line longer than normal.
What was going through your head as you turned left to commit to the Cheese Grater line? Did you feel comfortable with your entry and speed? Was anything different from previous entries?
At that moment, I actually felt fine to turn onto the Cheese Grater line. Based on my previous jumps on that line, I honestly thought I would have no problems.
As you’re watching your POV video of this flight [5 sec prior to impact], do you feel you have the speed to aggressively flare and get out of this line?
No, not at all. I was actually expecting to continue flying straight and have the trees drop out from underneath me.
Was this a normal flight condition for you on this line?
Honestly, yeah… Cheese Grater is sort of a flat-ish line. But I had always disconnected at a certain point about halfway down, and I always made my normal LZ.
Looks like you had an ‘out’ to the left about 10 seconds prior to impact, and you didn’t take it. Why?
I hadn’t planned for an ‘out’. I honestly didn’t expect to need one. I was just thinking about flying straight to my normal LZ. In hindsight, I think I was stuck on my ‘gameplan’ and obviously didn’t have the awareness to adjust inflight, especially when staying in the line longer than normal. Combining an already exceptionally slow airspeed with my ‘end of line / maneuver to deploy’ mental state, my wingsuit couldn’t hack it and I stalled my suit into the trees.
When watching your video, I start flinching about 20 seconds prior to your impact. More experienced proximity flyers are likely flinching much earlier. I’m being brutally honest here, but I get the sense that for the 10-15 seconds leading up to impact, you aren’t aware of what is happening until maybe the last half-second. By then, it’s too late and you’re literally blindsided head on. Is that a true statement?
It wasn’t until about the last 5 seconds that I felt the trees below me getting closer than I expected or wanted. Everything before that felt flyable to me.
I’ve seen other impact POV footage where the guys haven’t made it, and you can get a sense in the end game, in the last 2 sec, by their body posturing, where they are looking, whether they’re flinching or bracing, you can definitely get a sense of their awareness level. In your video, honestly, I see nice smooth footage all the way to impact. It’s almost like you take a face shot. ’Dude, he just flew into trees at full flight without flinching!’ Is that assessment correct?
There were things I was not aware of in my last few seconds of flight, and some things I was aware of. But in this crash situation, I did not flinch, brace for impact, or change to a body position that might worsen my situation. My skill level and knowledge pool was not high enough to keep me from stalling into the trees, but I knew the best chance of surviving my impact into the trees was to keep a flying position at all costs.
Have you ever heard of the saying “Never run out of Airspeed, Altitude or Ideas”?
Actually no, but it’s pretty obvious I ran out of all three.
There’s a difference between 1) Awareness of something wrong and not doing anything about it, and 2) NOT being aware of something wrong at all… and I guess that’s where I’m digging in the weeds and trying to figure out which is at play here.
I think it’s a little bit of both. Towards the end of my flight, I started feeling I was a bit low, but not so low that I couldn’t make it to my usual LZ.
You didn’t pitch. The primary stow band was still engaged on your lines when PGHM got to you. Knowing that you didn’t pitch, what’s your reaction?
I still thought I was going to make it to my LZ. By the time the ‘Oh shit!’ window arrived, it was too late. I felt my chances of flying this out were better than pitching early in a shitty spot.
What’s your honest assessment of your qualifications, having now been in skydiving for 4 years, BASE for 2 years, 80 slider-off jumps, 40 tracking jumps, and only 70 WB jumps prior to Chamonix? Do you think your experience qualifies you for flying technical proximity lines at Brevent and Aiguille du Midi?
Absolutely not. But here’s what I was thinking. I figured I could fly the lines best by first flying them ‘not so deep.’ Then I’d work my way up [down?] by flying them a little more aggressively as I got more and more comfortable with each one. With this method, I thought I could learn how I needed to fly them.
At the time though, you did feel qualified and prepared to show up to Chamonix by yourself. So many other jumpers are in the exact situation as you. Can you expand on how you convinced yourself you were ‘good to go’ on your first Chamonix trip?
My friends had introduced me to the exit and start logistics of both Brevent and Midi. I had already flown similar exit profiles and my exit and start performance history was solid. As long as my starts continued to be good, I wasn’t worried. But, I also continued to fly lines more and more aggressively as I got comfortable with them.
My personal recommendation is to hold EXPERT status in 1) Skydiving, 2) Basejumping, and 3) Wingsuit Skydiving, prior to your first WS basejump. How would you rate yourself in these 3 categories when you started WS BASE?
Skydiving: I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert skydiver when I started WS BASE. I was lacking in certain all-around skills, such as free flying.
Basejumping: I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert here, either. I lacked certain disciplines, such as aerials. However, I did feel I knew enough about exit safety, equipment, and obstacle avoidance to WS BASE jump.
Wingsuit Skydiving: This area is actually the closest I felt to an expert category prior to starting WS BASE, even though I’m still not there yet. At the time, while I did feel experienced, I didn’t feel like an expert because of 1) poor performance in my ‘big suits’ and 2) the lack of comparison to people who flew similar suits to me in my area.
Wingsuit BASE was your goal before your very first skydive. You currently have around 550 wingsuit skydives, which is a decent amount of practice time. Yet, you ultimately stalled into the trees by not flying your suit fast enough. Do you think this stemmed from a lack of WS BASE academic training, or rather a lack of appropriate skills training?
Good friends of yours were concerned about a slow flight you had only a week prior in Walenstadt… slow, at least when compared to them. With your exit weight of about 220lbs, you’re also considerably heavier. By definition, you should be flying faster than them just to maintain the same relative stall margin. Taking this all into account, what was your honest assessment of your speed capabilities when they talked to you about flying too slow?
I just brushed off their small comment about speed because they didn’t address it like it was a big issue. That flight itself didn’t feel different from my previous flights elsewhere. I wouldn’t say I was lying to myself, but I honestly thought my WS BASE performance was good enough. I knew I was slower than some people, and honestly tried to keep that in mind when considering new jumps or lines. I might not have been the best, or better than anyone, but I definitely felt good enough to fly most lines. I now realize I was getting complacent really fast. Although I had been keeping a margin for error, once I got to an advanced place like Chamonix, the margin for error dropped considerably without me fully realizing it. I thought I was good enough, fast enough, and knew what I was doing… I let myself get complacent and too comfortable flying slow. It turned out to kill me, except that I lived.
Throughout your jumping career, has anyone ever pulled you aside and cautioned you to slow down and pace yourself?
Yeah, actually there was one friend who did exactly that. He didn’t basejump though, so I didn’t really give his advice much consideration. I thought I knew what I needed to train to, and I thought I was progressing well within my means.
I couldn’t help notice that you were rolling solo in Chamonix. Is that normal on BASE trips for you?
Yeah, it actually seems to be a theme for me. My first WS BASE jump was with another guy doing his first WS BASE jump, too. So, not exactly the best way to start. Since then, my few trips have sort of been on my own despite my efforts to get friends to join. Schedules, right?
So, no mentor to keep an eye on you and show you the ropes, or critique your progress?
You woke up the night of your rescue in Annecy Hospital. What do you remember after waking up?
I thought I had died. I had no idea what I was doing there or where I was. I couldn’t remember anything after the first jump of the day, except for a faint memory that I had been jumping. Utter confusion. Turns out I had been laying in the forest for over 3 hours until some trail workers heard me calling for help. I had moderate brain trauma. I couldn’t think or talk straight. I hurt everywhere. I couldn’t speak French. I didn’t have my phone. I was alone and in a state of utter confusion.
François Gouy of PGHM was the guy who pulled you out of the forest. He’s a former wingsuit basejumper, and a few of us actually had dinner with him a few days before your crash. Brandon Russell and I went to the scene looking for your GoPro. Dude, there was blood, tree carnage and debris everywhere. You flew through an 8” diameter tree trunk and snapped the top 20’ completely off. Your debris trail was almost 300’ long. How on earth do you explain being alive, let alone essentially unscathed?
I absolutely shouldn’t be.
Looks like you’re well on your way to a full recovery. Any intentions of getting back in the air? If so, what are you going to change moving forward?
Yes, I can’t wait to get back into wingsuiting. Maybe not WS Base, but definitely skydiving. And here’s what I’m going to work on when I get back: SPEED! I need to COMPLETELY understand how speed works, what actions lose it, what actions gain it. Everything about speed. On top of that, I’m going to change my mindset to foster a 120% understanding of every single aspect of flying a wingsuit.
Last question. Based on everything we’ve discussed, what are 2 or 3 things that, to those who are following in your footsteps, fast tracking into wingsuit BASE and cutting corners, watching all the sizzle clips from Jokke Sommer, Graham Dickinson (RIP), Alex Polli (RIP)… what are your recommendations to those individuals, now that you’ve lived after going in!
I blatantly, honestly screwed up flying a suit way outside my current skill level, on a line way outside my current experience level. I honestly thought I had put in the hard work in wingsuit skydiving. I mean, I’ve got 550 wingsuit skydives. Those are decent numbers for starting wingsuit base. But when I look back on it, especially when I was flying that used V4, I always felt like the underdog. Guys in newer suits were flying higher and faster than me. Everybody told me that the new suits flying higher and faster were made to do that, especially compared to my V4. I didn’t even really understand that with my weight [220lb out the door], I should be a missile compared to the lighter guys, and yet they were beating me consistently. So, the red flags were there from the beginning, and I didn’t know enough to recognize them. I wasn’t learning to fly my suit well, I was just accumulating jump numbers and thinking the skills would come with jump numbers. I now realize it doesn’t work that way. My progression, especially once I took my BASE FJC, was way too fast. I tried but couldn’t find a mentor willing to show me the ropes. That bothered me very much at the time, but I figured people just didn’t want to deal with the responsibility. I thought I knew what I was doing, so I just continued on the path by myself, doing what I thought was correct.
One of my friends was pretty shaken up. I’d flown with him in Walenstadt just a few days prior. As it turns out, he had really wanted to tell me how concerned he was about my slow flying. He didn’t, he kept quiet. After my crash, he felt so bad, because if I actually had died, dude, he would have carried that guilt of staying quiet for the rest of his life. There are so many things to take away from this. If you see something dangerous, man up, grow a thick skin, and say what’s on your mind, right then and there.
To those starting from square one, who are looking to be the next Graham Dickinson, I would say this: Cut No Corners. At the end of the day, how well you fly your wingsuit is what keeps you alive.
I met Eric for the first time about 1 week prior to his accident. Turns out, we both have the US Navy in common. We talked about military jobs, deployments, nothing deep. That’s all changed. Eric and I talked for almost 3 hours straight for this article. We got deep. Whatever Eric lacked in wingsuit preparation prior to his accident, he redeemed himself with candor, humility and genuine intent on getting his story out to unprepared wingsuiters like himself. His honest, unflattering answers to tough questions are a true testament of his character, and I truly can’t wait to see him get back in the air.
So many things to take away from this— I’ll try to summarize the high points:
Topgunbase is a platform for Wingsuit Basejumping Academic Education. We have a pretty intimidating range of topics to cover. One person cannot cover it all. Too much knowledge, too many sub-specialties. Collaboration with experts in the field is mandatory. To that end, TGB welcomes written content from current and proficient wingsuit pilots, especially if you have a niche specialty that only a few truly understand. We welcome any suit, any language, any brand. Politely leave your egos and alliances at the door. In our game, knowledge is life to be shared, not secrets to be kept hidden.
Our first guest contributor on Topgunbase needs no introduction. It is my pleasure to welcome Mr. Matt Gerdes, as he submits the final installment on our 3-part Speed series. His article can also be found on base-book.com.
This article can be read alone, but is also part 3 in a series.
Part 1: Why Fly Fast?
Part 2: Stability vs Drag
Part 3: Speed to Fly
One of the more important skills in wingsuit flying is the ability to fly fast safely in formation with your friends. Much of what you need to know about flying well, can be learned from practicing this one skill. In parts 1 and 2, Richard Webb explained to us what speed means in terms of safety in wingsuit flight, and how to understand the relationship between stability and drag. In this third part, let’s try to understand how to get our speed on.
The aim of this article is to clarify some points on wingsuit flight, and to encourage pilots to learn to fly fast. Words are thoughts, and in order to think clearly about our progression we need to cut inaccurate terminology from our sport. I want to believe that you are willing to take the time to try and understand more than opening or closing your butt cheeks (see fig. 1b). It’s fun to pretend to be an airplane, but your ass is not an elevator.
In this article, we will try to explain two separate fundamentals of wingsuit flight: Angle of Attack, and Wingsuit Configuration (formerly known as “Body Position”). We will examine how separating these two concepts and thinking about them independently may help us to fly better.
What is Wingsuit Performance, Anyway?
Wingsuit pilots often ask us what “tricks” we recommend for increasing performance. Many of the tips we have heard are based on the idea that “performance flying” is gliding for distance at flat, slow, minimum-sink angles. While flying slowly is not always a problem in the skydiving environment, it is not ideal. So how fast should we be going in any given situation? This concept in gliding flight is sometimes referred to as “Speed to Fly”. Luckily, for wingsuit flying it’s not that complicated. The answer to this question is, generally: “As fast as possible”.
The idea that “speed is good” is surprisingly uncommon in today’s world of wingsuit instruction. I am of the opinion that a fundamental misunderstanding of proper airspeeds has led to unnecessary wingsuit BASE fatalities in which pilots have been without the skill resources needed to assess or complete a line of flight. Many skydivers are being taught to fly their wingsuits too slowly to make use of their suit’s full potential, and many more totally lack an understanding of what healthy forward speed is. While this is not just a wingsuit BASE issue, from August 2015 to October 2016 more than 10 BASE fatalities can be attributed to improper airspeed.
So, when we want to fly our wingsuits at max performance, what do we mean? Is max performance flying far, or flying fast, or flying for a long period of time? I would argue that the most important aspect of performance flight to focus on is horizontal speed with precision and control.
Performance flying is fast flying:
In skydiving, a common measure of performance is “vertical speed”, which is also referred to as “sink rate” in gliding flight. Regardless of what it’s called, the concept we must grasp is that a low sink rate is not something that we should be concerned with. I don’t believe that we should be focused on reducing vertical speed. It is more important to train for a high horizontal speed.
The best way to train horizontal speed is to fly side by side with your friends, as close as is possible / comfortable / safe. Edge ahead of the friend next to you, forcing him to adjust his wingsuit configuration (formerly known as body position) and AoA to overtake you – then use him as a reference to pass, again. Training for speed in small formations of two to three pilots will allow you to use one another as reference points to gauge performance adjustments. Keep your first speed formations small, at three pilots max, to begin with. Safety in formations and proper flight patterns are a completely different chapter, but a small group flying close together in the same direction is the basic idea.
SIDE BAR: INSTRUMENTS
Using a GPS or audible device such as a Flysight can be very useful for broad estimates, but don’t get too caught up in the minutiae of recorded data. GPS instruments are generally an inaccurate way to judge wingsuit performance due to the difference between airspeed (how fast you are actually flying) and groundspeed (what your GPS measures). Over the course of many jumps, and taking into consideration winds aloft forecasts and the winds reported by your pilot, a GPS can be a productive tool only if you aren’t making fine comparisons from jump to jump. Your speed readings will vary by 20+ mph from day to day depending on the altitude of your speed run, the wind conditions, and even slight heading changes in said conditions. Because of this inherent variability, we do not use GPS devices to test for speed; we rely solely on side-by-side comparisons between two pilots of similar size*.
While recorded data is not a useful or reliable way to gauge performance, an audible Flysight is a useful tool when flying solo. Audible feedback set to horizontal speed will help you to find the fastest position, and angle, while you are flying.
*(The differences between the highest performance wingsuit prototypes are often less than 2mph airspeed, but it is nearly impossible to fly through 10,000 feet of altitude on a skydive without encountering significant (as in >5mph) vertical and horizontal movement in the airmass, rendering instrument data comparisons mostly useless within such a narrow range of performance. Side by side testing is best).
Three Performance Facts:
The polar curve below will help us to understand the relationship between glide, speed, and sink rate. Remember that in wingsuit flying, training for “best glide” or “lowest vertical speed” can reinforce bad habits. That doesn’t mean you should never do it, but, when training for these skills, maintain an awareness of the importance of horizontal speed.
On the wingsuit polar curve, note that the Stall Speed, Min Sink speed, and Best Glide speed are all marked. Beyond the best glide speed, the wingsuit airspeed increases together with the sink rate – as we fly faster, we descend faster, which is not a bad thing.
Figure 2. Polar Curve. To increase horizontal speed, one must increase vertical speed. Repeat after me: It’s ok to go down faster, It’s ok to go down faster…
SIDEBAR: M.I.D. SPEED
Rich Webb says: “Since there is nothing ‘best’ about Best Glide, I’d like to coin a new term for ‘best glide’ for us inefficient wingsuiters: Maximum Impact Distance Speed (M.I.D. Speed). This helps weaken the subconscious suggestion that flying wingsuits at ‘best glide’ is ‘best’. It’s not, most of the time.
Flying at MID Speed will get you to the farthest possible impact point. If you fly either faster or slower than MID Speed, you WILL impact shorter, guaranteed. However, flying significantly faster than MID Speed over suitable terrain will also give you increased available lift and maneuvering capability, making you a safer wingsuit pilot. Flying routinely AT or BELOW MID Speed will not give you any margin for maneuvering or flaring, making you an accident waiting to happen.
MID Speed also has a nice mnemonic ring to it… MID helps us remember that MID Speed is in the middle, between Min Sink Speed and Max Horizontal Speed, and is not necessarily a Target speed for normal flight (as ‘best glide’ subconsciously implies)”
We want to keep our airspeed well above the point of best glide (MID Speed). That green section on the polar curve where airspeed and sink rate increase is our ideal speed range for both skydiving and BASE jumping. This is the speed range that allows us to use retained energy to increase our glide performance in order to extend our glide path or disconnect from terrain, but is not so steep as to be uncomfortable or inefficient.
Training to keep yourself at (MID) best glide airspeeds can result in a tendency to fly too slowly, too close to stall, and with zero energy reserves to increase your glide when the need arises. In short, the closer you fly to “best glide” (Maximum Impact Distance speed), the less available lift, or “reserve”, you have in store. Flying a wingsuit safely means having enough airspeed to significantly increase your glide or make a significant course correction without stalling your wingsuit.
SIDE BAR: COCKPIT ALARMS
You can practice flying at each segment of the polar curve in order to learn what each segment feels like. Practice flying at min sink, near stall, and practice stalling your wingsuit. The “red zone” should be a familiar feeling, so that if you ever find yourself there inadvertently, you should be hearing cockpit alarms in your brain. If you are looking at a line of flight that requires best-glide / min-sink / near-stall flight, alarms should be sounding in your head well before you commit to it. Low speed flight kills wingsuit pilots in the BASE environment.
SIDEBAR: WHERE IS YOUR CENTER OF GRAVITY?
The wingsuit center of gravity (CoG) is often behind the center of pressure (CoP), meaning the natural tendency of some wingsuits is to fly head-high.
The center of gravity and the center of pressure (where the lift force is concentrated) on an airplane are usually located very close together. Wingsuits are sometimes different. An average human’s center of gravity is located anterior to the sacral spine, or around your belly button. The center of pressure on a wingsuit is generally located higher (more forward) but CoP moves with changes in Angle of Attack. Imagine that you are being suspended by lift from between your shoulder blades, but your CG is at your belly button: you will tilt head-high. Because of this, many wingsuit pilots have a natural tendency to fly too flat, and too slowly, settling into a position that is too head-high. It requires conscious physical effort to pilot your wingsuit into a steeper angle of attack. Flying too “flat” is the single most common error in wingsuit flying, and the most common bad habit. Without a certain amount of airspeed, wingsuits don’t work well. Airspeed in gliding flight comes from angle… so keep reading. Many instructors teach their students to fly flat, slow, and close to stall, thereby building a boring and dangerous foundation for their student’s wingsuit career. If your wingsuit instructor tells you to “open your butt-cheeks”, beware!
Figure 4. Velocity Cross section of a Squirrel Prototype (AoA not illustrated). The Center of Pressure is behind the pilot’s head.
Now I’m sure you’ve been excited to get to the part about Wingsuit Configuration (Formerly known as Body Position), but the single biggest barrier in wingsuit performance flying is overlooking Angle of Attack. So close your butt-cheeks, drop your elevators, and let’s talk AoA!
Angle of Attack:
Imagine you are standing on the side of a talus slope with a radar gun. Two wingsuit pilots are going to fly by, and you’re going to take a picture of them from the side and check their speed. They are both flying the same exact line. They are flying the same wingsuit. They have the same exit weight. And they are both exactly 20 feet off of the talus for the section of their line that we are observing them…
One is Scotty Bob, and as he zooms past you see that his arms are level with his shoulders and the angle of his efficient-looking position is sort of pointed “low”. He zooms past at 140mph on the radar gun. Scotty is flying well above MID speed – he has massive amounts of available lift to flare or maneuver.
The other pilot is Burbly Scott and he just started skydiving last year but he loves his new big wingsuit. Remember, Burbly is flying exactly the same line, at the same distance from the ground, and the same trajectory. Here he comes, and his arm position is such that his wrists are higher than his head (Dihedral), his knees are slightly bent, and it looks like he is actually arching a little… you can see that his head is actually kind of high, and it looks like he is just plowing through the air. The angle of his bent / swept / arched suit looks inefficient by comparison, it’s almost like his position is sort of pointed “high” compared to Scotty’s. You look down at the radar gun and it reads 85mph, definitely not impressive.
Technically, Angle of Attack is not related to the horizon, it does not define the direction you are flying, and it cannot be described as “steep” or “flat”. But don’t worry too much about that, all we need to know for our wingsuit application is illustrated in this drawing. The first guy (fig A) is doing it right. The second guy (fig B) is… “doing it”. (“yeeha burbly scott, yer doin it!”).
So how stupid and dangerous is Burbly Scott, really? The fact is that one can consistently “get away with” this wingsuit configuration on steep lines of flight. But the moment you take this wingsuit configuration over slightly flatter terrain, then: you. are. dead. We could say that a wingsuit pilot who relies on this more stable but highly inefficient wingsuit configuration is an accident waiting to happen. And it’s not just about WS BASE: Burbly Scott’s wingsuit configuration is the root cause of countless embarrassingly ugly and painfully slow and tragically boring wingsuit skydiving videos. It also happens to be a factor in dozens of wingsuit BASE fatalities.
SIDEBAR: AOA THOUGHTS
Your AoA is the angle at which your body’s flat plane is pointing relative to the direction of flight, relative to the air mass. AoA is not flight angle… AoA is the angle at which you are pointing along your direction of flight.
In gliding flight, a lower AoA means higher airspeed. A higher AoA means a lower airspeed. AoA is not glide ratio.
A pilot must actively manage AoA. No wingsuit will automatically settle into the perfect AoA for each aspect of flight.
When you think about speed and performance, think about AoA separately from body position (now known as Wingsuit Configuration!). AoA is the angle that you present yourself to the airmass. As you visualize acceleration, flaring up, deploying your parachute, transitioning to backflying, executing barrel rolls, or flocking with your friends, think about your AoA in the air mass. Doing so will increase your spatial awareness and allow you to improve your understanding of wingsuit flight, enabling a faster progression.
SIDEBAR: A NOTE ON “BODY POSITION”
Rich Webb recently pointed out to me that Position is not an aerodynamic term. It’s a location term. In aviation, we use:
1) CONFIGURATION: Flaps down, flaps up, gear down, speed-brakes out, etc
2) ORIENTATION: Nose up, nose down, inverted, etc
The two terms are isolated and not interchangeable. ‘Position’ is confusing, just like ‘Arms back’. Rich intentionally uses ‘Configuration’ and ‘Orientation’ [in TGB articles]. Therefore, moving forward, we will refer to Wingsuit Configuration, not Body Position.
AoA is independent of wingsuit configuration.
The critical thing to understand here is that as long as your wingsuit configuration is mostly flat and resembles an inflated wingsuit, your configuration does not change your flight performance as much as a change in AoA will. You can hold an efficient configuration through a range of AoA and achieve performance in speed, distance, and time, without changing anything except your AoA. The same exact configuration held through different AoAs will yield different results. Sure, subtle changes in your wingsuit configuration will optimize your performance at each angle, but AoA is the major factor.
SPEED: The Efficient Configuration
In general, we want to arrange our bodies into a shape that allows air to flow across the top and bottom surfaces of our suits with minimal disturbances. We want curved airflow across the top of our wingsuit from shoulders to toes, and we want smooth airflow across the bottom. The easiest way to disrupt airflow on either surface is to bend our knees or distort our arm wings. Doing so disrupts the laminar flow on the surfaces of our suit, which is not good – distorting the top surface actually reduces the laminar flow that creates lift. This is bad for performance, so keep your legs straight, arms strong and level, and your toes pointing lengthwise tension into the suit.
If you were to picture yourself lying face down on the sidewalk, the max-performance configuration would mean that only your face and your tip-toes would be touching the ground, with your wingtips just barely off the ground. Your body would be forming a gently de-arched position from head to toe. It’s that simple. This smooth de-arched position encourages laminar airflow over the top surface of your wingsuit from head to toe, and a smooth bottom surface to deflect air in the most laminar fashion possible. Please note that saying we are creating an “airfoil” with our body would be inaccurate, and would deeply upset an aerodynamicist (the only airfoil present is built into your arm wing).
Bring full tension into your suit by “shrugging” your shoulders forward, pointing your toes as much as you can, and creating a slight concavity in the front of your torso. Push your forearms into the leading edge of the arm wings. Combining this position with a lower AoA (tilt lower) will yield the highest speeds. Increasing your AoA (tilting higher) will start you on a glide path for longer distances.
Want to slow down, or flare up? Think about changing your angle, not your wingsuit configuration – push your toes down toward Earth. You have an incredible amount of pitch control available in your legs. Never initiate a flare by bending your knees – that’s not flaring, that’s air-braking. Remember that results always depend on the angle of attack that you orient your wingsuit configuration into.
The key concept here is that AoA and wingsuit configuration are separate factors, and should be considered separately in your mind when you think about flying your wingsuit. As you strive to reach max performance in your suit, make adjustments to your angle and your configuration separately, and with an acute awareness of how the two factors combine and yield results.
Welcome back to our discussion of Speed in Wingsuit BASE. In part 1, we built an academic framework defining the sensitivity of available lift (AL) to speed. Numerically, more speed = more AL = more life margin.
The most important takeaway from Part 1: Any speed decrease can kill your Available Lift in seconds. When you run out of AL at low altitudes, you risk joining our friends on the Base Fatality List who have done the same.
Originally, this was going to be a 2-part series. However, to present a more comprehensive discussion, Topgunbase has collaborated with Matt Gerdes to present what will now be a 3-part series. Part 2 will continue pulling the thread on the academic side of speed. We’ll present some precise terms needed to standardize terminology in the wingsuit community. We’ll dissect the components of what could be called an ‘old school’ speed configuration. In Part 3, authored exclusively by Gerdes, we’ll hear thoughts and techniques used by today’s leading wingsuit competitors, techniques that you can start practicing on your very next wingsuit flight.
Speed: Part 2 – Terminology
“Arms back”… what the hell does that mean?
Before we jump into a discussion of Speed Techniques, we need to clear up a pet peeve of mine concerning incorrect terminology. It’s the lazy and inarticulate use of the phrase “Arms back.” I hate that term. Routinely thrown around by competitors, coaches, newbies and everyone in between when discussing wingsuit arm inputs, “Arms back” is inadequate, incomplete, confusing and misleading. “Arms back” could mean any number of arm positions depending on who’s doing the talking or listening.
We’re going to replace “Arms back” with two separate and distinct terms, DIHEDRAL and WING SWEEP.
DIHEDRAL: When in the flying position, raising your wing tips above your wing roots. Raising your grippers or wrists higher than your shoulders.
Dihedral for Lateral Stability
Dihedral is great for roll stability about our spinal axis. How does it work?
With an angle of bank, the low wing tips into the horizon creating an increased vertical lift component. The high wing tips further away from the horizon creating a decreased vertical lift component. This lift differential creates an auto-balance to help level your wings. Aircraft designers use dihedral to create incredibly stable aircraft. Aerobatic aircraft, on the other hand, use zero dihedral for maximum agility, at the cost of flight stability. Remember, nothing comes for free in aerodynamics.
Edge 540 with zero dihedral designed for ultimate aerobatics
Think Red Bull Air Races. These aircraft are intentionally designed to roll faster than a greased ball bearing. It takes more skill and effort to fly precisely with zero dihedral.
Anhedral (or negative dihedral) is usually indicative of minimal lateral stability and impressive roll agility. Generally requires a flight stability computer or two for any hope of decent human control. Usually only employed on supersonic fighter jets.
Nature also adheres to aerodynamic principles. For instance, have you ever watched a pigeon in gliding flight? They like to glide with massive amounts of dihedral. Pigeons are also terrible gliders. Don’t fly like a pigeon.
On the other side of nature’s aerodynamic spectrum is the swift, a supremely agile bird capable of flying an airborne pretzel maze at Mach 2. They routinely glide with a signature anhedral (or negative dihedral) wing profile, giving them superior flight agility.
Aircraft have a fixed dihedral tailored to a design flight profile. Wingsuits, like birds, are quite different. We have variable dihedral geometry and multi-pivot articulation (I made that fancy verbiage up, but essentially, our arms can flap in all directions). For us, dihedral is an EXTRA flight control input unique to wingsuits, affecting roll stability, dive stability and speed, all in different ways. More on that to follow.
WING SWEEP: For wingsuits, wing sweep is defined as the angle formed by the leading edge of your arm relative to the axis formed by your shoulders.
The F-14 Tomcat, famous for its variable wing sweep geometry, employed a forward wing sweep limit of 20º, used for slow speed flight, takeoff and landing.
Aft wing sweep limit on the Tomcat was an impressive 68º, automatically programmed aft above Mach 0.7… or manually programmed aft whenever you wanted to look cool.
For wingsuits, there is an obvious design ‘wing sweep signature’ particular to each make and model. Race suits seem to be designed with more aft wing sweep than most, but the speed benefits are not necessarily guaranteed by merely incorporating an aggressive wing sweep angle.
Variable wing sweep affects a bunch of inter-related aero variables, such as center of gravity (CG), center of pressure (CP), effective surface area, stability for pitch/roll/yaw, and, you guessed it, speed.
One of the secrets of the now retired and de-classified F-14’s wing sweep capability involved a deflating airbag mechanism which created a cavity in the fuselage for retracting wing structure to occupy. When airspeed decreased and the wings swept forward, our secret airbag inflated to streamline the void left by the extending wing structure.
For wingsuits though, manually sweeping our arms aft of the design sweep generates a billowing of excess wing fabric that can’t be effectively retracted out of the airstream. Huh… can that possibly be a good thing for speed? Well, yes and no.
Aft wing sweep for wingsuits is nothing more than a distortion-induced, lift-dumping method to steepen your flight path. Sure, at the end of a dive with your arms pinned by your side, you may be vertically burning through the air at the speed of heat. And with some practice, that increased kinetic energy can be converted into an amazing flare. But an aft wing sweep dive burns up massive amounts of altitude that could have been more effectively used to actually fly somewhere other than down. Don’t get me wrong, exercising aft wing sweep is one of many tools that must be mastered by all wingsuit pilots. However, use of aft wing sweep in the BASE environment must be tempered with judgment.
Aft wing sweep input can help stabilize high vertical speeds. However, extra aft wing sweep induces fabric-billowing drag that hurts horizontal speed and distance. There are other methods of diving that keep your wing in a more efficient configuration. Matt Gerdes will discuss his thoughts on current competition-level speed techniques in Part 3.
Quantifiable and Explainable!
What’s interesting about using correct terminology is quantification is now valid. Dihedral and Wing Sweep are both measurable in angles of degrees relative to a defined axis. Excellent! Now we’re talking about the same thing to everybody, everywhere. And yes, since our arms can pivot on multiple axes, Dihedral and Wing Sweep can and often are used at the same time for us wingsuiters.
Okay, rant over. “Arms back” is out. Dihedral (Zero/Positive/Negative) and Wing Sweep (Aft/Forward) are in.
Aerodynamics is a science of compromise. Aircraft are usually designed to do one thing really well, at the cost of everything else. For example, airliners are designed to minimize specific fuel consumption, loosely translated as the least amount of fuel burned to fly one unit of human/cargo one nautical mile. To realize this design goal, airliners are unable to climb vertically, pull 10 G’s or land on aircraft carriers. You can’t have everything. From our ‘WTF are we really doing?’ discussion, we all remember that wingsuits are stupidly low efficient gliders, right? Wingsuits are designed to a best-case planform for a specific set of flight characteristics. Even then, with our human anthropomorphic constraints (T-Rex arms), we just don’t have much to work with. So, just from a common-sense approach, why on earth would you want to intentionally distort and de-tune your wingsuit? Dihedral is distortion. Any additional aft wingsweep is distortion. Dropping your knees is distortion. Letting your grippers weakly trail in the free stream is distortion. Flexible-airfoil, inflatable flying devices really don’t like distortion. Distortion generates performance-robbing drag. It’s that simple.
If you want to fly at maximum performance, start by eliminating all pilot-induced distortion!
Well, there’s a catch. Wingsuit pilots also want flight stability, which is the property of our wingsuit to stay where we tell it. Taking this one step further, stability is also a measure of our wingsuit’s ability to return to its original state if it gets bumped away from where we want it.
One of the reasons tandem instructors use a drogue chute in freefall is to add stability, not just slow their terminal velocity.
Stability for aircraft (and wingsuits) is created via the same principal. It’s just not as obvious. For us, stability is achieved via isolated regions of drag acting as micro versions of tandem drogue chutes on different points of our wingsuit.
These drag regions increase in size depending on how much you distort and deflect your wingsuit, head, chest, knees, etc. Your brain acts as a flight computer to collectively balance all distortions keeping you stable on all three axes… Pitch, Roll and Yaw.
Reference system for flight stability and control
Stability is a good thing. A very good thing. However, more stability generally requires more drag. And drag kills speed. You can’t have everything.
The general, and I do mean general, correlation in wingsuit aerodynamics is this:
Lower Drag = Higher Speed and Lower Stability
Higher Drag = Lower Speed and Higher Stability
Have you ever eaten a face full of asphalt getting ‘speed wobbles’ on a skateboard? You’re bombing a hill, trying to go as fast as possible, leaning into it, tucking everything in. Everything’s great until you hit a certain critical speed, get an unexpected bump, and your board starts violently wobbling back and forth until you go flying. This is an example of losing stability at high speed. The same effect can happen with wingsuits, in any axis, so be careful!
Our new favorite term, Dihedral, is great for roll stability, as discussed earlier. For wingsuits, dihedral is also great for pitch stability in dives. Flying with dihedral (think gliding pigeon) spills lift from your arms and allows your flight path to get steeper. Relative to your now-steeper flight path, the cross-section of your wingsuit resembles a nuanced shape of a drogue chute, creating drag, and thus, improving pitch and roll stability (less pitch and roll wobbles).
Flying steep lines using this exaggerated dihedral has been very popular in recent years. It is a remarkably stable configuration. However, there are some other techniques presented in Part 3 that, with practice, allow for a much more efficient flight profile, increased Available Lift, and higher speeds. Be warned: These benefits come at the cost of pitch and roll stability, so be prepared to train and practice!
Bottom Line: Dihedral helps prevent speed wobbles in roll and pitch for wingsuits. Dihedral also increases drag. Which kills speed. Again, nothing comes for free in aerodynamics.
An astute and educated reader may notice an interesting omission concerning my approach to speed. By my count, I have only mentioned angle of attack (AOA) once to date on my blog. This omission is absolutely 100% intentional. AOA is a truly complex and nuanced variable even for fixed-wing pilots… meaning airplane pilots. Trying to convey AOA as it relates to flexible-everything wingsuits, well, I’ll be honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, let alone explain it eloquently to you. There are too many distortion variables that need to be standardized and fixed first, before any semblance of numerical AOA discussion becomes relevant. Wingsuit experts way above my pay grade are having similar AOA discussion challenges. Trust me, we are working on this. For now, let’s put AOA on hold. There are plenty of other fundamentals that need to be solidly understood first.
This is what I’m really talking about right now. Not vertical velocity, horizontal velocity, best glide, minimum sink, or any number of other airspeeds out there. ‘Total Speed’ on your Flysight (assuming zero wind) is just another term for terminal velocity. Terminal doesn’t mean absolute maximum possible. When talking about gliders and wingsuits, terminal velocity means the speed and direction you’re actually pushing through the air molecules at this very moment, in whatever wingsuit configuration or body orientation you happen to be in right now. It’s a fluid parameter, pun intended. The resistance of the air via friction on your wingsuit, combined with air pressure distributions over your body, stops you accelerating through the air molecules at some point. By definition, this is terminal velocity, whether you’re flying almost level or vertically straight down. Velocity is a vector parameter that defines speed in both a magnitude (size) and direction. Change your wingsuit configuration or body orientation, and all friction and pressure forces equalize to a new terminal velocity (total airspeed and direction). Forget what you learned way back in AFF about terminal velocity meaning only straight down.
The reason I’m hammering on terminal velocity right now is because our wingsuits are so inefficient, we have to take both vertical AND horizontal components of our wingsuit speed very seriously, not just horizontal. For example, diving at 1:1 glide ratio (45º flight path in zero wind) means 71% of our terminal velocity is vertical, and 71% is horizontal.
Flying at 3:1 glide ratio (18º flight path in zero wind) means 31% of our terminal velocity is vertical, and 95% is horizontal. These are scary speed proportions, unlike any other human flying device today. These proportions scream HIGH DRAG and LOW LIFT.
How fast can you get your wingsuit to move through the air in fully pressurized planform? Can you freefly in full-flight wingsuit position, fully tensioned, with perfect spine alignment to the relative airstream? Essentially, can you fly vertically straight down in perfect wingsuit position as if you were flying level? I can’t, not even close. I’m not saying you should be able to either. But our flight performance envelopes are so small (3:1 at best) that we HAVE to legitimately recognize that our terminal velocity is the real player, not just horizontal velocity.
Here’s where I’m going with this. I firmly believe that in order to reach our goal of blistering horizontal speed, we need a 2-part training regimen.
Honestly, we’re kinda screwed if you want specific numbers. We’re currently resigned to individual learning via extensive trial and error. However, there is hope. Legitimate, customized performance coaching is rapidly becoming available. Skills camps are emerging. Competition leagues are forming. Want to know how the big dogs are training? Matt Gerdes and other competition racers have developed various speed training techniques that are repeatable and proven. It’s all coming in Part 3. Please stay with us.
WBKS 2016 is off to a sickening start. The global Wingsuit Base Killing Season. June through September. Every year. The last two months have been horrific. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first WB jump, or your 1000th. Nobody is kill-proof. The Base Fatality List raced up to #300 and blew right through without even blinking. We lost some newbies, and we lost some of our most current, talented and experienced wingsuiters.
I’m reminded of the 1910’s where fliers (the term pilot hadn’t even been coined yet) were literally town heroes for surviving each and every flight. Without flight schools and instructors, there was nothing to teach or be taught. Without a firm grasp on aerodynamic theory, there were no procedures or techniques to study. Without cockpit instrumentation, there were no safe numbers to fly. Without regulations, there were no rules to follow. In the ultra-niche community of flying machines, it was common practice for multiple fliers to die in the same week, all pushing to be the first to fly a vertical loop without spinning into the ground. Ego, ambition, opportunity and excitement ensured a long line of applicants. The body count continued to rise.
But somewhere along the way, a shift occurred. Experienced pilots started teaching newbies. Flight schools opened. Aerodynamic theory became, well, less of a theory. Training became recognized as a good way to stay alive. Flight instruments were developed that unlocked all the little flight performance secrets that airplanes had been hiding for so many years. And the body count dropped.
SPOILER ALERT: Pretty much everything I will say in this and future articles can be distilled down to these four simple syllables.
That’s it, end of lesson. Nothing more to be said.
Sounds simple, right? How hard can it be?
Just two little directives.
And yet, WBKS 2016 has already notched up multiple kills from friends NOT flying fast, and NOT pulling high. The same thing happened last season, and the season before that.
“Speed is life.”
“Always carry extra airspeed.”
“Speed is your friend.”
“Never run out of airspeed, altitude, and ideas.”
“Ok folks, thanks for listening. Go out there and have fun, don’t die. End of lesson. Oh, and pull high.”
Seriously, that’s usually where the standard airspeed lesson ends. I’ve heard it myself from wingsuit coaches, sponsored WB pilots, and folks spouting the party line.
Aaaagh… but there’s so much more to discuss!
Well, hang on for the ride. This is part 1 of a 2-part article on Airspeed. Part 1, we’re going to dive down the rabbit hole of Why Fly Fast? In Part 2, we’ll explore both old school and new school styles of airspeed control in our attempts to fly like a falcon.
Well first, let’s break it down a little more. Fly Fast = FLY + FAST
So many WB fatalities are a variation of the same story. Higher skill and experience tends to lead to more spectacular and dynamic arrivals to the scene of the crash, but the core theme is the same.
Exit into slow flight, mush along chest-high, head-high, just above stall speed, trying to hang in the air forever.
“Huh, I’m not going anywhere, I’ll try hugging the air harder for more lift.”
Suit starts to stall, drag increases.
“Whoa, am I going to clear that outcropping?”
Pitch up even more, stall deeper, sink rate builds.
Emergency pitch, line stretch, splat.
It happens over, and over, and over again.
CRAZY THOUGHT OF THE DAY:
I can declare with absolute certainty that nobody has ever died in Wingsuit BASE from flying too slow. You can fly fast, slow, any speed you like. Your speed through the air does NOT kill you. Say whaaaat….?
What kills you is the sudden stop at the end. Folks spout that ‘Speed is Life’, but really, smashing into a wall at 120mph is going to kill you just as dead as stalling into the ground at 60mph. Stay away from the ground. It’s that simple.
So, what are some ways to stay away from the ground in a flying device? We could, perhaps, generate more Lift? Yes, great idea. More lift = more life!
Let me say that again. More lift = more life.
The easiest way to generate slow-speed lift is to grow longer wings. More wingspan = more lift.
Unfortunately, human arms might as well be T-Rex arms in Nature’s encyclopedia of flying devices. Nature never intended us to fly. We’re breaking all the rules. Remember our ‘WTF are we really doing?’ discussion on how ultra-low-efficient our wingsuits are?
Well, if we can’t grow longer wings, what’s the next best way to increase life, I mean, lift?
If you do some digging into the equations governing aerodynamics, it turns out that Airspeed is the next best way to increase available lift. Actually, it’s a really good way to increase Available Lift*.
*AVAILABLE LIFT (AL) is a term I am coining for this discussion. AL is defined as the potential lift available from your wingsuit if you instantly demanded maximum lift at any particular point in your flight. AL is a fluid parameter and fluctuates with each phase of a WB flight: exit, start, flight, flare, and deployment. Flying at sustained max AL is strictly NOT recommended. You will bleed all of your energy, stall your wing, and die. The BFL is smothered with this exact type of fatality. However, flying WITH high AL in reserves is smart. Flying with high AL and never having to use it to save your ass, that’s even smarter.
So, how are AL and airspeed related? Great question.
Have you ever held a 42” pilot chute out the window while driving at 10mph? It’s nothing crazy, easily doable if you’re careful. Now double your speed to 20mph and stick that pilot chute out the window again. You may intuitively expect the drag force to double. Well, we almost broke Dorkzonehero’s arm on the doorframe pillar as the PC was viciously yanked aft. Waaay more than double the force! If you enjoy using healthy arms, please take our word for it.
Why did doubling airspeed disproportionately increase our PC drag force?
As it turns out, airspeed squares aerodynamic force, represented by the relation below, where F = Force and V = Velocity/Airspeed (this is the only formula I’ll put in Part 1, I swear).
F ≈ V2 = VxV
Translation: Force is proportional to velocity squared.
Force can be either Drag or Lift. The square law is the same.
Pick a speed, any speed. Available lift at that speed equals 1x. Now, double that speed, and your new AL is (2)2 = 4x
Increase airspeed 100%, available lift is now 400%.
Double your airspeed, quadruple your AL!
This square law is the hidden magic behind the statement ‘Fly Fast’. Fully understanding this one concept is the single most important step in becoming a safer wingsuit pilot.
Now for the reality check. Not many wingsuit pilots can double their airspeed, so that’s an unrealistic example. Let’s crunch the numbers on some more realistic gains.
Speed Increase: New AL:
Add 10% (110%)2 = 121%
Add 20% (120%)2 = 144%
Add 50% (150%)2 = 225%
These are all realistic goals you can and must train to.
This weekend at your local dropzone, record how fast you can fly. The technology is out there. Now, in that same suit, set yourself a 10% increase goal. If you can train yourself to tap that extra 10% on demand, you have now given yourself a 21% increase in AL. That is a huuuge gain in the WB environment. Now bump that goal up again. Always be training to fly faster. Screw the flocking dives, I want the mach-ing dives.
Mach, not flock! Mach, not flock! Mach, not…. Ok, you get the idea.
Here’s the beautiful takeaway: For every extra scrap of airspeed you finesse out of your suit, you are rewarded with an increasing return in AL. It’s the best airline miles program on earth! If it sounds like a Ponzi scheme, well, it is. If airspeed was currency, the rich would be getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Wait, what about that last part? The poor getting poorer?
Here’s the catch: The formula goes both ways. Cut your airspeed in half, and you decrease AL by 4x!
Speed Decrease: Remaining AL: AL Lost:
Slow 10% (90%)2 = 81% 19% less AL
Slow 20% (80%)2 = 64% 36% less AL
Slow 50% (50%)2 = 25% 75% less AL
ANY SPEED DECREASE TAPS THE REALLY SCARY PART OF THIS EQUATION!!
Every wingsuit pilot I know can easily decrease their airspeed by 30% in seconds, without even trying. That’s a 50% decrease in AL! This is precisely why it’s impossible to flare your wingsuit when you’re flying slow. You’ve run out of AL! To make matters worse, any attempt at a slow-speed flare actually increases drag (we’ll get to that in another article), resulting in a higher sink rate and the complete opposite of your intended result. This is the tragically repeated spiral directly responsible for multiple WB fatalities every year. In just the last 2 months, we’ve already seen multiple kills in this exact scenario.
“Cause of Death: Pilot Error – Inability to maintain sufficient airspeed and altitude”
Again, and again, and again… ugh!
So, in the future, any time you feel your wingsuit slowing down, you better have a damn good reason why you’re allowing yourself to bleed precious energy. The only way to get that energy back is to lower your angle of attack, cash in some altitude, and build that airspeed back up. Nothing comes for free in aerodynamics, especially when you’re flying an anvil-glider.
You may be asking, “Whoa! If slow flight is so dangerous, why don’t wingsuit pilots just fly fast all the time?”
Good question. Here’s my stab at an answer.
Watch any new kid zip into a wingsuit for a First Flight Course, and it’s quite likely to hear the wingsuit coach say something like, “Just jump out, relax and have fun. Don’t fight the suit.” This perfectly sets the stage for belly skydiving muscle memory to kick in. Head high, chest high, knees bent, hips arched, ‘arms back’ (I hate that term). It requires the least amount of muscle input. This terrible muscle memory is further reinforced by flocking, whereby everybody distorts and detunes their wingsuit in the pursuit of formation flying nowhere slow. Flocking is absolutely the worst training ever for WB. It’s the wingsuit equivalent of snowplowing down a big-mountain line. Snowplowing isn’t really skiing. Well, flocking isn’t really flying, regardless of how it feels. Get out of that habit fast!
Flying fast requires a deliberate and focused training regimen, with significant amounts of actual flight time in speed drill body position. The fastest way to get flight time is to skydive. A lot. If you don’t train, how can you expect to excel?
Now keep in mind, flying fast is a personal parameter. It has nothing to do with your peers or model of suit. It has everything to do with “How much faster can I get this particular suit to fly?” That’s what really counts. If your peers happen to be the same weight and are flying the same suit as you, ok sure, now you’ve got a reference for a pretty fair race. Smoking everybody in your prototype VC-8RX+ does not necessarily mean you are a fast wingsuit pilot. You just happen to be flying a fast suit. Try to fly it even faster.
All that extra life-giving lift force needs to be held in place by your arm and shoulder muscles. Double your airspeed; quadruple AL; quadruple the muscle force required to use that lift. Ouch. Most humans, with their low strength-to-weight ratios, find it difficult to maintain unnatural loaded arm positions for over a minute. It’s simply easier to relax and let your arms take a break, at the cost of spilling air and lift. If this is happening to you, please regard your arm fatigue as both a flight risk and a required area of improvement. Muscle fatigue at the end of an arm-burning flight also leads to weak pilot chute deployments. Weak PC deployments are responsible for fatalities on the BFL. Get the picture? Hit the gym, if needed. Myself included. No excuses.
Airspeed squares Available Lift. Always fly with high AL in reserves. Hold on to it by using good judgment on your line. Spend it judiciously and wisely. AL is very hard to get back. Oh… and pull high.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where we’ll discuss some old-school airspeed techniques and associated pitfalls, as well as current thoughts and techniques for flying at the speed of heat.
In 1964, NASA initiated a test program to research lifting body aerodynamics. These were stubby, ultra-short-wingspan aircraft that literally fell out of the sky.
Towed up to a release altitude of approximately twelve thousand feet over Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave, CA, highly trained test pilots perfected a high-speed flight profile with a ‘best-glide’ sink at just over three thousand feet per minute. For a glider, these numbers meant you might as well have been flying a brick. To effect a safe landing, test pilots intentionally pushed the nose even steeper from best-glide to generate surplus airspeed, building enough kinetic energy for a one-shot flare to just baaarely level their flight path prior to touchdown. Energy management and timing had to be impeccable. Real lives were on the line. With precision honed by years of high-performance test pilot training, they nailed it repeatedly.
Aesthetically, the M2-F1 was just plain ugly, but its performance validated the theory of lifting body aerodynamics. The M2-F1 set the stage for development of the X-24A and other lifting body research aircraft. The knowledge gained from these incredibly high-risk programs led ultimately to the most complex flying machine ever created: the Space Shuttle. In recent years, we’ve all been witness to the cutting edge victories of Space Ship One validating private space travel. Space Ship Two is poised to offer civilian space rides for a fraction of previous costs.
All of these programs incorporate stump-winged, low efficiency, high drag lifting body platforms. That’s great, but… aren’t we supposed to be talking about wingsuits?
Well, just to keep things spicy, let’s take the above-mentioned high-risk programs, and add flexible airfoil technology. And 8 degrees of flight control articulation, meaning wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine, hips, knees, and ankles. Don’t forget ram air inflation. And blended-wing-body aerodynamics. Let’s also take out the wing spar. Now combine all of these aerodynamic nightmares onto a single platform and ask a pilot to fly this crazy aircraft. Wait, let’s ask a non-pilot to fly this aircraft. Just a few meters off the deck.
We’ve just described today’s modern wingsuit community.
So, let’s step back from the edge for a second and assess what we’re really doing.
We’re taking an already very high-risk activity, that of jumping off a cliff and saving our butts by deploying a parachute, and intentionally increasing the risk by zipping ourselves inside a baggy nylon straightjacket.
Then we’re asking our straightjacket to inflate as fast as possible to a magical shape that enables us to scoop out of our ballistic freefall arc and sort of fly. We’ll get back to that ‘sort of fly’ comment in a bit. First, let’s look at these magic suits a little closer.
Today’s wingsuits are awesome. Seriously, modern wingsuit design teams have the coolest job description ever! They combine computational fluid dynamics and digital laser cutters with good ol’ fashioned trial and error. “Hey, let’s try this idea!” Nothing wrong with that approach. Pretty legit when you’re breaking new ground, and we’re getting some amazing wingsuits as a result. It’s honestly the 1930’s ‘Golden Age of Aviation’, except it’s the 2010‘s ‘Golden Age of Wingsuits’… a great period of flying history to be immersed in!
But here’s where a disconnect starts to emerge. A disconnect that leads to one of the biggest problems facing the wingsuit BASE community today: Our heritage skydiving mindset, combined with today’s explosive production and development of modern wingsuits, fools us into believing wingsuits are cutting edge, high performance flying devices.
Well, ‘high performance’ relative to what?
From a freefall skydiver’s perspective, wingsuits are mind-blowing flying wonders available with the swipe of a red-hot credit card. Honestly, that’s about as simple and accurate as it gets.
From a pilot’s perspective, wingsuits are ultra-low-efficiency gliders with no wing spar, a tiny flight envelope, unforgiving handling qualities, high pilot workload, and no landing capability. Test pilots would legitimately describe a wingsuit as “a high-speed nylon body bag”.
The BFL would agree with this observation.
From my personal experience, I can unequivocally state that I have never flown an aircraft as unforgiving and ultra-low-performance as today’s modern wingsuit. With upwards of seventy different models of aircraft in my logbook, wingsuits are by far the deadliest aircraft I have ever flown. From helicopters, gliders, ultra-lights, gyrocopters, and airplanes. Tail wheel, single engine, twin engine, piston, turbine, and jets. Never have I focused with such intensity, flown with such commitment and precision, or exerted such physical effort as when landing an F-14 on a pitching carrier deck at night. Nothing comes close. Except when flying a wingsuit in technical or unfamiliar terrain.
Is the light bulb starting to come on?
Ok, let’s switch gears a bit. Let’s talk about the pilot inside the suit for a second.
Today’s explosive wingsuit development is grossly outpacing our poor training regiment, our lack of basic pilot skills and our lack of good judgment.
To make matters worse, most new wingsuits released today are actually easier to fly than their predecessors. No wonder when a false perception of pilot skill starts to take root. It’s an insidious circle when you really think about it.
We hear it all the time.
Here’s a nugget of aviation wisdom: A good pilot can fly any aircraft well with sufficient and recurrent training. However, just because you can afford to buy a Learjet that practically flies itself does not make you a good jet pilot. The same is true for wingsuits.
Don’t let the apparent ease of flying a particular wingsuit fool you into thinking you’re a good pilot.
Everybody thinks they’re a good driver, right? Well, take away your ABS, traction control, power steering, power brakes, rear view mirrors, the speedometer, and your gas gauge. Jump into rush hour traffic on the highway. Now we’ll see how skilled a driver you really are. Chances are, the very features making your car easy to drive mask your lack of full-spectrum driving awareness and capability.
Being a good pilot is no different. As flight instructors, we don’t take student pilots and stick them in newer, more expensive and ‘easier’ aircraft to compensate for their lack of skill. We give them focused training in basic, no-frills aircraft, and lots of it. We make them prove their competency and core piloting skills in entry-level aircraft first. Students incrementally advance to more complex aircraft… some would call this, I don’t know, slow and steady progression?
At the highest levels of commercial aviation, we find full-flight autopilots, auto-throttles and auto-land capabilities. These features make the most complex aircraft appear ‘easy to fly’ to a novice pilot. Yet, when shit hits the fan, systems malfunction, and flight plans crumble airborne, core pilot skills and judgment are the primary critical components for a safe outcome. It’s the pilot, not the airplane, who saves the day.
Okay, we’ve talked a little about the suits. We’ve talked a little about the pilot skill inside the suits. Now let’s get back to that ‘sort of fly’ comment at the very beginning.
“I’ve got 200 skydives, therefore I’m now qualified to fly a wingsuit.”
That statement is heard at dropzones everywhere. In most circles, this is actually considered a conservative statement! Many jumpers begin flying wingsuits with far less skydives. With visions of social media grandeur playing through their heads, it’s becoming routine to hear AFF students loudly proclaim their intentions of terrain flying in Switzerland as fast as possible. Whoa, what?
Remember the first time you really nailed a track in skydiving? Your first taste of ‘human flight’ where, all of a sudden, you found the sweet spot of perfect body position and you took off across the sky! Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that wasn’t actual flight. It was controlled deflection of air.
“But it feeeeels like flight, and it feels good!”
I totally agree!
Later, after progressing through multiple wingsuits, “Look at skydivers falling vertically while I fly at 3:1 glide ratio. I really MUST be flying now!”
Here’s the big problem! The skydiving metric of ‘improved flight performance’ is referenced off the vertical column of air introduced to us from our very first tandem. This reference is reinforced for the recommended couple of hundred jumps before we’re arbitrarily ‘qualified’ to zip into our first wingsuit.
Here’s a dirty secret: the very same jump plane that gets you to altitude references ‘improved flight performance’ relative to the horizon. Yet, wingsuiters delude themselves by referencing the vertical air column for performance metrics. In part, because it’s what we know from our skydiving roots. In part, because we think it makes us look good as we brag about our glide distance and speeds to newbie skydivers. Wake up! We’re collectively fooling ourselves. When we truly compare wingsuits to other aircraft, we’re in a world of hurt.
Showing up at your local glider flight club for a demo instructional flight, you find yourself flying a docile entry-level sailplane with a glide ratio of 35:1 and a wingspan of fifty feet. (Fun fact: Top competition sailplanes can achieve glide ratios as high as 72:1)
The flying bug hooks you, and a sailplane pilot syllabus rapidly follows.
You sweat through ground school absorbing aerodynamics, weather, regulations, airspace, and more. That’s just the bookwork. The flight portion of your syllabus navigates you through basic flight maneuvers, takeoffs, landings, emergency procedures and the accumulation of required flight hours. Your first solo flight is the happiest day of your life! A couple of months later, after passing an intensive ground and practical examination with the FAA, your official ‘Private Pilot: Airplane-Glider’ certificate now hangs on your wall. It’s your proudest accomplishment.
Fast-forward a few hundred hours of flight experience. You’ve grown bored flying with the slow docile flight characteristics that 35:1 GR gives you. Those advanced aerodynamics books you’ve been geeking out on have given you a crazy idea. Grabbing a saw, you chop ten feet off each wingtip, leaving you with a 30-foot wingspan and a theoretical 21:1 GR. Your flights are now much faster and less forgiving. The flight controls are more responsive, your flights are much shorter, and you need to stay closer to the airport. Your wing also stalls at a much higher airspeed than it used to. Other glider pilots look at you funny, calling you “crazy” and “stupid”… “You’re gonna kill yourself, son. There’s a reason why gliders are built the way they are.”
But you’re a certified pilot who diligently trains and studies. You’ve done your homework. You enjoy being a test pilot.
The next weekend, you chop another ten feet off each wing. Now you’re down to a ten-foot wingspan (just five feet on either side of you!) with a theoretical 7:1 GR, somewhere around the glide ratio of a typical fighter jet. As expected, flights are stupid fast, really twitchy, and hard to control. You’re working hard for every second of flight. Precise energy management is of critical importance, as every knot of airspeed is precious energy that cannot be wasted. Your flight pattern is precisely planned to account for every variable of temperature, pressure, winds aloft, surface winds, cloud cover and time of day. You’ve modified Microsoft Flight Sim to simulate the flight performance of your ‘lead sled’. You diligently train to develop flight profiles that are repeatable. You build a set of known performance numbers to fly to on your cockpit instrumentation: best glide speed, target sink rate, and ideal angle of attack. All of this meticulous training and preparation enables you to glide to a stupidly fast one-shot flare at a precise point on the runway. Things happen fast and there is no time to think. Every detail must be planned, considered, briefed and executed with minimal contingency plans available. You start wearing a flight helmet. You weld a roll bar over the top of the cockpit inside the bubble canopy. You wear a parachute. You love it!
A month later, after convincing yourself that you really do have this ‘anvil glider’ flying dialed in, out comes the saw for one more downsize. A few cuts later, you’re staring at a cockpit… and not much else. Only three feet of wing, about one arm’s length, stick out from either side of your tiny little bubble cockpit. You’ve checked and re-checked the numbers. A six-foot wingspan gives you a glide ratio of 4:1… theoretically. You pick up your helmet and your parachute. This will not be a test flight. This will be controlled freefall.
So, what’s the difference between today’s average wingsuit pilot and our glider test pilot here? Both involve manned, low-efficiency, stubby-wing, and immensely high workload flying platforms. Yet wingsuits are perceived as high-performance state-of-the-art flying devices, manned by self-taught ‘freefall athletes’ with zero pilot training and no flight instruments. Our glider pilot is a highly trained certified pilot who has passed the rigorous and intense Practical Test Standards of an FAA checkride… yet could easily be perceived by peers to be a lunatic pilot with a death wish. The under-educated wingsuit community praises perceived achievement and capability; the professionally trained pilot community scorns high-risk, low-efficiency flight. Are you starting to get the picture now?
Back to our stubby-wing research aircraft at the very beginning of this story. Guess what the subsonic best-glide numbers were for them?
Eerily similar to today’s best wingsuits… yet all flown by the world’s best test pilots.
You don’t see test pilots tipping their already sketchy lifting-body aircraft off cliffs and scraping their wings down mountain terrain lines, do you? No, that would categorically be considered the dumbest idea ever, even though performance envelopes eerily match up. In wingsuits, it’s considered good sport; in a similar-performing airplane flown by an actual ice-veined military test pilot, well, that’s just plain lunacy. See the hypocrisy?
Alright, where does that leave us? Wingsuits are currently in a TBD (to-be-determined) category of aviation. We’re ‘sort of flying’, but defaulting back to our freefall modes when shit goes south or the ground gets close. On the other hand, when we are actually flying… it’s really, really sketchy flying, as in Chuck Yeager-type flight envelopes. We’re flying just enough to kill ourselves by making flying errors, not freefall errors. Pilots don’t know shit about freefall and parachutes, and wingsuiters currently don’t know shit about aviation. We need to bridge that gap. Our wingsuit community, with our deeply embedded freefall roots, believes that “we know what we’re doing, and we know how to fly.” We couldn’t be further from the truth. Our high fatality rate in wingsuit BASE proves this. Our fatalities are being caused by ambitious minds thinking they’re test pilot quality. In reality, those same minds are making novice pilot mistakes.
So perhaps on your next wingsuit flight, you could pause to reflect on just how close your wingsuit resembles a NASA research aircraft. Ask yourself “What makes ME so special to bypass any form of pilot training? Why am I qualified to fly this 3:1 aerodynamic nightmare?” If you can come up with a substantive answer, please cross-check it against the BFL.
A year ago, this article started as a spewing forth of anger following news of Grambo and Dean’s last flight in Yosemite. At the time, discretion told me to set the article aside and let my emotions chill. I dug it up recently for a re-attack.
My anger aimed straight at Grambo and Dean. Their accident had been completely preventable. They were too experienced to have not known better. Having chosen to fly the most unforgiving and uber-technical line in Yosemite Valley, they accepted low light and non-ideal weather conditions. They also added a questionable variable to an already questionable gameplan. ‘Hey, let’s go ahead and make it a 2-way’... something never before attempted. We all know the outcome.
Grambo’s currency and proficiency is at an all-time high. Returning from a multi-week pillaging of the Moab desert, he carries a proud scorecard of technical wingsuit exits he’s just opened, some of which may never be repeated. Watching him fly is a pure joy. I have aspirations of learning everything I can from him, having silently promoted him to the status of ‘Mentor’. I’m not sure he knows how much I respect his style of flying.
Like all aviation mishaps, whether mechanical failure or pilot error, every accident starts with a critical link. When that link fails, all hell breaks loose. For Dean and Grambo, their particular critical link failed on exit prior to flight. It occurred in their heads, with their inability to temper ambition with reality.
They both had plenty of experience. They were both very current and very proficient. Nothing was wrong with their gear. So, what was lacking on exit? An accurate assessment of flight requirements for the given conditions, and an accurate assessment of their actual flying capabilities. Or stated a different way: Lack of judgement, and Complacency.
My good friend Chris is really tight with those guys. He’s one of the underground gang always sneaking around Yosemite with Dean, Grambo and other wolverines. I make the call to notify him. He gets a little choked up. Chris is another guy rapidly rising to mentor status in my eyes. A PhD engineer working in the laser field, a stupid strong climber training for American Ninja Warrior, father of two girls, and one of the most scientific minds to ever assess a wingsuit exit. He’s notorious for establishing solo wingsuit exits with exposed technical access in the eastern Sierras, often requiring significant free-soloing. No one has dared repeat them. With our combined academic backgrounds and penchant for details, Chris and I make a pretty good team assessing new exits. Our adventures are technical and proud.
Dean and Grambo were in the upper echelons of today’s wingsuit base pantheon. So were Kenney, Jhonny, Brian, Ludo, Dan, and many others. Experience wasn’t a causal factor for any of them. They all had it in excess. And yet they still fucked up somehow. Why?
There was a time when 1000 basejumps in a logbook was exceptional. Now it’s common for half the load to have 1000+ each. This combined ‘proof’ of our gear and methodology working phenomenally well sets us up for an insidious killer.
In professional aviation, we have 3 general categories of pilots:
You would expect that more experience would lead to fewer pilot fatalities, right? And yet, records show a spike in both the low and the high end of flight experience curves. Why?
Inexperience kills our new pilots.
Complacency kills our high-time pilots.
Pilots in the middle tend to do pretty well, statistically. They’ve been around long enough to develop sound skills, but not long enough to forget how quickly things can spin out of control. They’re much closer to the ‘back when I was a student’ phase of their career, so it’s easier to remember ‘I’m human, and by default, I make mistakes.’
Fast forward 10,000 hours in the cockpit (or many hundreds of WS basejumps), no mishaps, tons of experience, been there, done that, got this, nailed that… everything’s gone right for so long.
Ever so subtly, you stop preparing as diligently for emergencies. Routine critical tasks like packing, gear checks on exit, and pitching your pilot chute happen on virtual auto-pilot. You go through the physical motions, but your brain isn’t quite at the same level of active involvement. Mentally, you’re not as engaged in the details anymore. Meanwhile, life guarantees that, at some point, mistakes and emergencies do happen.
Complacency erodes our ability to catch the mistakes in time. After that, it’s a game of catch-up, with one initial mistake usually leading to cascading emergencies. Habits can be our best friend or our worst enemy. When complacency becomes a habit, you become a matter of time.
Federal Aviation Regulations are printed in books over two inches thick, and almost every regulation traces back to lessons learned the hard way (ie, fatalities). Pilot Error is the probable cause found in a large majority of aviation accident reports. This has led to the development of very successful FAA programs such as Risk Management, Crew Resource Management, Aeronautical Decision Making, Human Factors, and more… mandatory training for all professional pilots, yet completely foreign to the BASE community at large.
For so many reasons (good and bad), the cultural mindset of BASE is pretty much diametrically opposed with professional aviation. What do an airline captain and a basejumper have in common? On the surface, pretty much nothing. Airline captains are the epitome of ‘We must adhere to procedures and regulations!’ Basejumpers… well, we run from authority in every sense of the word. Yet, from a human flight perspective, basejumping (especially wingsuit basejumping) stands to learn from what the professional aviation community has been screaming for decades…‘WE ARE OUR OWN WORST ENEMIES.’
We’ll cover these ideas in greater detail in future articles. For now, I’ll wrap this up by offering a few pro-pilot sound bites that have served me well in the jumping arena, and which, in my opinion, I find lacking in most jumping circles.
I’m tired of losing people I had always hoped to fly with. I’m tired of losing elite, world-level, tip-of-the-spear shining stars. I’m tired of adding names of close friends to my personal fatality list.
Got a call from Jeff today. Jeff never calls me. His voice says it all. It sounds like my voice when I called Chris about Dean and Grambo. It sounds like Chris’ voice when he called me about Kenney.
‘Everything alright?’ I ask hesitantly.
‘No. It’s Chris… he went in a couple of hours ago.’
Fuuuuuck! Another uber-experienced wingsuit pilot gone. Another mentor gone. Another damn good friend gone.
Experience doesn’t mean shit. It doesn’t matter how many successful jumps you have behind you. You’re only as good as your next jump. Act like it. More importantly, think like it.
I’m not the world’s best wingsuit pilot, not even close. Let’s just get that out of the way. My jump experience, skillset and numbers pale in comparison to most of those flying at the elite level around the world.
Yes, I have significantly more to learn; and yes, I’m enjoying the journey.
So, what do I bring to the table that’s so special? Built on a broad background of aviation experience, I bring a detail-oriented approach to wingsuit base (WB) that is desperately missing in our community.
What I lack in skill and proficiency, I offset with sound judgment and meticulous preparation.
I was fortunate enough to enter modern wingsuiting with a broad background of relevant expertise going back more than 20 years. An aeronautical engineering degree provided the theoretical side of aerodynamics and mechanics of number-crunching. Civilian flight school taught me the practical application and compromises of real-world aviation. Later, as a fighter pilot landing F-14 Tomcats on pitching aircraft carrier decks at night, I learned the payoffs of physical and mental preparation. I also learned the consequences of even the smallest of errors. The formalities of military funerals for my flight instructors and peers became morbidly routine, mostly from non-combat-related flight mishaps.
‘Carrier Aviation is not inherently dangerous; it’s just extremely unforgiving’
We would use this phrase to focus our priorities and mindset. Honestly, I think we were kidding ourselves. In truth, carrier aviation is both extremely dangerous and unforgiving. Unforgiving of even the most minute overlooked details in planning, of inadequate knowledge, improper training, poor execution, and most importantly, unforgiving of poor decision-making. On bad days, when shit really hit the fan and all emergency procedures were exhausted, lucky souls were saved courtesy of Martin-Baker ejection seats. Unlucky ones outside the envelope of even the best seats didn’t make it, usually as a result of pulling the ejection handle too late.
Like carrier aviation, WB requires minute attention to every detail, extensive and continual training, and precise execution of a comprehensive plan. WB exhibits all of the same dangerous and unforgiving traits of carrier aviation, if not more. Last time I checked, wingsuits don’t have afterburners and ejection seats to save your ass.
So, with most of the same flavors of associated risk, a careful observation of these two extreme communities could reasonably expect to find similarities in our approaches to risk mitigation, right?
Wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. My observation is that the two communities are worlds apart in their approach to risk.
Carrier aviation teaches multiple backups for every procedure, meticulously briefed for every conceivable contingency (briefed because it has happened in the past, and can happen again in the future). Detailed emergency procedures (EPs) are burned into ‘brain stem power’ for reactions so fast that multi-step EPs are executed before pulse rates even flicker.
Brief the flight, and fly the brief. It’s called ‘Being a professional.’
What do I see in the WB community? Honestly, a bunch of cavalier basejumpers acting like 16-year-old kids who just found the keys to their dad’s Corvette.
Sometimes, I’ll see some basic attempts at pre-flight planning.
“Let’s do a quick morning load”
“We have to be geared up on exit no later than 10am because winds are forecast to switch up around 11”
The exit brief is usually brief (pun intended).
“I’ll exit first, you guys follow me”
“My exit direction is that house-sized boulder. Jumper 2 exits 5 degrees left of that boulder. Jumper 3 exits 5 degrees right of that boulder. Keep on your own side of me, no crossing over on this one. Now, here’s a practice count…”
More often, accident-response preparation is sadly thin.
“Is there cell signal up here?”
“In case anything unplanned happens, does everybody know I have this yellow ACR beacon in my leg wing pocket? In an emergency, response is initiated by pushing this button here…”
Overwhelmingly, I see a bunch of excited basejumpers who are stuck in old-school slick-jumper mentality. They zip into very-low-efficiency gliders, with minimal concepts of aerodynamics and energy management, and fly technical lines like they’re fueled by unlimited magic.
This amusement ride approach has become normal. Normal does not mean safe, correct or smart. Normal just means everybody is doing it, and mostly getting away with it.
Unfortunately, the statistics speak for themselves. Of 34 personal friends lost to basejumping (not counting aviation and skydiving), 25 were flying a wingsuit. That’s 75%. For a six-year span of 2009-2016, 89 out of 129 basejumping fatalities involved wingsuits. That’s two out of every three. (For the same period, USPA reported just 6 skydiving fatalities involving wingsuits.)
Of these WB fatalities, the leading probable cause overwhelmingly points to a phrase you will be hearing repeatedly here at Topgunbase: Pilot Error.
“Pilot error is the action or decision of the pilot that, if not caught or corrected, could contribute to the occurrence of an accident or incident, including inaction or indecision.” – FAA
Translation: “They knew better. Or should have.”
For those with a critical eye, it’s obvious that changes are needed. We need changes at a fundamental level, at a core mindset level, at an educational level. If we want to grow old in this cutting edge, high risk, emergent sport, we have to adapt and learn. Fast.