Wingsuit BASE Myths
There continues to be much talk about wingsuit deaths and the dangers of proximity flying. It’s been 15+ years since Loic Jean-Albert exploded the practice of terrain flying by buzzing a snow slope in Verbier, but progression and learning has progressed slowly. Some of this is due to bad forum advice, friends teaching friends (where friend 1 teaches friend 2 bad habits) which can result in statements like "It's safer to fly next to the cliff than over terrain". Since this article originally appeared in 2013, much has changed! This happened, this happened, and many people have started paying closer attention to how they should progress in the sport.
Let’s go over a few old WS BASE myths:
MYTH: 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 turn away" from the object, or you "have an out". The problem with this is that wingsuit turns are complex and difficult to judge. Even the pilots who are using highly efficient and steep bank angles are still drifting in their turns, and losing altitude. You, as a beginner terrain-flyer, will drift much more, and lose much more altitude. It is 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 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 silly. 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).
MYTH: There is "no margin for error in wingsuit BASE jumping"
The word "margin" gets thrown around a lot. "You have no margin for error", is 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 in reserve. 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.
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. The following section was edited in 2018 to include recently available resources:
For all terrain flights, you should be flying your suit at a low Angle of Attack, meaning that a small AoA adjustment will instantly and dramatically 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 (high glide ratio), too slow (high AoA), 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. 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.
MYTH: Being an expert wingsuit flyer means you can be an expert wingsuit terrain flyer, and vice versa.
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. By the same token, many expert wingsuit BASE jumpers are not expert wingsuit pilots. Becoming an expert wingsuit pilot can only happen in the skydiving environment. You cannot become an expert in a wingsuit tunnel, and you cannot become an expert from BASE jumping only. Practice occurs over time, in an environment where you can fly in large fast formations with other experienced pilots, make expansive changes to AoA and heading, and lose control of your suit with room to spare. All of this equals hundreds, if not thousands, of wingsuit skydives.
MYTH: Having a bigger suit makes terrain flying safer.
Having a bigger suit means having a bigger suit, and nothing else.
MYTH: 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. Here are some questions that would have prevented the deaths of some people I knew:
- Should I dive at terrain with this big camera mounted on my foot? Where should I mount my cameras?
- Should I do my first terrain flights flying next to the wall? Where should I do my first terrain flights?
- Should I let this popular wingsuit make me feel better about jumping above my skill level? Where should I jump this popular wingsuit?
- Should I dive down at terrain, or fly over obstacles? If I want to fly over that thing, what should my line be?
- Should I fly my "floaty" suit over flatter terrain? I’m uncomfortable in a steep dive, so should I fly over that flatter terrain over there?
- Should I jump this short container with this high performance wingsuit? I feel like hot shit in it but some things, like deploying my parachute, aren’t super easy.
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: 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 regular 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. It's ok to be a beginner!
MYTH: You can't go up in a wingsuit (and other impossibilities).
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 impossible. This was because it was impossible for them. They were 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. Avoid forums, they contain mostly bullshit.
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 (few are teaching, and few are giving enough importance to learning).
WS 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.
We're doing something that is inherently dangerous, and there is not much formal training available. Worse, many people are confusing themselves by thinking they have enough experience and knowledge to do what they see in videos. In a lack of classifications and levels, we are often misclassifying ourselves.
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. This 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 it was a mistake.
Get training. You have your entire life to kill yourself, so there is no need to be in a hurry.
Ps. All of the above applies equally to me and if I die wingsuit BASE jumping, then that doesn't mean the sport has no margin for error. It just means that all humans are capable of making multiple, compounded, mistakes.