Wingsuit Accidents: Identifying and avoiding the Most Common Errors
By Matt Gerdes
Wingsuits add massive amounts of potential to skydives. A wingsuit flyer is able to fly farther and at much higher horizontal speeds than is possible on any other type of jump. A wingsuit flyer can fly a vertical head-down trajectory at 200 mph or flatten out and travel for five-plus miles … or do both on a single skydive! The cost of this amazing benefit is increased risk and complexity. This means that wingsuit flyers need more training and education than other jumpers to maintain the same level of safety.
Here are how things commonly go wrong for complacent or undertrained wingsuit pilots:
Hitting the Aircraft
Tails strikes have caused multiple fatalities, and recently a tragic accident in France occurred when an aircraft hit a wingsuit flyer in freefall. Hitting the plane is easier to do (and near misses are more common) than many people think. Prevention requires effort and planning.
In addition to utilizing the proper exit procedures (not jumping up, keeping arm and leg wings collapsed) that you learned in your first-flight course, you must communicate with the aircraft pilot. First, be sure the pilot even knows that there are wingsuit flyers on the plane! Then, discuss the settings that the pilot is planning to use for the exit.
For wingsuit flyers to be able to exit safely, the aircraft will be flying at a reasonable speed with power cut and the deck angle level. In the Next Level Flight video “Jump Run for Wingsuits” (available at vimeo.com/257712556), jump pilots explain how these configurations look. When it’s time to exit, do not assume the aircraft settings are proper for your exit; you must check. Although it’s the pilot’s decision on how to best fly the plane, ultimately, it is your decision as to whether you exit or not.
You also need to let the pilot know where you are flying your pattern and find out where the plane is descending. Communication is key: Do not assume that the aircraft settings are correct or that the airplane pilot knows where you are going to fly your pattern.
Flying Under Jump Run
Flying under the jump run during a multi-way jump is the first and best opportunity to have a serious collision. When exiting the aircraft and entering the relative wind, a jumper can lose stability in multiple ways: presenting to the airflow asymmetrically, bumping or snagging a part of themselves or their rig against the door or stalling and losing control. In all these cases, the jumper’s trajectory will likely be in a narrow cone directly below the aircraft. Wingsuit flyers who exited first (the lead flyers or an earlier group) and fly up jump run will be in the path of any wingsuit flyer who has an unstable exit above them. Many accidents and even fatalities have occurred in this exact scenario.
The lead (base) jumper should always fly at least 30-45 degrees off of jump run, away from the plane. This holds true whether it is a 2-way or a 20-way jump! The base should continue on an angle away from the plane, maintaining an awareness of the entire group that is following and the planned route of flight.
Stalling Above the Formation
Approaching a formation or flying a slot above someone else is always dangerous, particularly at lower airspeeds. Stalling into your friends from above can be worse than jumping out of a second story window and head-butting them.
Don’t do it. Know what it means to be on level in the context of the wake turbulence (burble) that follows a jumper, and if you feel yourself flying on the verge of a stall, move out of the formation. In a stall, a jumper loses suit control because without adequate airspeed, inputs are useless. Very-low-airspeed flight is dangerous!
Not Being on Level
“On level” … oh, what fun to interpret!
In skydiving—particularly wingsuit skydiving—being on level does not mean that the jumpers are on a level plane parallel with the horizon; it means that the jumpers aren’t burbling their friends or flying in their friends’ burbles. The level changes with the angle of the jump. In the case of a stacked formation, being on level means that the pilot above you must be staggered forward in the formation, sometimes by a lot (this varies with the glide angle and speed of the formation).
Generally, if someone is stacked above you, they should be far enough ahead of you that their belly button is directly above your head. The formation should be “leaning forward” ahead of the base. This is the single most important factor in building a successful stacked formation. If you are not on level, then you are in a burble (wake turbulence). If you are several rows high in a stacked formation and you allow yourself to drift back into the wake turbulence and then lose control of your suit or fall out of your slot and hit someone else, a domino effect of collisions is the most likely result. This is how people get hurt. Know what is necessary to stay on level and in your slot, and what it means to lose control of your suit at the top of a stacked formation. You have real responsibilities in every formation!
Transitioning Above Your Friends
Transitioning from position to position while above someone is a no-no at all times except when you’ve carefully practiced the maneuver and have it mastered. Just as bad as transitioning above your friends is transitioning next to them at an improper angle and allowing yourself to fall off axis, corking into them from the side.
Transition to the side of and below the formation, with no one beneath you and in a manner that makes a loss of control a non-risk to the rest of the formation (i.e., transition at a similar airspeed and on level).
Losing Control in a Formation
This occurs most commonly when someone in the formation feels that the speed of the formation is uncomfortably slow or fast or the angle feels unattainable. But there is no excuse for losing control of your suit. If the speed is wrong and you can’t hack it, then move out to the side and follow the formation from a close but safe distance. Do not leave the formation!
If the speed is too slow or too fast, follow the formation at a safe distance for the duration of the jump. Do not force your way in and risk losing control. Do not go off and do your own thing. Stick with the planned line of flight. If you find the formation difficult to approach, then approach incrementally and always leave room to move to the side of the formation if your approach does not go as planned.
Ditching the Formation
The only way to have a safe group skydive—one that has a predetermined flight lane and a predictable breakoff—is if everyone stays in the group. When you bail from the formation, you become a hazard to the rest of the group. The group doesn’t know where you are flying, where you are going to open your parachute or what heading you might adopt for your deployment.
If you get behind, follow the virtual smoke trail of the formation and execute your breakoff at the proper altitude. If you fall out of the formation, find it and watch it from the side, following the smoke trail.
Flaring at Deployment
Flaring (slowing your descent rate) is fun, and it’s fun to practice! However, a rapid change in vertical speed is a common cause of accidents and near-misses. Don’t assume that just because you broke off from the formation that there’s no one around you. You can’t see through the back of your skull, and there may be someone behind or above you.
If you break off from a formation and do not have a clear visual on every member of your group, do not flare aggressively. If you flare into someone flying above you, the collision speed can be deadly.
When there is more than one group on the plane and they end up near each other in freefall, the consequences can be severe.
If there are multiple wingsuit groups in the plane, the organizers should designate lines of flight and opening areas that allow vertical and horizontal separation. From exit to opening, there should be no possibility of the lines of flight crossing. (For more information on flight patterns, see “Wingsuit Progression Part Three—A Wingsuit Skydive From Start to Finish” by Matt Gerdes and Taya Weiss, August 2018 Parachutist.)
Canopy collisions—whether with another canopy or a jumper in freefall—are often deadly. That’s why no DZ will appreciate seeing you pulling low, playing around in high-traffic airspace in freefall or goofing off under canopy in the pattern.
When you are in freefall and approaching the DZ at your breakoff altitude, you will also usually be nearing other parachutes from your load. This is not the best time to go to your back and party with your friends. Pulling above 3,000 feet is wise, even for the most experienced wingsuit pilots. Fly a predictable landing pattern. Almost all experienced wingsuiters choose to fly very docile seven-cell main canopies. Sometimes they play with these docile mains, flying informal canopy formations or practicing stalls. This is OK, but if you want to have some canopy playtime, plan it for a low-traffic area at a high altitude and clear it with the DZO or S&TA first.
Wingsuits add complexity to a skydive and at no time is this more obvious than at deployment time. Wingsuit cutaways are serious emergencies, and you’ll want to do everything you can to avoid one.
You need to be prepared. Learn everything there is to know about the equipment, airspeed, body configuration, symmetry and angle of attack that you’ll use to safely transition from wingsuit flight to parachute flight. (For more information, see parts one and two of “Wingsuit Deployments” by Matt Gerdes, August and September 2017 Parachutist.)
Landing Way Off
Uncool story: An experienced wingsuit organizer went to an invitational wingsuit event and led every jump on his back. He landed off the DZ on 17 out of the 22 jumps he made during the event. Don’t be that person.
No coach or organizer is perfect, but everyone should strive for perfection, especially when leading groups. Always, on each and every jump, make an effort to not just land on the DZ but to land in a specific part of the landing area. Flying a wingsuit should not decrease the chance of landing on the DZ, it should increase it. Even with a bad spot and a strong wind, you can always make it back if you know where you are when you get out of the plane. All you have to do is have a plan and pay attention: Know the winds aloft, know the winds at opening altitude. Know where you need to fly in order to avoid other groups. Get upwind of your pre-planned opening area. If the visibility conditions are not conducive to navigating back to the DZ easily, ride the plane down.
About the Author
Matt Gerdes, D-32437, is the founder of Squirrel, a manufacturer of wingsuits and equipment, and the author of “The Great Book of BASE.” He is a member of Next Level Flight, an organization working to further the education of wingsuit pilots and BASE jumpers worldwide.