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International, independent, e-magazine on skydiving, BASE & tunnel

Birds of a Feather

Early Birdman
Early Birdman

The dream of flight has existed in every society as far back as recorded history. Many bird-man pioneers died in the twentieth century pursuing their dreams. Unlike our daring forefathers we have the luxury of commercially available wingsuits with a proven safety record. For some, these suits are a chance to take a break and to try something new. For many, it is the realisation of why they started skydiving, the chance to actually fly.

How do I get started?

There are various proven first flight courses offered to teach beginners to fly a wingsuit. Whatever country you live in, there will be local regulations about how much experience you need before getting a first flight brief and making your initial wingsuit flight.

Preparation

Go on a tracking dive and become familiar with the body position you will use for flying and deployment. Most of the wingsuit manufacturers make a hybrid or tracking suit similar to a wingsuit but without the extra added material. These allow a full range of movement and make excellent training aids, for jumpers to get used to the new sensations and added responsibilities of winged flight. Before making a wingsuit jump, you should feel comfortable in freefall, especially in the tracking position; be able to concurrently observe airspace and altitude; and feel confident about your ability to perform safely.

What equipment do you need?

Container

Almost all modern skydiving rigs are suitable. Use only a BOC (base of container) throwaway pilot chute.

DO NOT USE

  • a pullout pilot chute (aka pud)
  • a bungee-type collapsible pilot chute
  • a leg-strap mounted pilot chute.

There are wingsuit recommended modifications that can be made to reduce post-opening issues, but these are not necessary. These mods are usually done by advanced pilots who dedicate a rig specifically for wingsuiting.

by Scotty Burns
by Scotty Burns

Canopy

All the current canopy manufacturers make a model well suited for wingsuit flight, ie, with relatively docile handling. Do not use a canopy that you feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar with. If you currently jump a high performance canopy that requires you to fly the opening or has a tendency to spin, do not use it for at least your first several wingsuit flights. (Note: For advanced pilots who choose to jump high performance canopies it is highly recommended to use riser inserts to prevent potential problems associated with canopy spin-up or brake fires.)

AADs and audible altis

Because it is possible to achieve very slow vertical speeds with the wingsuit (40 mph and lower) your AAD will probably not activate your reserve if you are passing through the hard deck (the Vigil in Pro mode is set up for 35 m/s about 78 mph). However, if you are incapacitated or unconscious, the speeds generated would probably be sufficient to cause the AAD to activate as designed.

by Scott Campos
by Scott Campos

Some audible altimeters may not function properly at slow vertical airspeeds; check the instruction manual to ensure yours is set up for wingsuit or slow descent rates. It is therefore very important to use a visual altimeter and open at the proper altitude. Wear your visual alti as far away from your body as possible, wrist-mounted gives the most accurate reading. The altimeter should be rotated toward the thumb for easier viewing while in flight. It is strongly recommended to use a Vigil or Cypres and audible altimeters.

Helmet

A helmet is the best place to put your audible altimeters to hear them. Wearing any type of helmet is far better than not wearing one at all, especially when flying in a flock.

How do you fly the wingsuit?

Body position

Body position is one of the most important skills to master. Think of your body as being the structure of an aircraft and the wingsuit the skin. If the frame is not in the optimum position, the skin cannot do its job efficiently. Most people first learn about proper body position during the first flight course, while others may have received little guidance beyond what they have read in the flight manual or learned from another pilot.

Like any other skill in skydiving, those who receive proper training from a coach will progress faster than those who attempt to learn on their own. Generally the latter will develop bad habits that are hard to break. The key is to learn the correct way from the beginning and continue to work it on every flight. Creeper work on your position allows constructive critiques and can help to build muscle memory and good habits. An efficient body position can be the difference between an average pilot and an outstanding one.

by Mark Harris
by Mark Harris

Symmetry and movement

Being symmetrical is critical, especially during movements such as closing your wings down. In a wingsuit, less is more. Large body movements are not conducive to efficient flight. Many of the control skills you already know can be used in a wingsuit, the only difference is that small inputs are all that is needed to get the same effect. Flying a wingsuit is not hard, in fact it is easy to see performance increase quickly.

What are the safety issues?

Emergencies

The primary concern is safety, for yourself and others. Wingsuiting is still a minor discipline and is not completely understood. It has specific safety issues. A wingsuit pilot must know what to do in certain eventualities, this goes back to proper training. A wingsuit instructor should cover all of the potential emergencies and corrective actions so the student is properly prepared. While true emergencies are rare, when they happen they happen extremely fast and must be handled properly. Knowing how to deal correctly with problems such as line twists or flat spins is imperative and why learning from an instructor is a good idea.

Wingsuits and other jumpers

As the popularity of BirdMan grows, DZOs find themselves trying to figure out how to safely incorporate wingsuits into the dive flow. Often these people have not yet experienced a wingsuit flight first hand so it is difficult to make decisions.

Exit order

One of the first issues is exit order. Where do wingsuits get out? In 99% of cases, they should get out last. Wingsuits typically fall at a slower vertical descent rate than a normal skydiver. They also cover a vast amount of ground horizontally, up to three miles is not uncommon, and have a freefall time of over two minutes. While horizontal and vertical speeds vary among pilots depending on their skills, even a first time flight student, flying inefficiently, will cover more ground than an accomplished jumper on a tracking dive.

Because of the large amounts of distance it is common for wingsuits to remain in the aircraft well beyond the normal spot. This avoids any issue with canopy formations, high pullers, tandems or students. To put them out any earlier would only cause problems as they will find themselves over the DZ and still be several thousand feet above their pull altitude. This may then cause the pilots to fly an erratic flight plan, which has the potential to cause problems. If there is a tracking dive, it is recommended that the trackers go first followed by the normal skydiver exit order with wingsuits out last.

Flight plan

To further ensure safety, once they exit, wingsuits fly on a different line of flight than the other skydivers. This is vital to avoid freefall and canopy traffic problems. It is also important that the aircraft pilot knows there is a wingsuit on board and understands its flight plan to avoid the possibility of an aircraft strike. It is the wingsuit pilot’s personal responsibility to tell the aircraft pilot each time they board that there is a wingsuit on the load and its intended flight plan.

wingsuit flight plan standard

Regardless of the door location, wingsuits will exit the aircraft and fly a series of 90° turns. On exit, wingsuits continue to fly in the direction of flight with the aircraft for 2-5 seconds. They then turn 90° left and fly until they are well removed from the normal line of flight. Once clear, the wingsuit will make another 90° left turn back towards the drop zone and fly this line of flight until pull time. Typically wingsuits turn left since most doors are on the left hand side so it is easier to keep an eye on the aircraft and for its pilot to see the wingsuit.

In some cases it might be necessary for the wingsuit to turn right; they then fly the same path as normal except that the 90° turns are to the right.

by Mark Harris
by Mark Harris

Deployment altitude

Because of the additional tasks that come with a wingsuit, the recommended deployment altitude for beginners is 5,000 feet. More experienced wingsuit flyers may take it lower but it is wise to pull higher than normal due to additional post-opening procedures and to allow sufficient altitude to correct any problems that might be encountered. This poses no concern for other skydivers since the wingsuit pilot is typically isolated in their own area of the sky while skydivers of other disciplines have already landed.

As more pilots take to the skies, safety and sound judgment must be a priority if additional tasks, environmental changes or new equipment are added.

Special circumstances

Certain situations may alter their flight plan or exit order. Large boogies with multiple jump runs and many aircraft flying simultaneously may require wingsuits to exit first. This is situation dependent and should be assessed by the DZSO, and aircraft and wingsuit pilots.

flight plan multiple jump runs

Multiple jump runs

Communication between everyone involved is critical for things to go smoothly. The important thing to remember, especially when there are multiple jump runs, is that wingsuits should not be put out so that their flight pattern puts them between two parallel jump runs.

To do so increases the likelihood of skydivers falling through the wingsuits and/or wingsuits flying through canopy traffic. If aircraft are flying trailing each other, with short periods of time between them, it may be necessary to put the wingsuits out first.

wingsuit flight plan multiple

Multiple wingsuit groups

Other special circumstances are loads with all wingsuits or more than one large group, or more than one tracking/angle/wingsuit groups. A suggested flight plan for this case is shown.

If the airspace permits, it is not a bad idea for different flock groups to take different flight plans, ie, the first flock flying a left hand flight plan and the second group a right hand one.

Flying with other wingsuits

Whether flying in a group as small as two people or in a large flock, it is important to fly parallel to each other and be aware of side-sliding when in close proximity. Under no circumstances should wingsuits ever fly at each another, or turn around 180° when in a flock. Always make sure you wave off (click heels three times) to let others know you are about to pull.

Having understoood the safety aspects, be prepared – and enjoy!

For more information, see Skyflying, Wingsuits in Motion by Scott Campos, available from: SkyMonkey Publishing

by Mark Harris
by Mark Harris

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