Bigger, Bolder, Safer
photos by Jeff Nebelkopf
In April 2010, fundraising and outreach organization Raise the Sky organized Project XRW (which stands for “extreme relative work”) to bring together the most highly skilled athletes in canopy piloting and wingsuiting to explore the interaction between the disciplines. After experiencing a growth of knowledge and several safe projects in various locations, Project XRW kicked off an expansion phase in January against the backdrop of Skydive Sebastian’s unspoiled Florida coastline and cloudless sky. The founding team members invited select highly experienced wingsuit pilots to join the group in flying with PD Factory Team canopy pilots Ian Bobo, Jessica Edgeington and Jonathan Tagle under their Performance Designs Velocity 71 parachutes.
The organizers thought extensively about which skills and qualities were necessary for those interested in joining the XRW team. The prospect of holding an invitational XRW event inspired good safety discussions and networking (and it led to some spectacular flying, as well).
Over the past few years, as the project’s members watched XRW begin to grow from a stunt into a discipline, some very important questions arose: What does it take to do canopy-wingsuit relative work safely? What activities are included under the XRW banner? Is it even possible to talk about safety in the context of an activity so cutting edge that there are no rules to govern it? The team behind Project XRW and other highly experienced canopy and wingsuit pilots in the growing XRW community have been grappling with these questions as they strive to educate themselves and other skydivers. The answers are important for everyone, from those who want to regulate or even ban XRW to those who want to be the next participants.
What is the Path to Qualifying for XRW? — Is There a Path?
As of yet, there are no regulations or even formal recommendations for those who wish to learn XRW. Eli Bolotin, the Project XRW ground-crew coordinator, is now gathering data using sponsored FlySight GPS units and weighing participants for wing loadings. “We had an opportunity this time around—because there were so many people with different backgrounds—to collect actual data. With that, a picture will start to emerge,” he said, “but in the meantime, if we say anything in terms of a concrete recommendation, and it turns out to be wrong, that’s just irresponsible. At this point we are trying to get all the information we can, following people’s instincts with years and years and years of expertise.”
Some, like John Hamilton of Skydive Elsinore in California, see XRW as a risk not worth taking. “Our policy at Skydive Elsinore does not endorse XRW as a discipline. People by nature will push themselves too quickly in an effort to emulate the top-level performers in our sport,” said Hamilton. “The adoption of XRW into our sport as a mainstream discipline has the potential to further push and/or encourage younger jumpers to jump equipment that may be above and beyond their abilities too quickly, thus potentially pushing the envelope further, which may result in additional injuries or fatalities.”
One thing that the team behind Project XRW is very clear about is the difference between fly-bys (flying a wingsuit past a canopy pilot) and the development of XRW as a discipline. Project XRW performs well-planned, controlled skydives focused on minimizing the speed differential between wingsuiters and canopy pilots. The best method to prepare for XRW is to learn to flock with other jumpers in the same discipline. Fly-bys are not the path to XRW.
Can Jumpers Perform XRW Safely?
The PD Factory Team members have led the canopy-piloting side of XRW because of their deep experience flying highly loaded parachutes in close proximity to one another. Niklas Daniel, an emerging XRW canopy pilot who started his XRW training with Tagle, highlighted the difference between solo training and what jumpers need in the XRW environment. Daniel said, “If someone wants to get into this, it’s important to do flocking jumps with either canopies or wingsuits, respectively. You need to spend a lot of time flying relative to other people and really learn your canopy. Only after doing a lot of relative work within your own discipline can you start to cross over.”
The wingsuit flyers specialize in using high-performance, pressurized wingsuits and formation flying. The wingsuit pilots with Project XRW have all been organizers and participants in recent wingsuit large-formation records. Member Will Kitto, in addition to being a highly experienced wingsuit pilot, is also a member of 4-way canopy formation skydiving rotations team Too Wrapped Up, which will represent the United States at the World Meet in November. His canopy formation background means that he has lots of experience with how it feels to spend time very close to someone else’s canopy.
Tagle has repeatedly said that he highly discourages people from “trying this at their home drop zones with a couple of guys who have a couple hundred wingsuit jumps and maybe 1,000 jumps, even under a cross-braced canopy. It can be extremely dangerous.”
Some canopy pilots use trim tabs, which hold down a parachute’s front risers mechanically, to steepen their glide ratios. Tagle emphasizes, “I don’t recommend trim tabs at all—they are incredibly unsafe. They are just a Band-Aid® fix that we are using currently until we find a better system. And you have to remember that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ We haven’t experienced it all. We still try to think of circumstances that could possibly arise and how we would address those issues, but this is all still brand new.”
T.J. Landgren, a canopy pilot who has taken docks with multiple wingsuiters but has not yet flown in mixed formations with other high-performance parachutes, can land his NZ Aerosports JVX 63 with a wing loading between 3.5 and 3.8:1. Landgren explained his progression by saying, “In the beginning, I was jumping a VX 69, loaded at 3.1 and using trim tabs. I started increasing the wing loading to up to 3.8 with 30 pounds of weight. After flying that for a while, I concluded that it was unsafe because I was overloading the reserve too much. That’s when I stepped down to a JVX 63 loaded at 3.5.”
With many years in the sport, jumping a canopy at such high wing loadings for XRW is an option Landgren can choose but does not recommend for all jumpers. “Ask a lot of questions of people who have done it before,” he insists. “I’m happy I asked Jonathan Tagle as many questions as I possibly could before I got started.”
Daniel, who eventually settled on flying a Velocity 75 loaded at 3.26, uses trim tabs but not when flying with other canopy pilots. He said, “I got my special risers from the manufacturer, which I hope will add a layer of responsibility to the process. Canopy pilots should think twice about asking for them if they don’t have the right experience and mentorship, and manufacturers should check the backgrounds of those who request them. Don’t go and try it on a whim. It’s not that it’s unachievable, but it needs to be approached very carefully.”
So what does it take to get an invitation to Project XRW? Mike Swanson, who joined the team in Sebastian, put it this way: “Everyone who is doing this now has been in the sport a long time and is a professional. And when things go wrong, they go wrong really quickly. It’s amazing to see how quickly they go wrong.”
The best practice for XRW is a long, steady, dedicated progression in wingsuit formation flying or high-performance canopy piloting, including flocking. There is no easy formula; you may have thousands of jumps and still not have achieved the right skill set to do XRW safely. If you have questions, seek out mentorship and advice from those who are active in the tiny XRW community, and don’t take it personally if they suggest that you’re not ready; it’s just another reason to jump more and hone your skills.
The Rewards of Getting it Right
Project XRW—Sebastian, with the support of Skydive Chicago’s aircraft, was successful in reaching several new goals: The expanded group flew the largest mixed wingsuit-canopy flock to date, a 9-way, including wingsuit pilots Jhonathan Florez, Barry Holubeck, Roberta Mancino and Taya Weiss along with Kitto and Swanson and canopy pilots Bobo, Edgeington and Tagle. The team also experimented with—and achieved—multiple configurations of 6-, 7-, and 8-way formations and the world’s first XRW-CF surf dock, with wingsuit pilot Kitto docked underneath a 2-stack of Velocity 71s piloted by Tagle and Bobo.
Raise the Sky: The Reason They Do It
The day after completing team training and tryouts in Sebastian, Edgeington and Tagle joined Bolotin and Weiss for a visit to the newest Raise the Sky partner, Vero Beach Elementary School. A short distance from the drop zone, Principal Bonnie Swanson and her teaching staff cater to the academic, emotional and nutritional needs of an underserved student population, 90 percent of whom rely on subsidized school lunches. Many come from homeless families. The class of second graders learned that science and math are just as important as courage when jumping out of an airplane. Plans are underway for follow-up visits in March after the Team Dirty Sanchez Hawaiian Luau Boogie fundraising event at Skydive Sebastian, in April after Skydive Expo in DeLand and at the opening of a new, eco-friendly school building at the end of the summer.
Raise the Sky continues to organize the Project XRW team around contributing to Flying Dreams, a program for which athletes raise funds and awareness for schools catering to low-income and underserved children. Making dreams of flight real requires resources, knowledge and understanding of everything from wind and weather to flight patterns and run-in speeds. When skydivers visit schools to inspire kids with their lofty goals, they not only teach the next generation to believe in the impossible, they remind themselves to “walk the walk” and make knowledge, learning, and safety the highest priorities when expanding their own horizons.
About the Author
Taya Weiss, D-27874, is a founder of Raise the Sky, a non-profit organization that links skydivers to charitable and humanitarian opportunities. She was one of the first jumpers to explore mixed wingsuit pilot-canopy pilot formations and coined the term “XRW.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Eli Bolotin
For Project XRW—Sebastian, a small number of jumpers flew with FlySight GPS units while data collectors closely monitored their equipment usage and wing loading to grow the existing base of knowledge. The results were interesting. For example, the PD Factory Team members were flying Competition Velocity 71s with wing loadings anywhere from 2.49 to 3.24:1 on the most successful jumps. Changing the amount of weight the jumpers wore by a mere 2.5 pounds had a noticeable effect on the performance of the flock. Also, at the higher wing loadings, the participants did not always need to use their front-riser trim tabs. This is important, as the use of trim tabs can reduce the stability of a canopy.
The wingsuit flock seemed most comfortable when its vertical speed (fall rate) was between 30 and 35 mph. So far, the participants felt that the Tonysuit X-Bird 2 gave them the best range due to its low stall speed.
Wing loadings well over 3:1 and sustained freefall speeds in the low 30-mph range are numbers hard to imagine for most skydivers. These elite athletes are pushing the bounds of what is possible in the sport, and the details of how others may be able to participate are only now starting to emerge from the data being gathered in the field.
A Word to the Wise from USPA
Without a doubt, XRW produces amazing visuals. They are so compelling, you might be tempted to head to the drop zone and create your own XRW project. However, the jumpers performing these feats are very concerned that those who lack the necessary knowledge and skill will attempt to imitate them.
Thankfully, most skydivers understand just how complex this type of jump can be and are happy to watch from the sidelines. Pushing the envelope is not for everyone, and when an already potentially risky sport like skydiving is taken to further extremes, it is not always easy to see just how thin the edge of that envelope can be until it is too late.
If skydivers never pursued anything different, the sport wouldn’t have evolved into what it is today. But through the years, skydivers have died or suffered serious injuries in the name of pushing boundaries and developing new disciplines. Attempting a new, edgy stunt such as XRW requires everyone involved to be at the top level of skill in both wingsuit flying and canopy piloting.
Those who are interested in pursuing this type of jump must be willing to work with the experts who are already in the process of developing the discipline, and they must proceed slowly while making the safety of everyone involved the highest priority. Techniques and equipment will continually change in the early stages of an emerging discipline as developers learn about what works well and what doesn’t. For a well-prepared expert, mistakes can serve as valuable lessons for continuing development of the sport. But if an unprepared and unqualified jumper makes a mistake—particularly in a discipline with such a thin margin of error—survival will depend primarily on luck and happenstance.
I’ll take planning, skill and caution over luck, every time.
—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training