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Wingsuit Progression Part 1: What You Should Learn In Your First Flight Course

Wingsuit Progression Part 1: What You Should Learn In Your First Flight Course

By Matt Gerdes and Taya Weiss

Features | June 2018

It sounds like a lot when you don’t yet have them. But in reality, 200 skydives is not that many. And in some cases, it’s not enough to prepare the jumper for the added complexity of flying a wingsuit, which adds risk and reduces comfort during almost every phase of a jump from exiting the plane to deploying the parachute. 

If you began skydiving with the goal of learning to fly a wingsuit, it may be tempting to take a first-flight course at jump number 201. If you can, wait longer. The more skydives you log, the better you will fly your body in various orientations, recover from instability in freefall and be familiar with your gear. All of this will give you a steeper learning curve and make you a better overall wingsuit pilot as you progress. 

Regardless of how many jumps a new wingsuit pilot has, every first-flight course (FFC) should teach certain things. Here are the broad outlines of the critical items that every new wingsuit pilot should learn and experience during their first wingsuit jumps with an instructor before moving on to make solo jumps. 

Equipment

Wingsuit flying requires that you adapt your equipment to the practice. While some rigs are not “freefly friendly,” most rigs—even modern ones—are not “wingsuit friendly.” Make sure that your equipment is fully appropriate for your first wingsuit jump before your FFC. 

AAD

An automatic activation device is an important safety tool for wingsuit skydiving. Although in some cases, an AAD will not fire during an out-of-control wingsuit flight due to the slow descent rate or varying pressure areas, there is no downside to having one. Indeed, there have been several documented saves. You should consider an AAD mandatory equipment, because wearing a wingsuit raises the risk of a high-speed mid-air collision and striking the aircraft on exit, both of which can lead to unconsciousness.

RSL

There is no convincing reason not to use a reserve static line or main-activated-reserve-deployment device (a type of RSL) for most wingsuit flights, particularly when you’re a newer wingsuit flyer. Indeed, most expert wingsuit pilots choose to use a standard RSL or MARD device. 

Reserve Canopy

Know your reserve in case you have to fly it. You should load your reserve no more highly than you do your main canopy. A loading near 1:1 provides a margin of safety in the event that you are injured or unconscious during a reserve activation and landing. 

Main Canopy

In the interest of achieving on-heading, non-eventful openings, wingsuit flyers should use docile, non-elliptical canopies, preferably seven-cell models made from semi-permeable fabric (i.e., not zero-porosity fabric). The wing loading should be no higher than 1.3:1 (unless the canopy is larger than 170 square feet), and it’s important that the lines are in trim. 

Deployment Bag

Semi-stowless deployment bags can help wingsuit jumpers have smoother openings, since the rubber bands on traditional bags may create resistance during deployment that causes the asymmetrical release of the lines and, consequently, line twists. Jumpers who use standard bags can leave 18 inches of line unstowed and carefully S-folded at the bottom of the main pack tray. This will allow the bag to move farther out of the wingsuit’s burble before it hits resistance. 

Bridle

An 8- to 9-foot-long pilot chute bridle (measured from pin to pilot chute) allows the pilot chute to extend past the wingsuit’s wake turbulence during deployment. A bridle shorter than 7 feet may not allow the pilot chute to exit the wake, which may lead to a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction. 

Pilot Chute

For wingsuit flying, a pilot chute must be at least 26 inches in diameter (preferably 28 to 30 inches), made from zero-porosity fabric and in good condition. Equally important for pilot-chute stability and effectiveness during deployment is the weight and shape of the handle: Lightweight handles—preferably carbon fiber—are a must. Do not use a hackey-style or a heavy PVC handle. Additionally, consider using a vented toroidal (donut-shaped) pilot chute for additional pilot-chute stability. 

Open Corners Modification 

To reduce the likelihood of the deployment bag snagging in the corners of the main packing tray (because a wingsuit flyer’s forward movement during deployment causes the bag to extract more horizontally than usual), you may want to open the corners of your packing tray to allow the bottom flap of the container to open completely. Any master rigger can perform this modification. 

Wingsuit

Whichever brand of suit you use for your jumps, the manufacturer should have deemed the model suitable for a first-flight course.

When you learn to attach your suit to your harness-and-container system, begin using a routine such as “handles, chest strap, leg straps” so you won’t forget a step, even later in your wingsuiting career. Build good habits early. Before gearing up, always verify that: 

1. Handles are accessible, secured and not affected by the suit. 

2. Chest strap is out and available to be routed properly over the suit. 

3. Leg straps are correctly placed inside the suit, ready to be secured on the jumper. 

Accessories

• You must wear a helmet.

• Wear a visual altimeter mounted either on your hand below your wrist or on a mud flap or your chest strap. Wrist- or forearm-mounted altimeters are not useful. 

• Use an audible altimeter in addition to a visual altimeter to counteract possible loss of altitude awareness due to your reduced vertical speed. Select “slow-fall mode” if it is available on the model you use.

Before a Flight

Gearing Up

Wingsuit skydiving requires a little extra preparation, so begin gearing up at the 20-minute call to allow time for practice touches and a review in full gear. 

Gear up in order of your skydiving priorities: rig first, then wingsuit. Then:

• Fasten and tighten your leg straps. 

• Make sure your chest strap is routed correctly.

One you’ve determined you are ready to survive a skydive:

• Adjust your wingsuit (booties on, suit zipped up).

• Secure and zero out your visual altimeter.

At this point, your first-flight instructor should complete a full gear check, including verifying that your audible altimeter is set to correct altitudes. 

Preparation

In the classroom, your FFC instructor should have already explained the processes by which a wingsuit inflates and generates lift. The instructor should have defined and explained the following terms and concepts: pitch, angle of attack, airspeed vs. groundspeed, anhedral vs. dihedral wing configurations and body configuration vs. body position. 

On the creeper, your instructor should cover:

• the various body configurations

• adjustments to pitch, angle of attack, and heading

• practice touches with smooth transitions back to flight

• wave off and deployment 

Then at the mockup, your instructor should cover: 

• spotting in the door and locating the drop zone (which will usually be behind rather than right below the aircraft)

• climb out, check in

• exit

Then you should walk the flight pattern and discuss pertinent altitudes. Altitudes for first wingsuit jumps should be 6,500 feet for breakoff (“no more work”), 5,500 feet for initiating deployment and 2,500-plus feet for your emergency procedure decision altitude. Discuss the decision altitude: Wearing a wingsuit increases the time necessary to perform emergency procedures, and you’ll have the additional risk of line twists and problems while under your reserve, etc. You may want to adjust this altitude to your comfort level. Finally, discuss your routine post-deployment procedures. 

On the Aircraft

Complete another gear check prior to boarding and ensure that your leg wing is on and fully zipped. Let the pilot know that you’ll be making a wingsuit jump and discuss the aircraft setting for the exit. After takeoff, review the jump plan step by step.

Complete a final gear check prior to exit. Ensure that you touch your handles and visualize your emergency procedures. Check that cutaway and reserve handles are fully available and securely in place before moving to the door. 

Before your first jump, spot carefully. Remember that wingsuit jumpers rarely exit directly over the DZ but that you still must be able to see it clearly. Confirm to the instructor that you see the DZ. 

The Flight

By the end of your FFC, you should be comfortable with spotting your exit and flying a pattern that does not interfere with other groups. You should be able to gauge airspeed and aircraft settings on jump run to determine whether it’s safe to exit, complete several different types of exits and learn about others (front and rear float, back-fly, poised and running). Part two of this series will cover exits and exit technique for all levels of wingsuit skydivers, including first-wingsuit-jump students, in depth. This installment discusses what you should learn during the other parts of your flights during your FFC.

Practice Touches

Perform two practice touches early in your first jump, preferably while you’re flying up jump run before performing any other maneuvers. However, if you’re on a long spot, you can perform one or more after you make a 90-degree turn. 

Navigation

Your first jump will involve a simple flight pattern that will bring you back to the appropriate place to open your parachute near the DZ. Your turns should be flat, controlled and limited to 90 degrees. 

Breakoff and Deployment 

Breakoff on your first few jumps will be higher than normal—about 6,500 feet. When you hear your audible alarm, check your location over the ground and adjust as necessary so that you arrive at your planned deployment location by 5,500 feet. As with any skydive, wave off before deployment. Some instructors also teach leg kicks, but this often causes newer wingsuit flyers to lose control and has little benefit; wave off with your hands only during your first flights. 

The basics for a beginner wingsuit deployment are a controlled arch, a symmetrical pull with both arms (as if there were two pilot chutes), gently bent knees (for easier pilot chute access) and continuing to fly your body and parachute throughout the deployment process. (For more on wingsuit deployments, see parts one and two of “Wingsuit Deployments” in the August and September 2017 issues of Parachutist, or visit nextlevel.ws/knowledge-base.)

The objectives for your first few flights are to learn to exit safely, navigate with control and precision, deploy your parachute correctly and land on the DZ. During these coached jumps and the subsequent debriefs, your instructor should cover techniques for an efficient but relaxed and neutral flight at a responsible angle of attack. During flight, your instructor should work with you on vertical and horizontal adjustments relative to a base, speed and angle changes on approach and deceleration with control. You should finish the FFC with a basic understanding of energy management and how to achieve and control changes in airspeed. 

Ideally, your instructor uses Sigma (the same company that provides online credentialing for USPA) and can add a first-flight merit to your account. Regardless, make sure your instructor signs your logbook and includes a description of what you achieved and whether you are cleared for solo supervision. At the conclusion of your FFC, you should have demonstrated the basic skills listed above, as well as shown the ability to self-supervise as you improve upon the basics. And hopefully you’re hooked!

Next month: Exits for wingsuit flyers of all abilities.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS 

Taya Weiss, D-27874, and Matt Gerdes, D-32438, are dedicated to advancing wingsuit training to keep pace with the evolution of the discipline. Gerdes is the founder of Squirrel, a manufacturer of wingsuits and equipment, and the author of “The Great Book of BASE." Weiss is the founder of the Lightning Flight wingsuit instruction group and an organizer of the world’s largest wingsuit formations. Both are on the Next Level Flight team, an organization working to further the education of wingsuit pilots and BASE jumpers worldwide. 

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