kydiving today is rife with would-be wingsuit pilots. Ask any number of new jumpers what discipline they want to pursue, and more than likely you’ll have a majority vote for wingsuiting. This is thanks in no small part to the viral popularity of wingsuit BASE videos in recent years. Let’s be honest, even your mom is sick of watching people fly ‘The Cheese Grater’ line at Aiguille du Midi. And while that trend seems to be tapering off somewhat (perhaps as the number of true terrain flyers left in the sport is itself dwindling), there are no shortage of noobs eagerly awaiting their first prom dress.
But, for those who have already cranked out the requisite jump numbers, done their FFC, and are now exploring the freedoms of human flight, what path marks the best progression into the world of wingsuit wizardry?
DISCLAIMER: I’m going to set aside any brand loyalties and personal biases towards/against manufacturers. There will be no suit-specific insights or recommendations. The point of what follows is to provide some simple and easy to follow suggestions through a safe and effective
While there is no doubt that putting in serious work on a small suit is better than jumping quickly into a bigger suit, there is some divergence as to how long your mentor(s) and/or more senior jumpers/coaches may suggest that you remain in your entry-level suit before upsizing. [There is even some discrepancy as to what is deemed an appropriate entry-level suit…but I think for the most part your FFC coach should be able to walk you through that one…]. For my part, I can say that while having put 150 jumps on the small suit I started with was certainly enough for me to be safely flying a bigger suit, there’s also no doubt in my mind – looking back now with the benefit of hindsight – that I would’ve continued to benefit tremendously from growing my skillset and utterly mastering the smaller suit before moving onwards and upwards.
To clarify, wingsuits can be considered as belonging to one of three very basic overarching “platforms”: small suits, medium suits and big suits. [This is by no means a comprehensive dissection of suit design, merely a simple and inelegant framework to help guide the discussion]. Small suits have wing-roots near the hips, and a tail that does not extend to your feet. Medium suits have wing-roots near the knee and a tail that goes straight across your feet. Large suits have wing-roots near your feet and a tail that extends past your feet.
The obvious analogy, here, is parachute size. It’s easy to get caught up drooling over the tiny table-clothed sized wings that you see people flying online or at your home dz. [Insert any number of panty-dropping related clichés here…]. And in your hurry to get down to a smaller, “cooler” wing, you may rush through some key skills that you should already have deeply ingrained in your muscle memory and sight picture, on a larger and more docile/forgiving canopy, before continuing to progress to smaller and more aggressive parachutes. The only difference is that, with wingsuits, the reverse is true. I mean, who wants to spend 150-200 jumps wearing some tiny little baby dress? Ain’t nobody got time for that!! Am I right?! Well...no.
The problem with this logic is two-fold:
1) The more time you spend in a smaller suit, nailing down an array of skills and mastering the suit, the better you’ll fly in a bigger suit. This means that, in the grand scheme of things, you may well become the badass flyer you want to be even faster if you master a solid foundational skillset in a beginner wingsuit before moving on to bigger suits.
2) The more surface area you add (as you increase suit/wing size), the more challenging and demanding the suit is to fly. As you increase size, you dramatically increase the power of the suit, and also the inherent danger of flat-spins, hard pulls, no pull-finds, losses of control, etc. While more powerful in the right hands, larger suits can also be less forgiving of pilot error. This is especially dangerous for pilots who skip a step in their progression – upsizing by more than one platform at a time.
Recent events have tragically proven that no one is invincible to the effects of poorly chosen gear. If there are any positives to take away from the great losses our sport(s) recently suffered, they are the lessons we must learn from those who paid the highest price.
Choose the right tool for the job! It doesn’t matter if you’re in the mountains or at the dz. Exercise good judgement and your chances of playing safely are far greater.
It seems simple enough. But this requires an honest self-evaluation of your skill set, and an assessment of what job (type of flying) you want the tool (the suit) to perform…and in what specific conditions/environment. Always consider these factors together and choose accordingly.
But let’s be real, my advice carries little weight relative to the allure of the sky and BASE gods you might still be watching on repeat on your YouTube or Facebook feeds. And it’s more than likely that my words are also outweighed by your own ego and pride (I know this of myself firsthand…).
So I asked someone with just a little more experience to share his thoughts – someone who’s become synonymous with wingsuit progression – both in the sky and in the burgeoning scene of the wingsuit tunnel…and also in what some view as the pinnacle of wingsuit progression and human flight: the wingsuit jet-pack. In all domains, Jarno Cordia is an authority on wingsuit flying. And with the obvious benefit of his 4100+ wingsuit jumps, and countless hours of R&D; spent analyzing flight, and designing and testing suits, Jarno had the following to say about finding your own wingsuit progression:
I think too many people look at 'good numbers' as a sign of being in control of a suit. The fact that you fly a certain distance or time just means you have a good feel for the performance, but, safety wise, the actual control is where the real importance lies.
Learning to not just fly your suit straight, but in steep dives, turns in various ways, flat, steep, mellow, sharp, backflying, and barrel rolls. Though these may not all seem like skills needed to fly (especially) bigger suits, when your only aim is performance competitions or base, on bad exits, or tumbles, it’s those skills and spatial awareness that will make a big difference.
It’s also important is to realize 'doing two dozen jumps without incident' is not the same as 'mastering a suit' and quite often people mistake their uneventful jumps as a sign for being ready to move up to bigger suits. Make sure you are in complete control before upsizing, and not just 'getting by' by doing some straight line flying and a few flares.
In terms of learning, the small suits provide much more feedback and direct results in terms of what you're doing. Though, these days, bigger suits seem to be the focus. And in marketing various companies try to sell big suits as 'the new small'. Note that in the end, you're the one flying it, and not the 10.000 jump wonders in slick marketing videos.
Nobody ever became a worse a pilot from flying a small suit, and the majority of my personal jumps I still enjoy doing in actual small suits. Acrobatics and performance…the actual inputs and feeling don't change. When flying with the right technique, any suit or size can be flown the same. Just certain techniques needing to be done with bigger or smaller moves, but any time spent on a small suit is never wasted.
Both in BASE jumping or skydiving, the skills learnt on a small suit in terms of turns, and emergency response will be of vital importance. Big suit or small suit, the inputs are the same, but the response on a big suit are much faster and more aggressive, and sometimes violent. In all other serious disciplines, issues with flying, tend to be fixed with a strong focus on skill. A common problem in wingsuit flying is that coaches, though not all bad in intent, can sometimes put too much influence on students to look for gear solutions instead of focusing strictly on technique. This makes our discipline one that's sometimes too much resorting to blowing cash on nylon, instead of on skills.
Gear for sure can be a factor in your flying, as not every suit, model or brand has the same degree of precise control. But make those decisions by trying various suits in the same category, as any suit upsize will on the first few jumps feel like you've just been handed a jetfighter with afterburners. But in the end, it’s the fine control that matters most, and across the board, most manufacturers have similar size models in terms of capability.
It’s the steering and control that matter most, be it belly, backfly, acro, flocking or performance. There, demoing suits of various manufacturers in the size you're familiar with will tell you a lot more about the control, and allow you to make informed decisions, instead of basing it on the brand your (sponsored) coach may be trying to push onto you.
There’s no doubt that placing your focus strictly on skill attainment – instead of relying on jump numbers, positive flysight data, or lack of problems flying a suit – is the most effective way to gauge a safe progression. I must admit that I personally regret not having kept my smaller suit, which I now wish I had for flying with newer pilots, and for generally tossing around all over the sky in ways that I’m not yet able to do as confidently on my big suit. But, as Jarno pointed out, money inevitably comes into play. And we can’t all keep throwing it towards gear hoping to become better pilots. So, in order to max out your value and your safety, please consider asking yourself the types of questions raised above relating to skill acquisition, suit mastery, and finding the right tool for the job as you progress.
The link below also provides a great progression chart (free to download) with an indication of levels/skill that is often used at wingsuit boogies around the world:
Fly safe folks!