Wingsuit Flying Progression and Training
Text: Jarno Cordia – www.flylikebrick.com
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 full-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 jumps, 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 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. 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 practising 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 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, 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/DZO 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 realise 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.
To assist in this further progression we have created a task list with 2 way wingsuit drills that one can practice, and use as a guideline as to what you should and should not do at their various experience levels. The full document can be downloaded as a free PDF from our website at www.FlyLikeBrick.com and the current listing of pilots can be found here on google drive.
Also be sure to check out the free instructional videos on our website that will give you a bit of help with acrobatic basics.
To assist in building the skills needed to safely fly big ways, we have created this system of levels. These levels are by no means binding, and not having a certain level doesn’t mean you can’t try bigger formations, but it does mean it’s NOT ADVISED to do so.
This skills guide will also help beginning wingsuit pilots get more custom tailored coaching from wingsuit tutors, as they can see on your task list what specific skills you already have practised, and which ones need more work/training.
Similar to licenses in skydiving, there are various skills levels that the task list indicates.
It breaks down roughly to the following levels:
Basic safety skills
Once passed, wingsuit pilot can do up to 3 ways
- Wingsuit pilot meets the basic wingsuit requirements of an FFC
- Is capable of controlled exit, flight, navigation and deployment
- Is cleared for solo flying and maximum 3 ways with experienced pilots
Basic formation flying, basic acrobatics
Once passed, wingsuit pilot can do up to 9 ways.
Wingsuit pilot is capable of:
- Controlled front loops
- Controlled barrel-rolls
- Flying safely in formations, including aspects such as exit, approach, and separation.
Slotted formations, multi-point formations
Once passed, wingsuit pilot can join formations fitting to his/her skill and comfort level.
Wingsuit pilot is capable of:
- Safe, disciplined and for the full duration of a jump, flying of a specific designated slot in formations.
- participating in multi-point formations.
Docking and basic back-flying skills, advanced formations, advanced acrobatics
Wingsuit pilot is capable of:
- smooth and controlled docks for sustained periods of time.
- safely flying a stacked slot in a vertical formation.
- exiting stable on their back.
- flying stable on their back.
Advanced docks and back-flying
Wingsuit pilot is capable of:
- Advanced docking techniques (foot-docks, flying with both hands docked)
- Capable of slot flying and actively taking docks while back-flying.
- Actively adjusting forward speed, fall-rate while back-flying.
- Navigating while back-flying
The above list is quite an elaborate breakdown of skills. But quite comparable to the tasks lists students get for their A, B and C license in various countries. Next to aiding students in their wingsuit flying progression, this task list can also serve as a guide for DZO, CI and load organizers. It can help them monitor better what experience wingsuit pilots have, and make sure they are not getting on skydives that are way beyond their level of skill. The biggest task in increasing safety is one for the wingsuit community itself (and especially its tutors), who have to become more proactive in watching out for one another in order to make sure we can safely enjoy this sport for many years to come.
Special thanks to Andreea Oleea and Douglas Spotted Eagle in writing the article.
About the author:
Jarno Cordia has been flying wingsuits for over 10 years and is a test pilot and coach examiner for Phoenix-Fly. He travels around the world fulltime organizing wingsuit events, competitions and coaching seminars on safety. For questions and comments, feel free to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org