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Preventing Death – The August Attrition

by Douggs McDougall
by Douggs McDougall

5 wingsuit pilots died in a 7 day period in August 2013. I call it the August Attrition. It’s a phenomenal number. What’s worse is that they were all experienced BASE jumpers and competent wingsuit pilots. They were current and good at what they did. They weren’t the cowboy jumpers that didn’t have the skills and shouldn’t have been there. Yet they paid the ultimate price for living their dreams and achieving human flight.

What are we doing wrong?

By my count that’s 18 BASE jumpers that have died this year. In 2012 there was a total of 21 – I already think that that’s too high yet we’re on target to exceed that figure this year. In August 2012 there were 3 BASE fatalities worldwide yet in August 2013 there are 5 in 7 days. There were more fatalities in August after these 5 and there have been other experienced jumpers that have suffered some serious injuries. What are we, the BASE jumping and wingsuit community, doing? Certainly, we’re doing something wrong.

I only knew 2 of those that died personally. The first was Mark Sutton, the James Bond stunt double. I’d only messaged with him about his flights in Brevent, Chamonix a few days before. He’d been flying some pretty hardcore lines with success. He was current and competent and a hugely down-to-earth and fantastic guy.

I also knew Mario Richard, a Canadian that lived in the US. He was one of my BASE jumping instructors and I remember in detail as my legs shook when I turned up to Vertigo, in Florida, for my ground school with him. He quickly whipped us into shape and helped me get to where I am today. We were emailing earlier this year about working on a project together but had yet to put the details in place.

In wingsuit BASE jumping, pushing the limits too far in a non-permissive, non-forgiving environment with no outs often results in fatal consequences. Aggressive lines can still be flown well but, when some of the best have now checked out for good, we need to understand the risk in detail and mitigate it accordingly.

Factors

I love to fly my wingsuit in the mountains. I have found nothing more fulfilling or providing more freedom. Despite this increase in fatality rate I have a plan:Below are some of the factors that may have contributed to the deaths.

Currency

While I believe this wasn’t a factor in the August Attrition, currency is paramount. I plan to take steps to remain current, visualise during my down time and progressively increase the technicality of my jumps, particularly when I’m not 100% current.

Complacency

With experience comes complacency. I have so much more yet to learn and I plan to remember that. I will endeavour not to become complacent and respect the environment that I am in. These incidents happened late in the season and perhaps complacency or over-confidence became an issue.

Weather

I believe that skydivers and BASE jumpers, in general, do not understand the weather enough. Do you know about anabatic winds and the lift they can provide, the high density air of the katabatic winds that can provide sink or the local meteorological knowledge that no visitor will truly be able to assess immediately on their own? With more than one fatality in the afternoon I do wonder if katabatic sink was a factor. I plan to lean more about the weather and how it will affect more flights – fore warned is fore armed.

Fatigue

Without realising it fatigue can add up over a few jumps and we weaken, our reactions and senses slow and we can be unable to perform at our peak. When smooth yet fast and powerful reactions are necessary we have to operate at our best. I plan to stay fit and provide extra focus on my energy levels. If I’m not feeling perfect I will not attack an aggressive line.

Cameras

I bet that over half of the people that died in August were wearing a camera. Focussing on the camera work, even just a touch, utilises brain power that could be used elsewhere for processing other information. My plan is to film only when I am completely comfortable. If I wear a camera at other times then it will only be ‘along for the ride’ and not a focus of the jump at all. I will need to monitor this situation closely as it can be too easy to get sucked in to the camera work.

Wingsuit human flight in the mountainous environment is completely survivable, even with some of the more aggressive lines. I plan to conduct it in a repeatable form and reduce the risks to an acceptable level. I’ve taken a step back, I’ve assessed what I need to do and I plan to treat it with more respect than perhaps I had been doing. I know some others are following a similar strategy and I hope many more will follow. To Mark, Mario and all the other pilots that now fly for eternity, our flight paths will cross again but, I trust and plan, not for some time.

Kuala Lumpur jump by Al and Smudge
Kuala Lumpur jump by Al and Smudge

How expert are we?

Experienced jumpers are dying. These guys are adventurers that have been around for a while and yet they are meeting their match without seeing it coming. Something is seriously wrong. It makes me wonder – how expert are we? Many of these deaths have been while individuals are wingsuit proximity flying. The question is, how expert were they and how expert are the rest of us?

I don’t know all of the people that were involved in fatal incidents and I don’t know all of the details so I am reluctant to generalise. But I do wonder how expert everyone was. Some may have been expert wingsuit flyers. Others may have been expert BASE jumpers. But how many were expert wingsuit proximity flyers? I’m afraid that I have to wonder if any really, truly were. And if they were, what sort of wingsuit proximity flights were they experts at? Were they experts at vertical wall proximity flying or at low passes over a horizontal object? Is their expertise in steep terrain but they then flew shallower lines? When you have no ‘outs’ and the penalty for making a minor mistake or error of judgement is fatal, how much of an expert are you?

Ask Espen

I’ve been discussing this with someone that I would consider an expert in wingsuit proximity flying, Espen Fadnes. He’s flown some amazing lines and spends hours carefully calculating it. He makes it look easy because he’s so good and has put so much background work into it. He understands the risks and undertakes mitigation strategies to minimise them to an acceptable level. Espen has spent years in the mountains – he lives there. He undertakes this unforgiving activity on a regular basis and remains current. He builds up to the jumps. Yet, aspiring amateurs see the likes of Espen, his team mates Jokke Sommer and Ludo Woerth, and a few others and think they can perform at this level. A number of us believe that, because we have associated skill sets, we can cut corners and get there quicker, that we are experts in other fields and that the skill sets translate. In Espen's words, “They are like the skiing instructors that claim they can ski down a steep face in Alaska safely. The small wave surfer that believes they can handle Mavericks just because they have years of experience from Mandy Beach. It doesn’t add up.“

I have over 7,000 skydives and a multitude of National medals but flying the lines that Espen and his team mates take is not for me. I’m confident with vertical wall proximity flying – I have so many more outs and I’ve done it a lot. But horizontal terrain flying is not where I’m at right now – I’m simply not current enough with it. I’m not an expert in this area and any that I do undertake will be done with extreme caution. It doesn’t matter how many BASE jumps you have, how many hours you have flying a wingsuit, how many skydives you have, whether you are an AFF or a Tandem Instructor, how many world medals you have or how precisely you can fly a canopy, it doesn’t mean that you’re a wingsuit proximity flight expert.

BASE jumping isn’t for everyone and nor is wingsuit BASE jumping. Wingsuit proximity flying is for an even more select few, especially when choosing unforgiving terrain. It wasn’t that long ago that wingsuit BASE jumping was about flying as far away from the terrain as possible, not flying as close to it as we can.

The author, wingsuit proximity flying the Eiger — by Jump4Heroes
The author, wingsuit proximity flying the Eiger — by Jump4Heroes

How non-Expert are we?

If you’re reading this and considering how much you know about a subject then, I’m afraid, you’ve missed my point. My aim is to alter that mindset. It’s not about how much you know; it’s about how much you don’t know and having the realisation and understanding of it. Once you start considering in terms of how little you know you are starting from the right place and you’re more likely to make the correct, life-saving judgements.

Summary

Before you put your gear on and make that next wingsuit proximity jump, just take a deep breath and ask yourself how much you know about what you’re about to do.

Good luck,
Alastair Macartney

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