by Jarno Cordia
Wingsuit flying has made tremendous strides forward the last few years. From seeing the odd daredevil with a wingsuit every once in a while, wingsuit flying has now grown into a fully-fledged discipline with numerous wingsuit pilots on every dropzone you visit. Much like any sport that is growing, wingsuit flying is now also showing its problems. Where the gear is continuously evolving and progressing, in many places the methods of training and progression have not caught up with the times yet.
In disciplines like FS and freefly the methods of progressing are outlined quite well. After learning the basic skills on several solo skydives, jumpers slowly progress through a series of levels within each discipline – learning to manage exits, controlled dives, approaching and break-off. Over time they acquire the skills to fly their body safely and in control, matching the demands for the size and type of jump they are doing. In wingsuit flying we are sadly not seeing that same gradual approach, and more and more we see that this is leading to potentially dangerous situations.
It’s sadly not uncommon to see a person make their first wingsuit jump, and before the day is over, see them joining in on 10 to 15-way group dives – a practice that would make any coach in other disciplines question one’s sanity.
An added problem these days is that many new wingsuit pilots also don’t have a large background in other disciplines. Learning the basics of FS or freefly formation skydiving is already a demanding task but wingsuit flying adds to this much greater distances and closing speeds, as well as figuring out new ways of controlling your body during flying. It’s quite clear this is not the proper way of entering this new discipline, so in this article I’d like to break down the preferred steps for entering the discipline, and assist people in choosing dives that match their experience level better.
Preparing for wingsuit flying
Many people enrol in AFF and static line courses these days with wingsuit flying on their mind. Many of these newer skydivers want to prepare for wingsuit flying, for when they reach the minimum required 200 freefall jumps. The preparation chosen often has a strong focus on solo tracking jumps.
When it comes to wingsuit flying, the best preparation is actually no preparation. Against common belief, tracking or trackingsuit jumps are not all that recommendable in terms of training. The best background for entering the sport is one where the aforementioned basics of formation skydiving and/or freeflying are already present. The knowledge of safe flying with others, and how the body flies in multiple orientations and relative to another person, mastering the finer controls, is of much bigger importance than the distance one can track at, or the slowest speed at which one can fall. All they basically are practicing is how to hold one body position for the duration of a full skydive. But in terms of body position, distance, steering inputs and flight pattern – these are not completely the same as actual wingsuit flying. In fact, self-taught bad habits actually take a lot longer to unlearn.
Basically, all the things aspiring wingsuit pilots are trying to learn themselves, are the same things that any good coach will teach them during their first flight course (FFC) and one or two subsequent jumps. Performance in flying especially seems to be big on people’s minds, yet that’s exactly the one thing any FFC and your first dozen flights are not about. They are about learning to navigate, and fly your body in a new piece of gear. The best preparation for becoming a wingsuit pilot is ‘just jump and have fun’ and try and actually be good at something involving docks and other people in close proximity in the sky – jumps that have learning goals in terms of what you’re doing.
First Flight Course
There are many ways to start flying a wingsuit. Though not every country has an official rating related to wingsuit instruction, it is always advisable to seek out professional coaching. The fact that someone has a lot of wingsuit jumps and approval from a CCI sadly doesn’t always mean that same person is a good teacher. Since wingsuit flying developed into a real discipline in skydiving, there have been several severe accidents, including fatal ones. In a large percentage of those the cause could directly be traced back to coaching and not abiding to rules (low experience on behalf of the student)
In training a good coach has two main tasks. The first is teaching you the theory behind the jump. The second task is guiding and assisting you on the practical steps on that first jump(s).
A well conducted first flight course should last about 45 minutes to an hour for the ground school, with a good mix of theory and repeated practical drills. In terms of the wingsuit used, this should also be a model suitable for first jumps. The various manufacturers all outline the different experience levels for each suit/model on their websites, and it is advised to always check up on this in case of doubt.
A good first flight course should always contain an elaborate and repetitive, hands-on briefing on the following elements:
- Rules and regulations
- Rigging of a wingsuit
- Gear up and check of leg straps
- Exit order and technique
- Explanation of flight path
- Practice pulls and navigation
Freefall and canopy emergency procedures
A coach should always guide a student through the whole process from start to end.
After completing the first flight, a coach signing off a student should be confident in the skydiver’s ability to safely make a solo wingsuit jump without assistance. If for any reason a first flight is not deemed successful, a student should be made to repeat the same jump with the coach, or in some cases may even be advised to make a further series of normal skydives first to rack up more experience.
Finally a coach should give a student some advice on further progression, and make sure they choose jumps that match their experience levels.
A big advantage other disciplines have over wingsuit flying is clearly defined learning goals. For many wingsuit flyers just getting out of a plane and smiling at each other is the only goal of their dive. But what many don’t realize is that with more exact demands on their flying, they could progress much quicker and especially further in skills and (while having the same amount of fun) make their flying a lot safer at the same time.
Here lies the biggest task for wingsuit coaches everywhere: instead of making the goal the biggest formations, and most aggressive flying possible in groups, the focus should be on the actual basics that the discipline will build in the the years to come.
For more guidance and training exercise, check out our Wingsuit Skills Guide article here.