Yes, the wingsuiters are at it again - at Newcastle Sport Parachute Club. On the weekend of 21-22 September 2013 Australia's oldest parachute club was the host of one of skydiving's newest disciplines - artistic wingsuit flying. Organised by local wingsuit coach Roger Hugelshofer and artistic competitor Jason Dodunski, the camp focused on building skills for the precise and technical style of flying involved in competitive acrobatic wingsuiting.
As we all know, wingsuiting is one of the newest developments in skydiving, but competitive forms of wingsuiting are still in their early stages. While much focus has been on performance flying - flying with the goal of achieving the best glide ratio or forward speed, or lowest descent rate, relative work has also been developing in more formalised directions - these being flocking and artistic flying.
Flocking generally involves a number of people flying together, but competitive artistic flying requires a much higher level of precision. An artistic team is one of three jumpers - two performers and a camera flyer. Points are awarded for achieving moves and docks in the same way as other relative work, but moves include barrel rolls, front loops, and up-and-overs (flying up and over your team mate, then docking on their opposite hand). The camera person is also judged on their ability to keep the subjects in frame, and using creative methods of shooting such as backflying. In fact, camera can be considered to be the most demanding role Since the competition is judged on the footage, no matter how good the performing flyers are, if they move out of the frame 'it didn't happen'.
Roger and Jason had much advice to give on how the competition works. Fresh from placing second in the intermediate division at the International Artistic Wingsuit Games at Skydive Texel in the Netherlands with his team Jetstream (also including Ben Futterleib and Leon Hunt) Roger is now focusing very much on artistic wingsuit flying in his jumping. Jason also recently competed with Roger, as part of the team Can’t Fly at the Australian Nationals – which they won.
With generous support from the APF (thanks APF!) the day was planned with the idea of mixing the teams up and allowing everyone to have their turn at performing or flying camera. We were ready at 8.30am and totally amped. Soon we had a load together with the crew all parcelled up into 3-ways, including well known local hardcores Trent Conroy, Dallas Drury, Paul Munro, Sarah Hughes, Zoran Stopar, Jake Bresnehan, Kieran Turner, Jason and myself. Roger was absent for some time but we forgave him eventually as he was teaching two first First Flight Courses.
After the first load we had a lot of great footage of our three groups, which was then debriefed by Roger and Jason. The initial focus was on ‘simple’ moves like docking and barrel rolls. For the camera person the obvious task is to get both the jumpers in frame, but from there the job takes on a more technical aspect. It’s not as easy as it sounds keeping two wingsuiters in frame when one is falling faster than the other one, then slower, then faster again.
It is here that repeated jumps with the same teammates really pays off. Like everything else in skydiving, practise really does make perfect, or at least it gets you to screw up less than everyone else does. For the artistic wingsuit flyers it means that they achieve a much greater level of precision – speeding up docks, adjusting to fly more efficiently with each other in order to have more ‘working time’, and being able to learn more advanced manoeuvres like carving, fruity loops, the Howling Hobbit and Jabba’s Moist Sail Barge (actually one of these is made up). For camera flyers it means being able to anticipate their team mates, know how much height they’ll lose in transitions, and adjust their framing accordingly.
What I like most about artistic wingsuit flying is that it offers a challenging way of flying with precision. Getting into a wingsuit for the first time can be an amazing feeling of freedom, suddenly having the ability to stay up in the sky for twice as long – the feeling of precise control and of the different speeds both forward and downwards that can be achieved can lead a new wingsuiter to think they’ve suddenly found the pot of beer at the end of the skydiving rainbow. However, once beyond the basic safety skills that are needed to complete a Wingsuit Crest (or your local equivalent), it’s easy to lose focus on the more technical and precise aspects of the sport. Just flying along with one or two of your buddies a few metres away can make it seem like you have everything under control – but not until you try and dock with them do you realise that there is a whole new level of skill available to tackle. On top of that, this style of flying is best done in a beginner/intermediate suit as the extent of the surface area on the larger suits means that transitions more difficult – so it’s yet another awesome use for your first wingsuit.
The recent Wingsuit Artistic Camp was a resounding success for all involved, we all learnt a lot about the discipline, and had a ton of fun. Massive thanks to Roger, Jason and the team at Newcastle Sport Parachute Club for another awesome weekend.
I’d like to encourage any wingsuiters to give artistic and acrobatic flying a red-hot go. Being able to fly relatively and consistently with someone else is just the beginning. Training for precision by practising docking will translate to tighter, more consistent flocking abilities, and learning acrobatic manoeuvres will also help prepare you for the inevitable moments instability that we must prepare for as wingsuiters (often caused by bad exits). Not to mention, if you practise, practise and practise, there are local and international competitions to win – so get up there and get into it!