Experience doesn’t mean shit.

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:

  • Low-time beginners
  • High-time career-long professionals
  • The Middle majority somewhere in between

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.

  • It’s all in the details. All of it. Weather, exit assessment, gear, packing, training, execution, contingencies, access, briefing, de-briefing, preparation, fitness, mindset, and more.
  • Be a pilot, not a passenger. Own every aspect of your jump.
  • Amateurs train until they get it right. Professionals train until they don’t get it wrong. When 100% success is required for every jump, you can’t afford to be an amateur.
  • A Superior Pilot: One who uses Superior Judgment to avoid situations requiring the use of Superior Skill.

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.

 

8 Comments

  1. I back this concept 100 percent. Its about time, way to take the reins.

  2. This is incredible and I appreciate this effort. As a wingsuiter with a miniscule 34 WS BASE jumps with greater aspirations, I find myself thinking “who am I to think I can do this?” In the wake of recent events. This is the way.

    • I think exactly the same thing.. when you look at the uber experienced guys going in you gotta think, how can i possibly think I’m better, or more skilled or ‘it won’t happen to me’… something has to change…

  3. Really solid article.
    Although I am not a wingsuiter neither a pilot, this ideas can be taken to a lot of risk activities.
    Thank you.

  4. Keep writing Rich, we all benefit from your perspective

    cheers
    Lau

  5. As a concerned parent trying to be as supportive as possible of an offspring’s choice to fly, I can only send a big THANK YOU for putting this out there. Much appreciated.

  6. I really do like this approach. I’ve been out of the WSB game for 3 seasons now due to some back injuries. I’m feeling that my body is ready to fly again but, of course, after recent events I’m rethinking how to do it. Thanks for taking the time. It really helps

  7. Thanks for writing this, Rich. I hated making that call……

    What you write is truth and……. there IS a way for super experienced, high number and highly skilled wing suit pilots to not fall into complacency without intending to.

    Something I’ve tried to recognize is that:
    -although we’ve worked and trained so hard to get comfortable, lose unnecessary fear, and to have total confidence at the exit, it’s still an extremely important step to recognize how serious each jump is. I don’t ever want to be at an exit and not recognize that fact. It’s relative to everything……the micro met, to my state of mind, to the current exit conditions, to the line I’m planning to fly, to the LZ and landing options, to the conditions I should expect while under canopy, to the influence that my partner(s) might have on my jump. We need to consider everything important with thoughtful contemplation……every jump no matter how common, “easy” or routine the jump/flight.

    I’m not saying that after a lot of back country jumps, the previous experience isn’t applicable. I’m saying that regardless of experience, this jump isn’t our last jump or the jump before that……it’s not our next jump or…. the same as the jump I just watched my homie perform. It’s MY jump and it’s THIS jump and it’s essentially the most important jump of my life…….every time.

    The last, and one of the most valuable and appreciated gifts each of those amazing dudes (that have gone in) gave us is that very lesson.

    Let’s love what we’re doing and fly how we know how…..but, let’s also listen, learn and choose to hold sacred what equates to one of the most special things a human can do. Every jump…….every time.

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