The Skyvibration Team, who just pioneered a tandem wingsuit jumping programme for non-skydivers, talk to Bruno Passe, of Paramag…
To the general public, the word skydiving evokes both tandem jumping and wingsuiting. Why not try to associate the two practices so that one can be used to discover the other?
Someone thought about it, and did it! Vincent ‘Le Blond’ Descols and his Skyvibration team have already made 140 successful tandem wingsuit jumps.
How did the idea of this practice come about?
For us, it came from the ‘’Wingsuit Rope Swing’’ which consists in flying a wingsuit with a passenger hanging underneath, in pendulum, by a rappel rope. The passenger is of course a skydiver, with a parachute, who starts by rappelling down under the wingsuiter. We had developed this with my wife Marine in 2016, and I did quite a few wingsuit flights in this configuration over 2 years. I realized that the suit remained well maneuverable, and that flying with weight under the wingsuit is physically demanding, but manageable.
Then, in 2019, we did a new type of special jumps in the same stunt series: ‘’bungee jump” from a wingsuit, which is a bungee version of the Wingsuit Rope Swing. There was even more weight under the wingsuit, more constraints, more procedures, and it still worked.
And then in 2020 I developed a wingsuit powered flight project, with 4 electric turbines attached under the pilot: the E-Wings! There, we reached another level since it was no longer a question of managing a parachutist, who drops at the end of the flight before opening his own parachute, but of opening a parachute with the weight of the engines attached to the harness.
And above all with the enormous constraints of having to pilot the suit while having a bulky object in front of me, not being able to easily unzip the arms, and not having easy access to some handles.
Mastering all these constraints has demonstrated that it is not only possible to fly a wingsuit with weight, but also and especially that it is possible to open the parachute in this configuration. It was the E-Wings project that finally opened the way for us: we worked more and more to develop the equipment and to set up tests. We made the first jumps with experienced skydivers, and it was ON!
How does a Wingsuit Tandem flight work?
Our main objective is to share the feelings of wingsuit flying. This is the goal of taking a passenger in this configuration, so we had to succeed in preserving an efficient flight.
Unlike standard tandem jumps, we don’t pull the drogue, we remain slick.
Only the pilot is equipped with a wingsuit, for obvious reasons of safety and control. Piloting a wingsuit is tricky and it is not possible to put such a suit on an inexperienced passenger.
To offer realistic sensations, we chose a wingsuit model with a large surface: the Freak 4 from Squirrel. This model has enough lift so that, once the exit of the plane is done, we reach a horizontal speed around 95 knots. The speed on trajectory is about 120 knots with peaks at 140 knots. This is fast, and the distance covered is about 3 km, with long sweeping turns. The feelings of flight are thus very realistic for the passenger.
We went even further to see if we could perform the same tricks as in wingsuit, with a novice passenger. It’s technically possible. We were able to perform barrels, barrel rolls, and back flying: we are definitely in a wingsuit flight configuration.
This result is very interesting for the passenger, because a wingsuit is piloted with the body, like in freefly, and not the arms. In solo flight, the wingsuiter is not locked in a rigid position: he can move his arms, while keeping control of his flight. Therefore, in a wingsuit tandem where the passenger is hooked to the pilot at the shoulders and pelvis, if the pilot adopts a neutral attitude in his suit, just stretching it, and the passenger starts pulling on a shoulder like a wingsuit pilot, he will tilt the wingsuit tandem and initiate a turn himself!
This requires several jumps and a good preparation, but in these conditions a novice can pilot the suit smoothly. Of course, the pilot is in control and we have developed procedures to counteract any bad position or movement that would be a disaster for the flight balance and safety.
What are these procedures?
The first one is based on the general skills of the wingsuit pilot, who must obviously have an excellent technical level and a huge experience of this discipline. But if the passenger adopts an attitude that is somewhat imbalancing, for example a rotation, the classic reflexes of a solo wingsuiter to counter this rotation do not work at all in tandem. On the contrary, they risk to amplify it. It took us a lot of test jumps to find the solution and to understand that we had to think differently to find a way out of this aerodynamic problem.
What is this solution?
For the wingsuit pilot, it’s all about position. It consists in mixing relative work, freefly, and of course wingsuit techniques, in order to keep a straight flight and to avoid rotations.
There is no compromise: a wingsuit tandem pilot must be able to control an experienced passenger who would like to engage in a rotation or any kind of movement. These are quite complex positions to explain, but we have worked on them and made them concrete. They are counter-intuitive for a solo wingsuiter, but very effective in a wingsuit tandem. These procedures must be perfectly mastered by the wingsuit tandem pilot before he can start taking an inexperienced passenger.
Who is working with you on this project?
The whole Skyvibration team, which is composed of two tandem instructors: me and Ambroise Serrano. And we definitely needed the two of us to come up with solutions to the situations described above. We also have in the team the videographers and flight operators: Marine Descols, Vincent Cotte and Cédric Noël.
What is the flight operator function?
In wingsuit tandem, gearing up on the ground and setting up in the aircraft is much more complex than in classic tandem. Even though a wingsuit tandem pilot must be able to gear up his passenger himself, whether on the ground or in the plane, it is more comfortable and reassuring to have the help of an operator.
Moreover, given the constraints for the pilot in wingsuit tandem configuration, he must not carry a camera. It is therefore necessary to call upon an external cameraflyer who is also a wingsuit pilot. The two functions are compatible, and the videoperson can thus assist the pilot on the ground and in the plane. It’s a team effort: the pilot and the videographer/flight operator.
So the videographers are also experienced wingsuit pilots. What type of suit do they use and how does it work for them?
The choice depends on the weight of the passenger: usually ATC and sometimes Freak, Squirrel brand. These are fast suits with a large flight range that allow to carve around the tandem for wide shots or to back-fly just under the tandem at high speed.
Following a wingsuit tandem is a challenge for the cameraflyer. And it starts as soon as we get out of the plane, because it accelerates quickly from the beginning. As the passenger is positioned under the wingsuit, the majority of the shooting must be done back-flying. It is therefore necessary to master the flight at high speed and in all positions.
And after the drogue pull, the videographer can start carving around the tandem, which does not fly forward any more. Complex and fun.
What is the duration of the slick flight?
Between 60 and 65 seconds.
What happens at the end of the jump, when the flight ends and it’s time to open the parachute?
The wingsuit flight ends around 1800m [5,900 ft] high: we pull the drogue and stay 4 to 6 seconds in drogue fall before opening the main canopy at 1600m [5,250ft] minimum. During this stage, in drogue fall, we are no longer in a flight configuration since the suit is nose up and in stall, the goal being to lower the horizontal speed and open the parachute in the same way as a classic tandem.
The wingsuit is in stall, but it can very well become active again in rotation, while the drogue anchors the tandem and the passenger remains influential: this is the most delicate phase. It was our biggest issue and the one that took the longest to solve.
How did you solve this problem with the drogue?
We dedicated many jumps entirely in drogue fall, in order to analyze this situation and to find solutions. Even if this stage only lasts a few seconds, it is critical just before the opening. We have developed a very specific and original position that we call the “anti-spin” position. Indeed, the spin is easily triggered because of the many inclined planes that a wingsuit presents in stall. And here again, the reflexes of a solo wingsuiter are counter-productive and make the situation worse. This “anti-spin” position is quite difficult to describe, and may seem strange, but it allows to block rotations in drogue fall and it also works very well all along the flight, with a passenger who would become too disturbing. Far from being the result of trial and error, it is in fact the result of a deep aerodynamic analysis, brilliantly carried out by our team member Ambroise.
Securing this step is one of the conditions to be able to take non-skydivers with us, and we are proud to have found the solution!
Nevertheless, we deliberately chose to raise the opening height of the main canopy by 300 ft compared to the French standard (800 feet higher than many standards), simply in order to increase the safety margin, the flight duration being already long enough.
Our tandem wingsuit openings are excellent, and we haven’t had any line twists in the last 50 flights. These twists are quite frequent and feared in solo wingsuit flights, but we managed to eliminate them in wingsuit tandem flights. And to finish securing the openings, by eliminating any line-over, we use a slider gate on our main tandem canopy.
Is it the same system as the one used in BASE jump?
Yes, that’s it, a small cord sewn on the back central stripe of the slider. It is widely used in BASE jump. The system has been well proven: it allows to enclose the brake control lines, eliminates almost any risk of a line-over, and limits the tension knots on the brakes.
This technique works very well on classic tandem as well, but is not commonly used, probably because it takes an extra minute to pack. For the wingsuit tandem, we have chosen to use it systematically in order to stick to standards of efficiency and regularity of opening, and we are very happy with it.
How many tandem wingsuit jumps have you made ? Where do you practice ?
We have 140 jumps total, Ambroise and I, and we started in 2019. We don’t practice in France, it’s too complicated from a legal point of view. So, we stay abroad for the moment. Countries like Switzerland, Portugal, Morocco and Belgium have trusted us, relying on the experimental period for the legal aspect, and they have allowed us to progress technically. We hope one day to be able to practice this innovative discipline in France and to be welcomed with kindness in the country of Patrick de Gayardon!
Which tandem system do you use?
Knowing that, on a legal level, most of the manufacturers forbid automatically any use which would not fit in the standard tandem practice, we are now using the Touch Tandem System, a harness manufactured by the French company by X-Sky.
For all the test jumps, we used GPS to measure the flight speeds. The results are that the drogue is pulled between 115 and 120 knots which fits to the standard speeds recommended for the equipment. Same during the opening of the main canopy with a speed of 90 knots on trajectory, which provides a soft opening.
Why did you choose the Tandem Touch?
First of all, we need a tandem parachute that can be adapted to this particular use. On a technical level, the anchoring point of the drogue is one of the first criteria of choice. Indeed, an anchorage at the bottom of the bag, for example on the Parachutes de France tandem system, would be awkward because it would put us in forward speed with the wingsuit.
Then, the comfort of the harness and the location of the handles are also important elements of choice. A big advantage of the Touch is the symmetry of the drogue release handles: both on thighs, below hip bone level. This is a key point allowing us to assemble the wingsuit and the pilot harness in the best configuration.
Another safety point related to the symmetry of the drogue release handles on the Touch, in addition to the flight stability when operating them, is the human factor of having symmetrical right and left movements. As for the cutaway and reserve handles, they are symmetrical gestures, because it is important for the human brain to have symmetry in the gestures, especially in terms of safety.
Edouard Luciano is manager of X-Sky, and has been very open to the project. We talked about all the details of the experiment and a mutual trust was established. He then agreed, as the manufacturer, to let us officially use the Touch tandem for this adventure. We are using a standard model, and we had to adapt the offset of the drogue release handles on the front of the suit, making them a few centimeters longer.
I am very happy to work with a French company whose workshop is located in my region, near Chambéry.
Coming back to the rest of the equipment, have you made many modifications?
It’s on the suit that we had to make the most adaptations, for example additional openings and arm releases. We called upon Jim Parachutisme who was a great partner on the project. The expertise of Stéphane Zunino, one of the pioneers of wingsuiting and one of the first wingsuit manufacturers, was also very useful.
What future do you see for this practice ?
It is an activity that will arouse interest among tandem instructors who already practice wingsuiting, and vice versa. But we have witnessed, despite the development of the solutions and procedures outlined here, the complexity of the exercise.
I think that, during the first few years, it will remain marginal due to this complexity. But within ten years, it is not impossible that the activity will develop in certain countries. Our wish is to support and advise the community.
We don’t want some people to go too fast and blacken all the work we have done to make this activity safe. Our wish is to keep a maximum level of safety in tandem. We know from past experience that in case of an accident, the whole activity suffers the consequences.
Do you think that this activity is marketable to the general public?
It’s a dream and it’s a pleasure to share the sensations of wingsuit flying. So yes, the commercial practice seems logical. Within ten years, there may be as many as 50 professional wingsuit tandem instructors around the world. With the rise of wind tunnel wingsuiting, it is possible to improve skills more quickly in this discipline and the technical level will keep on increasing.
Commercially, it could be something comparable to those first flights in a fighter plane, for example. A sort of super premium activity.
Any final words?
This project has been an exceptional human adventure, rich in encounters and learning!
Besides the technical and commercial aspects, we must keep in mind that the objective is to take human beings flying. And this is what pushed us to start: the pleasure of sharing the sensations of flight.
After seeing videos, people dream of flying wingsuit in the mountains and in proximity flying. We can now take them to experience this in the sky, without danger, in cloud canyons, or along big white walls. With the added reference of the videoman flying wingsuit with us, it creates a special and very powerful connection!
Video – Wingsuit Tandem Experience
Article also published in Paramag here
Article and images by the SkyVibration Team
Wingsuit Tandem History
Note: this is not the first time wingsuit tandems have been performed – for example Jarno Cordia made a WS tandem jump in 2017 with the reverse configuration (as a tandem passenger) – but Skyvibration are the first to research and develop the activity, and the first to involve people who are not experienced skydivers.