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Wingsuit Base Myths

P8 proximity back mounted camera

There has been a lot of talk about wingsuit deaths and the dangers of proximity flying. It has been over 10 years since Loic Jean-Albert 'invented' the practice of terrain flying by buzzing a snow slope in Verbier, but we don't seem to have learned much, and there are still just a handful of people in the entire world who really know how to fly safely near terrain.

We've had ten years to explain and to listen and to learn, and still even some of the ‘experts’ don't get it. ‘Expert’ wingsuit pilots are dying, they are spewing bullshit in interviews, and handing out bad advice (like ‘It's safer to fly next to the cliff than over terrain’). It amazes me that the people who are talking the most about proximity flying and consider themselves authorities on it, understand so little.

Common Myths

Here are a few common wingsuit BASE myths:

You have your entire life to kill yourself, so there is no need to be in a hurry

Myth 1: ’It's safer to fly next to the cliff than it is to fly over terrain’

This is probably the most common misconception about wingsuit terrain flying. While I do agree that most wingsuit deaths have occurred when the pilot hit the bottom of something instead of the side of something, I do not think it is true that it's safer to fly alongside a cliff. People say that ‘you can always just pull away’ from the object, or you ‘have an out’. The problem with this is that wingsuits don't turn as well as you think. Even the pilots who are using highly efficient and steep bank angles are still drifting in their turns, and losing altitude. As a beginner terrain-flyer, you will drift much more, and lose much more altitude. It is tremendously easy to drift into the cliff as you ‘turn away’ from it, or to impact a lower and more positive portion of the cliff as you lose altitude from your sudden ‘escape’ turn. Furthermore, small lateral adjustments are far more technical than small vertical adjustments. The simplest trajectory in a wingsuit is a STRAIGHT LINE, and if you are a beginner and putting yourself into a situation in which you must turn away from the cliff, then you're being stupid. If you are flying so far away from it that no turns will be needed, then good job (but that's not really terrain flying).

 proximity back mounted camera peuteray

Myth 2: 'There is ‘no margin for error in wingsuit BASE’

The word ‘margin’ gets thrown around a lot. ‘You have no margin for error’, is absolutely the most common smart-guy description of proximity flying. The problem is that most people don't even understand where margin comes from when we are flying near terrain.

Experienced terrain flyers can do all kinds of crazy stuff, like flying through holes in the mountain. But if you're starting out, then you should begin with flying over very steep terrain, and diving down to terrain. I learned this from a wise Norwegian many years ago.

Imagine a giant rubber band, held 500 feet over the side of the mountain that you're going to fly down. It is fixed at that point, 500 feet above your line, at the level of your ‘best glide’. That means, if you exit and fly straight out at best glide, you will be 500 feet over the mountain slope. Let's take that rubber band, and pull down on it, stretching it long and hard. The more we stretch it, the closer that we get to the mountain slope, and the more margin that we have. I repeat: the closer you get to the steep mountain face, and the more you stretch that rubber band, the more margin you have. The more you dive, and the faster you go, and the steeper you fly (past your angle of ‘best glide’), the MORE margin you have. Of course, you are also getting closer to the mountain, but the closer you get, the more the rubber band is being stretched, and the more energy you have retained. Ideally, if you're going to skim the grass with your toes, then you'll do it at a point where the rubber band is stretched to an absolute maximum, where you're pulling on it just as hard as you possibly can, and if your hand slips even a tiny bit, POW, up you go, away from the hill. If you don't understand this analogy, then you don't yet understand wingsuit proximity flying. But hold on, I'm going to keep trying here…

It's as though just putting on a wingsuit and jumping from a cliff makes you feel so special that your ego stops you from admitting you're still a beginner and are constantly in danger of making a fatal mistake

Essentially, what I am saying is that it should take a great deal of effort to dive down to the terrain you are flying over. For your first terrain flights, your arms should be well behind you, reducing the total surface area of your wingsuit by a large amount. You should be at a very steep angle of attack, so that if you bring your arms back level, or flatten your angle of attack even a tiny bit, you will INSTANTLY increase your separation from the terrain. For your first terrain flights, when you are flying over steep terrain in this manner, you should feel like you're on the end of a fully stretched rubber band, about to be pulled away from the terrain at any moment. That is one way that we define margin in wingsuit BASE jumping. If you are flying flat, too slow, and generally not stretching out that rubber band of margin, then: you have no margin for error. So, don't do that. Fly steep lines with proper body position.

Also, it is important to remember this: If you are not able to convert your dive into a nice flare while skydiving, then you're not ready to BASE jump. The above is written with the assumption that anyone beginning terrain flying already knows how to flare out of a nice steep dive, effectively. Do you?

The second ingredient to margin, is of course distance from terrain. To say that wingsuit BASE Jumping has ‘NO MARGIN for error’ even when done correctly, is completely hysterical. Yes, it's an unforgiving sport. Yes, it's inherently dangerous and extreme. But we do have some margin for error, and we can choose to expand it. Stack the odds in your favor – it's possible, and in addition to maintaining physical margins, the best ways to stay safe are to keep your ego in check, get info from more experienced jumpers, and care less about the video you are trying to get.

La Clusaz
La Clusaz

Myth 3: 'Being an expert wingsuit flyer means you can be an expert wingsuit terrain flyer'

Flying a wingsuit well, and flying a wingsuit safely near terrain, are totally different things. Until you really understand just how much you drift and slide in turns, and how much altitude you really lose in turns, and just how stable your suit really is in a dive, you are not ready to fly near terrain, even if you think you are. There are things that you cannot learn while skydiving. I don't know how to say it more clearly. Your wingsuit skydives will help, for sure, but they are not enough. You must progress slowly, flying progressively closer lines in steep and forgiving terrain.

Myth 4: 'Having a bigger suit makes terrain flying safer'

Having a bigger suit means having a bigger suit, and nothing else.

One of Scotty-Bob's favorites from summer 2014. Scary-short start.

WARNING: PLEASE do not jump this exit if you have not consulted local jumpers, DOUBLE BLACK DIAMOND START

Wingsuit: Squirrel Aura

The best ways to stay safe are to keep your ego in check, get info from more experienced jumpers, and care less about the video you are trying to get

Myth 5: 'You can teach yourself to wingsuit BASE jump and terrain fly safely'

You might survive without advice from more experienced pilots but you will need a lot of luck. I am still learning and progressing every year, but in the past three years I have spent lots of time with jumpers who were far less experienced and had plenty of opportunities to ask people about things that subsequently killed them.

Ask Questions

Here are some questions that would have prevented the deaths of some people I know:

  • Should I dive at terrain with this big camera mounted on my foot?
  • Or, more generally: Where should I mount my cameras?
  • Should I do my first terrain flights flying next to the wall?
  • Or, more generally: Where should I do my first terrain flights?
  • Should I let this popular wingsuit make me feel better about jumping above my skill level?
  • Or, more generally: Where should I jump this popular wingsuit?
Assume that anytime you are doing something new, you should get some advice on it. Just ask.
  • Should I dive down at terrain, or fly over obstacles?
  • Or, more generally: If I want to fly over that thing, what should my line be?
  • Should I fly my ‘floaty’ suit over flatter terrain?
  • Or, more generally: since I can't dive steep like that suit there, should I fly over that flat stuff over there?

The problem with being inexperienced is that you don't know what questions to ask. For safety's sake, you should just assume that anytime you are doing something new, you should get some advice on it. Just ask. Be humble, and ask. There are experienced jumpers out there, and most of the ones I know are willing to talk to you.

Myth 6: 'Your BASE jump experience at home has prepared you for wingsuit BASE jumping in the mountains'

Wingsuit Base jumping is not normal Base jumping. Everything is different, from exit to opening. If you let your slider down and sub-terminal Base jumps make you feel experienced in the wingsuit base world, you are in for a bad surprise. Just because you have ‘hundreds’ of base jumps doesn't mean you're ready to wingsuit base jump. It's new, and it's different, and you need to be sure that your perception of your skill is in line with your actual skill – too often, it's not. When you go to the mountains with your wingsuit for the first season or two, you will be a BEGINNER. And it's okay to be a beginner!

Wingsuit-BASE jumping in my Squirrel Swift, by Thomas Christoffel

(Thank you Squirrel for an awesome wingsuit).

Outside video from frontflip by Clem Newell

Music: Robin Schulz ft. Jasmine Thompson - Sun Goes Down [Original Mix]

Myth 7: 'You can't go up in a wingsuit'

To be fair, this myth has now been largely dispelled. But, it's perfectly analogous to the many misconceptions around wingsuit flying. A few years ago, when we discovered that we could actually gain altitude in a wingsuit, many of the world's leading ‘experts’ declared this to be absolutely impossible. This was because it was impossible for them. They were totally unable to ‘see’ it, because they had not experienced it. The same experts condemned ‘big suits’ as dangerous, slow, and stupid. Today, these are the same ‘experts’ who are saying that wingsuit terrain flying is has ‘zero margin for error’. Fuck the internet experts. Just because they can't do it, doesn't mean it's impossible or suicidal. Don't take advice from forums, they contain 95% bullshit.

Matt Gerdes and Scotty Bob Morgan showing good exit technique in Brevent, France
Matt Gerdes and Scotty Bob Morgan showing good exit technique in Brevent, France

To Summarize

In my opinion, the main issues in wingsuit BASE jumping are not a lack of margin, but instead a widespread misconception about personal skill (people think they are better at it than they are), and a lack of education (no one is teaching, and few are learning).

Wingsuit BASE is so ‘elite’, and special, that many participants feel they have already achieved a level that makes them an ‘experienced jumper’ just because they are doing it. It's as though just putting on a wingsuit and jumping from a cliff makes you feel so special that your ego stops you from admitting you're still a beginner and are constantly in danger of making a fatal mistake.

No Training or Grading

We're doing something that is inherently very dangerous, and there is absolutely zero formal training available for it. There are no wingsuit proximity flying classes, levels, certifications, or anything. What this means is that people are figuring things out on their own, often incorrectly. And worse, many people are confusing themselves by thinking they have enough experience and knowledge to do the things they see in videos. In a lack of classifications and levels, we are often misclassifying ourselves.

If you are not able to convert your dive into a nice flare while skydiving, then you're not ready to BASE jump

In other sports, such as in whitewater kayaking or rock climbing, you know that if you're a class III or 5.12 climber, it doesn't make sense to attempt class V or 5.14 routes. Wingsuit BASE jumping lacks this, and the result is that we have 5.9 climbers throwing themselves at 5.14 routes. And what makes this doubly dangerous and fucked up, is that you can't luck your way up a 5.14 route – but in some cases, some wingsuit pilots are lucking their way off of some advanced cliffs, and thinking that ‘getting away with it’ means they're qualified to be there. It is possible to fly close to terrain without much skill or experience, and get away with it a few times, tricking yourself into thinking you actually know how to do it safely.

Last summer I even saw ‘experienced’ pilots who many other wingsuiters look up to make relatively basic errors which could have cost them their lives – and they did so without even knowing that they were mistakes. When you're so ignorant that you can't even detect your own mistakes, you're really asking for trouble. And that describes the majority of wingsuit BASE jumpers out there, in my opinion.

Actively Seek Information

I am not calling for certifications or classifications in BASE. My point is that we need to fully comprehend our inexperience, and seek out information more actively. We need to ask more experienced pilots for more advice, and work our way into the more advanced lines slowly. You have your entire life to kill yourself, so there is no need to be in a hurry.

Look out for 'The Four Stages of Competence', a brand new article by Matt Gerdes coming soon!

Comments (5)

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Matt Gerdes

@Alastair: you are correct that it needs to be discussed more at length, it's a chapter not a paragraph. I never expected this article to be so widely read or discussed but I guess it's a good thing. FYI, and also in reply to Michi: We discussed this a bit more on the forum, here is the link for reference: http://www.basejumper.com/cgi-bin/forum/gforum.cgi?post=2972307;sb=post_latest_reply;so=ASC;forum_view=forum_view_collapsed;;page=unread#unread @Dan, thanks very much! -M

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Michael Michi Schwery

I think the article has some valid points (Myth 4 and 5) but I think some of the statements are very wrong. Myth 1: Flying close to the ground is much more dangerous than flying next to a wall. In addition, it is very simple to explain why in my opinion. Flying to the ground has a factor (gravitation) which does only play a minimal role for flying next to a wall. And as we all know, gravitation is the biggest killer in Skydiving and BASE jumping… Myth 2: Of course, there is always a margin, but the margin for flying close to an object (above or next to it) is very small. Things happen to a very high speed in that environment and many times, it happens to fast to react to it. Let us say you fly ultra close to the ground and something with your suit goes wrong you are fucked. Or if you get a cramp in your legs or arms (happened to me) you are also fucked. Myth 3: Most expert Skydiving Wingsuit pilots know how to handle the suits much, much better than Wingsuit pilots who only BASE jump. I agree that it is not the same flying next to someone in a flock than flying next to a wall but an expert Skydiving Wingsuit pilots learning curve for proximity flying will be much steeper than if you have only a couple of skyidives. If there are 2 guys, guy 1 with 1000 Wingsuit Skydives and 100 Wingsuit Basejumps and guy 2 with 20 Wingsuiit Skydives and 300 Winguit Basejumps, guy one will smoke guy in every aspect of flying. This is why almost every experienced Base Wingsuit Pilot I know started to skydive again to be more safe flying terrain. I totally agree with Matts statement about Myth 4, 5. Myth 6: I only partially agree with this. If you have 100th of terminal tracking jumps, it will help you a lot with your wingsuit base jumping. However, I agree that if you have 100th of slider down jumps, it will not help you with your wingsuit jumping. But it will help you getting into tracking and from there on with your wingsuit jumping… Myth 7: I cannot judge this. Never seen it but could be true or could be wrong. But I find the way it’s written is not very objective and just sounds like bashing and not like an objective written article… My 2 cents for what it’s worth… Michi

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Alastair Macartney

Great article Matt. Lots of great points and food for thought for the experts, beginners and everyone in between. I couldn't agree more with Myth 3. We tend to think that if we're 'experts' in one area of the sport, that can automatically translate to other areas. It's just not the case. I cover it more in my 'Preventing Death - The August Attrition' article on the skydivemag.com website. I do think that Myth 1 could be a whole article on its own. I think there are more factors to take into consideration and that pilots enter the sport with different levels of skill and perception. The mental aspect is also huge - if people perceive less risk flying next to something than over it, they'll be more comfortable in what could be a high pressure situation and perhaps, able to react with better and more decisive judgement to the multitude of inputs that they're having to process. It's really awesome that all this discussion is happening. If it can save just one life then this is soooo worth it. Great work Matt.

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Dimitrios

Great article, classifications in base doesn't sound that off, it may be the best way to direct the amount of pilots coming into this sport,, you have the ball rolling set up camps and,, will be looking out (wingsuit first base jump courses.) =)

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Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld

Thanks Matt for this smart, well thought out article. I'm not a base jumper and I'm no wing suit expert but I know good common sense thinking when I hear it. Every discipline in our sport comes with it's own level of risk. But the biggest risk is getting ahead of ourselves and trying to do things we don't have the skill, experience or knowledge for. That's when we get in trouble. I have no plans to do it, but I have to admit, terrain flying is about the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life. The risk level and training time necessary to become competent is more than I'm willing to take on at this time but I have the upmost respect for those who do take on this challenge and approach it in a smart, disciplined way. Matt describes exactly how to do that. All those currently participating in and considering terrain flying should listen carefully.

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