Wingsuit Fly-Bys

An open canopy is a tempting target for many wingsuit flyers. But any buzzing attempt gone awry would spell disaster for the wingsuiter and the canopy pilot. And it doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that a collision between a wingsuiter and a tandem pair under canopy could easily up the fatality count to three.

So, this poses a few questions: Should proximity flying even be tolerated or allowed, and if so, should there be a specific distance that must be maintained between wingsuit flyers and canopy pilots? Do tandem pairs under canopy deserve an even greater buffer? Various groups have discussed the issue in the past, and some have suggested setting distances of 500 feet or 1,000 feet as the standard. Or should tandem fly-bys be allowed at all?

Recently, USPA polled some industry experts to see what they thought about wingsuiters flying by tandem canopies. Opinions vary widely, and since it is a relatively new phenomenon, the Skydiver’s Information Manual does not currently offer any written guidance. Will USPA come up with any regulations or guidelines? Possibly, but USPA’s Board of Directors would first need to discuss the issue before making any rules or recommendations. Regardless, it is clearly an issue that both tandem instructors and wingsuit flyers need to consider.

Here are some of the comments from industry leaders about the wingsuit/tandem fly-by issue:

John Hamilton | D-14397
Drop Zone Owner, Skydive Elsinore in California

Approximately two years ago, I endorsed an XRW [Extreme Relative Work, i.e., wingsuit and canopy pilots docking] project at Skydive Elsinore that involved Jonathan Tagle, Jeff Nebelkopf, Taya Weiss and other highly talented canopy pilots and wingsuiters. The goal was to expand the creativity and boundaries of human flight with some of the skydiving industry’s brightest talent. I was looking at this project as a stunt with a carefully laid out progression of training jumps and a solid plan in place. The event was very successful and something I was proud to endorse at that time. Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to see this as a possible discipline in the sport of skydiving, thinking this was a one-off stunt.

Since that time, we have had less-qualified jumpers attempt XRW at our drop zone. There have also been two other occasions where jumpers planned XRW and got on the aircraft without notifying DZ management. After having to call down aircraft and after evaluating the pros and cons of XRW, I have banned all XRW jumps from the drop zone. At the end of the day, I am the one as a DZO who is carrying the liability, and the rewards of allowing this type of skydiving pales in comparison to the risks, which I am not willing to take.

The thought of even creating a recommendation for wingsuiters coming close to tandems is beyond my level of comprehension. I do not know why this is even a topic of discussion. To even consider writing about this is just plain scary.

I have had recent discussions with the FAA regarding two major issues that they wanted to discuss with us and our operation. Number one was flight patterns and designation of multiple landing zones, and number two was how we are addressing and integrating wingsuiting as a discipline at our drop zone and how this is happening in the sport at large.

I believe that the very last thing that USPA needs is to establish a “minimum safe flying distance from tandems.” This is going to give tacit approval to unqualified wingsuiters and will give tandem instructors the green light to attempt these types of fly-bys. I can see it now on the front page of every newspaper across the country: “Wingsuiter Collides with Tandem Skydiving Pair, Resulting in a Triple Fatality.”

As a DZO, I refuse to assume the liability and responsibility of XRW, for at the end of the day, I am the one responsible for dealing with a fatality, body parts, family members, governing agencies, media and potential lawsuits from an inadvertent XRW tandem incident. I choose to say no!

Ted Strong | D-16
Strong Enterprises

Last Sunday I did a high hop ‘n’ pop. (I was doing a tandem canopy evaluation.) I was the last jumper out of the plane except for four wingsuiters. I opened at 8,000 feet. By 7,000 feet, two of the wingsuiters flew by, one about 200 feet slightly below and beside me. It was no big deal. It was expected and impressive, not dangerous. I talked to the wingsuiter after the jump about safety, proximity, training and skills.

The bottom line is that 500 feet is fine as a general rule. Closer than that ought to be by permission and knowledge of all parties.

Nancy LaRiviere | D-7675
Parachute Laboratories Inc. (Jump Shack)

I don’t think 500 feet is adequate. I’d make it 1,000 feet. The wingsuiters are moving at a high rate of speed, and they could misjudge or lose sight of others in the air. Let’s give ourselves a wide margin for error. Two independent-minded moving targets may result in some close calls.

Taya Weiss | D-27874
USPA Coach, organizer and U.S. record holder for largest wingsuit formation, advisor to the International Parachuting Commission’s Wingsuit Working Group

I would be wary of suggesting an “acceptable” or “reasonable” distance, as judging such horizontal distances is subjective and most beginner wingsuit pilots (for that matter, many advanced pilots) cannot gauge exact horizontal distance values while they’re in motion. There are several ways to mitigate the problem of unintentional fly-bys. Follow the correct exit order; wingsuits usually exit last, even after high clear-and-pulls. Wingsuits should fly a pattern that keeps them away from the jump run and other open or opening canopies. Wingsuiters should never angle their flight pattern back toward jump run. If there are high pullers or tandems on the load, communicate beforehand about target opening areas for wingsuiters and others. Also, discuss landing patterns. Wingsuiters should keep their head on a swivel and look out for other canopies in their air space, avoiding them by offsetting even a planned pattern with slight adjustments if necessary.

Scotty Burns | D-28686
U.S. record holder for largest wingsuit formation, Phoenix-Fly Coach

As far as a rule on distance goes, I would agree that 500 feet is a very safe margin. Much farther and you run into a chance of having to play ping pong between multiple tandems. If a pilot curves the jump run and drops five or six tandems, then there’s a mile-long line that would prevent a wingsuiter from getting back to the DZ. Not to mention, in my experience, if someone flies by a tandem and the tandem instructor thinks it was too close or he wasn’t expecting it, the problem is usually handled upon landing. Most all of the fly-bys I’ve seen or heard of that were very close were pre-arranged and done by highly skilled wingsuit pilots. If there is to be a rule as to a distance, I would suggest further conversation about this matter to find a satisfactory solution that addresses these concerns and many more.

Douglas Spotted Eagle | D-29060
USPA Coach Examiner and AFF Instructor, Phoenix-Fly Coach Examiner

I don’t feel 500 feet is a very safe margin. Five-hundred feet is easily misread by a newbie (or experienced guy). In short, I’d urge a very wide margin, if USPA won’t outright recommend against them. People are going to do it even if there is a USPA recommendation against it. The skydive is dangerous enough without adding someone who has 30 wingsuit jumps flying near a tandem, aiming for 500 feet and really ending up at 50 feet or less. It is unlikely that everyone would survive a wingsuit/ tandem collision with body-to-body impact. I’d suggest a recommendation that they not be done at all. Wingsuit exits are generally 15 to 30 seconds after tandems exit during a normal-speed, upwind jump run. Tandems are usually deployed by the time wingsuiters get out. There are never reasons for wingsuiters to be near tandems.

Tandem fly-bys can be done safely by highly experienced wingsuit pilots if there is a prior plan that goes beyond, “Hey, wanna fly past me?” There must be an altitude range where everyone agrees that the tandem be flying straight and level on a predetermined heading, with the wingsuiter on a specific side, and an abort altitude for both horizontal and vertical separation. However, once a camel gets his nose under the tent … How do you tell the kid with 30 wingsuit jumps that he can’t do what the guy with 500 wingsuit jumps is doing? There are a lot of stupid people out there who have a high estimation of their weak skills.

It is clear from the variety of opinions among the experts in the community that there is not yet a consensus on the question of wingsuit/tandem fly-bys. However, it is a question worth answering and one that is bound to generate lots of conversation in upcoming months.

—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training


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Camden Gonzalez
Wed, 10/05/2011 - 10:42

I'm finding it hard to believe that anyone would seriously consider allowing wingsuits to fly by tandems. If CRW with tandems is forbidden by the SIM, then why would flying by at 90mph be any better? A student does not fully understand or appreciate the risks involved with a flyby, and it is unfair to assume that they do. Remember, the number one priority of a tandem instructor to serve the student, and to do so safely...not entertain his own personal quest for new and "exciting" things that the student won't really care about or notice anyway. If the "monotony" of tandems is getting to you, then give up your rating and go do some fun jumps; then you can let your friends with 20 wingsuit jumps and 150 total jumps swoop you under canopy as much as you want! As for the suggested 500-1000ft distance rule....well, we all know how well skydivers judge that distance with their cloud clearances.

Fri, 10/07/2011 - 10:22

Get a grip skydivers. Hammo is absolutely right. This shouldn't even be a topic of discussion. This is not an emerging "discipline." We're just inviting another spectacular way to have an accident, and the ensuing bad press will negate anything positive. Gosh. Don't tandems get enough of a thrill already?

Scott Campos
Fri, 10/07/2011 - 12:08

Setting the question itself aside for a moment. If "we" as an association are trying to define how to do this safely are we also going to have to define how to do a Mr. Bill safely at some point in the SIM? Hopefully this question causes some further thought on why we are discussing this topic.

If we are to go down this road and try and define what is or is not an acceptable distance and write it in the SIM, it is going to have to take place in person, in a room of people as it is not an easy topic to try and wrap up in e-mails and or posts.However, given the current and emerging trend in wingsuiting and with the approach the BOD takes towards tandem operations I would have to say NO, flybys should not be aloud.

The caveat to this would be if the tandem passenger is already a licensed skydiver and or if the canopy(ies) being flown by are being piloted by a licensed skydiver and it is known by all involved that this will happen. The liability in and of itself is already high for tandem operations with a non licensed skydiver as the passenger, however when "we" as an association write procedures on how to do this down on paper with a non licensed skydiver as a passenger, I think the legal liability door gets blown off of it's hinges and the logical answer is no. As much as I like doing fly bys, I never would have thought I would take this stance but the reality and the lawyers wet dream it creates in having it written down in the SIM cannot be overlooked.

Jeff Saxton
Tue, 10/11/2011 - 10:59

I agree with Hammo (Mr. John Hamilton) to even be discussing wing suit flybys with tandems is stupid. The only time a wing suit should be flying near a canopy is when all participants are aware that it will occur, and aware of the risk. A tandem student has no way to be aware of the risks involved.

Rolf Brombach
Wed, 10/12/2011 - 10:51

...dear Jim,
thank you so much for dealing with this subject, I am really happy to read that the vast majority (like Taya) takes it seriously.
We wingsuiters (I still like to call them all BIRDMEN) came a long way, I still remember some harsh discussions in the very beginning about exit-order, some Tandem-Masters simply refused the thought that somebody was leaving their plane behind them. It took quite some efforts to earn the right an privilege to leave the plane very last and enjoy the long spot, flying home, OFFSET the jumprun!
We all should never! forget that there is an innocent passenger in front of the Tandem-Master! Despite the Americans call them "students" these guys have NO IDEA what's going on, right? And nobody has the right to scare them or to put these paying customers intentionally in danger.
A Fly-By is a stunt. And a passenger is no stuntman.
FlyBys next to Tandems? Never. Nowhere.
Thank you Jim

Fri, 01/06/2012 - 11:37

The fact that this actually became a topic of discussion is a sad reflection on where this sport has gone.

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