Maja Kuczynska – Bigger than the Sky
Stunning routine by Maja Kuczyńska
One, Two, TREE
Eric's Chamonix wingsuit tree line crash
Eric: Thank you, and yes, I’m incredibly lucky. Thanks for helping me share my story. If I can help even one person stay alive by not repeating my mistakes, it’s worth the public confession of my less-than-stellar progression. I owe it to everybody who’s following in a path similar to mine. They deserve my honest attempt at deconstructing how I ended up flying into trees with nothing out.
I’m shaking my head right now admitting this. Honestly, my first exposure to the sport was literally watching Jokke Sommer on YouTube. I’m not joking. Followed immediately by “I want to do that someday!” At the time, I was 26 years old. I slammed through AFF, sprinted to 200 skydives, and started flying an Acro wingsuit. I had 300 skydives my first year in the sport. I quickly transitioned to a Phantom 3, put about 200-300 jumps on it and switched to a used Vampire 4. I took a BASE FJC almost exactly 2 years after my first skydive. Shortly after that, I ordered a new Vampire Race. Currently, I’ve been skydiving for 4 years (900 total / 550 wingsuit), and basejumping for 2 years. I only have about 80 slider-off jumps, about 40 tracking jumps, and 105 WS base jumps. My WS BASE progression was: 1 balloon wingsuit jump, 2 basejumps on a Havok, then all WS BASE on my new V-Race since then.
Umm, I don’t really log… no. Well, I log my basejumps. I stopped logging my skydives around 100 jumps. I logged my base jumps for around the first 80, then started just adding to the total after a group of several jumps.
Well, right from the very beginning, from watching those YouTube videos, I was intent on flying proximity lines. I wanted to fly them ‘well’ and ‘deep’, that was important to me, gunning for the sizzle-video flights I’d seen from the start. I honestly tried really hard to prepare, in what I felt was honest training. But I feel like I kinda lied to myself about my skillset and preparation. I got complacent and, well, look what happened. I knew I was shortcutting some things. Personally, I believed I could grasp ideas and skillsets a bit quicker than most people. But I now admit I wrongfully based that idea on completely unrelated experiences.
About 70 WS base jumps.
I actually did have a friend tell me after jumping with him at Panorama that I was ‘good to exit Brevent’. He also made an offhand comment about me flying a little slow. In hindsight, I feel like he was telling me my exit and start was good for Brevent, but I figured the speed comment was something I’d focus on more when I actually was jumping Brevent. Obviously, I needed much more work on flying my V-Race well in full flight.
It was my second jump of the day off Aiguille du Midi. My idea was to fly a right line towards the refuge to test how different inputs would improve my approach for a fly by. I’d aim toward the mid-station, and see how high I was flying. If I didn’t like how high I was, I would just turn left to fly Cheese Grater line instead. As it turned out, I noticed early that I’d be too low to fly over the refuge, so I flew Cheese Grater
Maybe about ten times, but usually I disconnect half-way down the line, so I can make my normal LZ by the lumber yard area. On one previous occasion, I stayed on the line longer, and still made the same LZ. This was my second time staying on the line longer than normal.
At that moment, I actually felt fine to turn onto the Cheese Grater line. Based on my previous jumps on that line, I honestly thought I would have no problems.
No, not at all. I was actually expecting to continue flying straight and have the trees drop out from underneath me.
Honestly, yeah… Cheese Grater is sort of a flat-ish line. But I had always disconnected at a certain point about halfway down, and I always made my normal LZ.
I hadn’t planned for an ‘out’. I honestly didn’t expect to need one. I was just thinking about flying straight to my normal LZ. In hindsight, I think I was stuck on my ‘gameplan’ and obviously didn’t have the awareness to adjust inflight, especially when staying in the line longer than normal. Combining an already exceptionally slow airspeed with my ‘end of line / maneuver to deploy’ mental state, my wingsuit couldn’t hack it and I stalled my suit into the trees.
It wasn’t until about the last 5 seconds that I felt the trees below me getting closer than I expected or wanted. Everything before that felt flyable to me.
There were things I was not aware of in my last few seconds of flight, and some things I was aware of. But in this crash situation, I did not flinch, brace for impact, or change to a body position that might worsen my situation. My skill level and knowledge pool was not high enough to keep me from stalling into the trees, but I knew the best chance of surviving my impact into the trees was to keep a flying position at all costs.
Actually no, but it’s pretty obvious I ran out of all three.
I think it’s a little bit of both. Towards the end of my flight, I started feeling I was a bit low, but not so low that I couldn’t make it to my usual LZ.
I still thought I was going to make it to my LZ. By the time the ‘Oh shit!’ window arrived, it was too late. I felt my chances of flying this out were better than pitching early in a shitty spot.
Absolutely not. But here’s what I was thinking. I figured I could fly the lines best by first flying them ‘not so deep.’ Then I’d work my way up [down?] by flying them a little more aggressively as I got more and more comfortable with each one. With this method, I thought I could learn how I needed to fly them.
My friends had introduced me to the exit and start logistics of both Brevent and Midi. I had already flown similar exit profiles and my exit and start performance history was solid. As long as my starts continued to be good, I wasn’t worried. But, I also continued to fly lines more and more aggressively as I got comfortable with them.
Skydiving: I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert skydiver when I started WS BASE. I was lacking in certain all-around skills, such as free flying.
Basejumping: I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert here, either. I lacked certain disciplines, such as aerials. However, I did feel I knew enough about exit safety, equipment, and obstacle avoidance to WS BASE jump.
Wingsuit Skydiving: This area is actually the closest I felt to an expert category prior to starting WS BASE, even though I’m still not there yet. At the time, while I did feel experienced, I didn’t feel like an expert because of 1) poor performance in my ‘big suits’ and 2) the lack of comparison to people who flew similar suits to me in my area.
I just brushed off their small comment about speed because they didn’t address it like it was a big issue. That flight itself didn’t feel different from my previous flights elsewhere. I wouldn’t say I was lying to myself, but I honestly thought my WS BASE performance was good enough. I knew I was slower than some people, and honestly tried to keep that in mind when considering new jumps or lines. I might not have been the best, or better than anyone, but I definitely felt good enough to fly most lines. I now realize I was getting complacent really fast. Although I had been keeping a margin for error, once I got to an advanced place like Chamonix, the margin for error dropped considerably without me fully realizing it. I thought I was good enough, fast enough, and knew what I was doing… I let myself get complacent and too comfortable flying slow. It turned out to kill me, except that I lived.
Yeah, actually there was one friend who did exactly that. He didn’t basejump though, so I didn’t really give his advice much consideration. I thought I knew what I needed to train to, and I thought I was progressing well within my means.
Yeah, it actually seems to be a theme for me. My first WS BASE jump was with another guy doing his first WS BASE jump, too. So, not exactly the best way to start. Since then, my few trips have sort of been on my own despite my efforts to get friends to join. Schedules, right?
I thought I had died. I had no idea what I was doing there or where I was. I couldn’t remember anything after the first jump of the day, except for a faint memory that I had been jumping. Utter confusion. Turns out I had been laying in the forest for over 3 hours until some trail workers heard me calling for help. I had moderate brain trauma. I couldn’t think or talk straight. I hurt everywhere. I couldn’t speak French. I didn’t have my phone. I was alone and in a state of utter confusion.
I absolutely shouldn’t be.
Yes, I can’t wait to get back into wingsuiting. Maybe not WS Base, but definitely skydiving. And here’s what I’m going to work on when I get back: SPEED! I need to COMPLETELY understand how speed works, what actions lose it, what actions gain it. Everything about speed. On top of that, I’m going to change my mindset to foster a 120% understanding of every single aspect of flying a wingsuit.
I blatantly, honestly screwed up flying a suit way outside my current skill level, on a line way outside my current experience level. I honestly thought I had put in the hard work in wingsuit skydiving. I mean, I’ve got 550 wingsuit skydives. Those are decent numbers for starting wingsuit base. But when I look back on it, especially when I was flying that used V4, I always felt like the underdog. Guys in newer suits were flying higher and faster than me. Everybody told me that the new suits flying higher and faster were made to do that, especially compared to my V4. I didn’t even really understand that with my weight [220lb out the door], I should be a missile compared to the lighter guys, and yet they were beating me consistently. So, the red flags were there from the beginning, and I didn’t know enough to recognize them. I wasn’t learning to fly my suit well, I was just accumulating jump numbers and thinking the skills would come with jump numbers. I now realize it doesn’t work that way. My progression, especially once I took my BASE FJC, was way too fast. I tried but couldn’t find a mentor willing to show me the ropes. That bothered me very much at the time, but I figured people just didn’t want to deal with the responsibility. I thought I knew what I was doing, so I just continued on the path by myself, doing what I thought was correct.
One of my friends was pretty shaken up. I’d flown with him in Walenstadt just a few days prior. As it turns out, he had really wanted to tell me how concerned he was about my slow flying. He didn’t, he kept quiet. After my crash, he felt so bad, because if I actually had died, dude, he would have carried that guilt of staying quiet for the rest of his life. There are so many things to take away from this. If you see something dangerous, man up, grow a thick skin, and say what’s on your mind, right then and there.
To those starting from square one, who are looking to be the next Graham Dickinson, I would say this: Cut No Corners. At the end of the day, how well you fly your wingsuit is what keeps you alive.
So many things to take away from this— I’ll try to summarize the high points:
Don't kid yourself, you might actually suck at flying a wingsuit… Here are the four stages of progression as understood in the …
At this first stage, you are crap. The problem is that you are so crap that you don't even know that you are crap…
Congratulations, you’re honest with yourself and you now understand that you currently suck! …
After a few years of practice, you’ve finally arrived at the stage in which you can fly pretty well…
You are more likely to survive a small error in judgment… But never forget that the problem with wingsuit BASE jumping is this: wingsuit pilots at this level still die, every year…
Full Article here