Thoughts on Terrain Flying

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(By Matt Gerdes – Originally published in 2012, edits for May 2020)

Andy West said, “Proximity Flying is the hook-turn of BASE”

I think he’s right. Flying close to terrain in a wingsuit is exhilarating, challenging, and dangerous. The risk is a quick death after a slight miscalculation.

Scotty Bob and friends getting ready to exit, Eiger Mushroom
Photo by Mark Rickert

The rewards are an incredible sensation of speed and, for some, the perceived adulation of your peers (some people risk it all, mostly for video). The rewards, compared to the risks, might be crap. But for those of us who can’t fly fighter jets, the sensation of flying close to things in a wingsuit is worth it.

VIDEO: Scotty Bob at Work

Scotty flying his Squirel wingsuits in the Alps, 2019.

Flying near terrain in a wingsuit is not about reaction times — if you have to react to a problem, it’s usually too late. It’s more important to anticipate; to look ahead into your future and know what to do (and to know what you can do!) before it’s time to do it. Understanding glide paths and learning the limits of your glide range is something that can’t be effectively practiced in the skydive environment, so it goes without saying that if you want to fly close to stuff, the smart way to do it is through a methodical and progressive approach as you learn the limitations of your glide and directional control.

With the right suit and a bit of training, it’s much easier than it looks. In my opinion, the reason proximity flying is so dangerous is that it’s so easy to do. The simplicity of flying a wingsuit makes it easy to “progress” quickly in the sport and we all know it’s quite boring that experienced jumpers all sound the same when they say, “slow down”. But, it’s good advice: Slow down.

the reason proximity flying is so dangerous is that it’s so easy”

I’m not going to write a detailed how-to list, as I believe that all that is needed to fly close to terrain is a mastery of your wingsuit and some spatial awareness. Instead, a few general thoughts:

Adhering to the “Smaller is Safer” paradigm without taking into consideration the individual jumper’s comfort level and amount of experience in a given wingsuit, can be short-sighted. The wingsuit that you should begin BASE jumping with is the wingsuit that is easiest for you to fly, with two important caveats:

1.You should have a mastery of wingsuit-appropriate BASE exits from terminal objects. Your training should span more than one season, and include many tracking BASE jumps.

2.You should have equipment that allows comfortable and easy access to your BOC (PC), risers, and brake toggles during the opening process. No exceptions.

In practice, what this means is that if you have 500 skydives in an intermediate-sized wingsuit, and you have two seasons of tracking practice, then in my opinion it is not mandatory to downsize to a beginner suit for your first wingsuit BASE jumps. Comfort & familiarity with your equipment and terminal BASE exit techniques are the foundation.

Scotty Bob hard at work in the Alps

Once you begin WS BASE jumping, try to remind yourself that you’re enjoying something that an immeasurably small percentage of humans have experienced, and that makes you special. Even more special than your mother ever imagined. So calm down and enjoy some straight and simple flights. Don’t get excited.

Don’t get excited”

VIDEO: Terrain Flying in NZ

Greg Noonan and David Walden on the Rob Roy glacier in NZ

You need to learn

Learn the range of your suit by experimenting with angle of attack and finding your position of max glide.

Try to get your suit started as fast as possible – don’t let yourself fall into the habit of needing a long dive to get flying well.

Pull high and practice getting your risers and toggles into your hands as fast as possible, and perfect your pilot chute toss.

Learn to fly far before you try to fly close. The art of distance flying has been overshadowed by endless (and therefore boring) terrain flying videos. However, no wingsuit pilot is worth a shit unless they can achieve AND SUSTAIN a respectable glide ratio. Getting short spikes on your GPS doesn’t count – what matters is a long and consistent average throughout your entire jump. Practice repeatedly from one exit and try to increase your distance while flying at a safe (fast) speed, and pulling at a safe altitude.

Learn to fly far before you try to fly close”

Not a boring moment, just time for a turn

Flying close to terrain safely means increasing your speed by decreasing your angle of attack. You should never attempt to “fly over” something – instead, fly down to targets. Flying close to the wall, laterally, requires rapid horizontal trajectory adjustments, which is not a wingsuit’s strong point. Wingsuits don’t “carve”, instead they “drift” in a turn, probably more than you realize. So never put yourself into a position that will require a turn to miss an object. To put it simply, the easiest way to fly close to something is to dive down at a comparatively steep glide angle to be nearer to something. This provides the speed and retained energy to “pull up” (“pulling up” is literally inaccurate, but best describes the act of momentarily converting speed to an increased glide angle) and maintain a line of flight above the object comfortably. Read this article, too.

Plenty of proximity fun can be had with straight lines, so save the turns for later and begin them carefully. While you are skydiving it is not possible to understand the amount of drift that you are experiencing in a turn but it is significant. Flying a wingsuit is much more like driving a go-kart on a slick-track than it is like driving a real sports car. You may feel like a quickly-banked wingsuit turn is efficient, and there are resulting G-forces, but the amount of drift (and sink) is significant.

Close, close, close… Scotty Bob style 🙂


Master your suit first in the skydive environment, and then in the BASE environment during straight glide jumps away from the wall. Never try to fly “over” something, always fly down to it. And be careful with the turns.

Most of all: fly only for yourself! Forget the video and focus on enjoying the fact that no matter how simple your flight is, you’re a lucky human being. We live in an amazing time.

Flying the AURA 4

The AURA series is designed for the most experienced WS BASE jumpers
David Walden & Greg Noonan with the first A4s, in New Zealand, January 2020
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Meet: Matt Gerdes

Matt logged over 1200 safe BASE jumps (mostly wingsuit flights in the Alps, where he opened a few new lines). He is the author of the BASE Book. Matt podiumed at Red Bull Aces 2015, finished top five in 2016, was 2016 WOWS Distance champion and 3rd in Speed. He is the co-founder of SQRL equipment (www.squirrel.ws), Next Level Flight (www.nextlevel.ws), and is a FAA rated pilot.

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