Wingsuiting is a new discipline that is ever-changing in terms of equipment, general DZ knowledge, and practices within the discipline. This can lead to a great deal of confusion about what is what, and how the equipment operates.
One such example is the Apache series wingsuit, manufactured by Tonysuits Inc. This series of wingsuit is advertised as "for BASE jumping"and as the "biggest wingsuit in the world", the manufacturer "observed that placing the parachute harness inside the suit improved performance by reducing drag." This wingsuit places all components of the main lift web (MLW) inside the wingsuit, making the chest strap invisible, and leaving handles inaccessible unless modifications are made to the suit, parachute system/rig, or both.
The manufacturer’s website also indicates:
NOTE: This suit is for BASE jumping only. Having the harness inside the suit excludes it from being used for skydiving. Expert wingsuit skydivers could choose to modify the Apache to mount the emergency handles on to the suit itself under the guidance of a qualified rigger but TonySuits does NOT recommend any modifications!
The process of jumping this system in the skydiving environment requires one of three actions;
Rig Hidden In The Wingsuit
The first option is to do nothing and jump the suit as it is with the rig entirely hidden within the wingsuit system as seen in this image below. Handles are entirely covered, and inaccessible without first unzipping the wingsuit. This is a legal means of jumping the wingsuit/rig system. Whether it is an ideal or safe method is determined by a pilot or S&TA.;
The above method is not addressed in the FARs nor PIA Technical Documents. Various DPRE’s (Designated Parachute Rigger/Examiners) commented "No one at the PIA or FAA level ever anticipated we’d have jumpers covering handles with a jumpsuit; we now need to address this topic."
Emergency procedures in this system:
- Unzip wingsuit.
- Crossdraw handles (Left hand to cutaway release, right hand to reserve ripcord).
The "fully covered handles" method may be the only method not addressed in a FAR or PIA Technical Document, yet this method fails to take into account situations such as:
- Aircraft emergency requiring instant access to a reserve handle
- Missing hackey/handle, requiring a straight-to-reserve deployment
- Pilot Chute in Tow
- Hard pull
- Canopy collision requiring a cutaway
- High ground winds, where a cutaway is necessary
Adding "Chicken Handles"
Another method has been to put "chicken handles" on the wingsuit, essentially Rapide links attached to the cutaway release and reserve ripcord system. This changes the angle of cable travel (inducing a double 90 degree bend in the relevant cable) significantly increasing pull force.
TSO (Technical Standards Order, administered by the FAA) requires that pull force be not greater than 22lbs of pull. In testing, the cutaway release required approx 45lbs of pull force, and the reserve system would not release with 60lbs of pull force applied (this was the limit of the scale used for the pull test.
The "Chicken Handle" system was discussed with several rig manufacturers, Technical Chairs, former Technical Chairs, Rigging Chairs, and former Rigging Chairs of PIA. All agree this system is a violation of manufacturer TSO as expressed in FAR 65.111, and PIA TS 135 4.3.3 Table 2.
In order to legally use this deployment system, the system must be tested and certified according to FAA TSO specification as set forth by the PIA. The definition of testing for certification requires:
"4.3.3 HUMAN FACTORS AND ACTUATION FORCE TESTS:
An anthropometrically diverse group of individuals (consisting of a representative group of no less than 3 males and 3 females) from the intended user group shall be employed for all human factors tests in 4.3.3. All individuals shall be able to operate the subject device without any undue difficulty. Table 2 lists the required test conditions and number of tests for each particular component. Additional information for the component tests is listed below.
TESTS: Under normal design operating conditions, all devices tested under this paragraph shall result in a positive and quick operation of the device within the following load range applied to the handle:
(a) a load applied at the handle of not less than 5 lbf (22.2 N), applied in the direction giving the lowest pull force,
(b) a load applied at the handle of not more than 22 lbf (97.9 N), applied in the direction of
normal design operation,
(c) for chest type parachute assemblies, the maximum pull force shall be 15 lbf (66.7 N),
(d) the primary actuation device shall be tested in accordance with Table 2,
(e) the emergency/reserve drogue release (if used) shall be tested in accordance with Table 2."
Table 2 includes standing, hanging in harness etc.
The above system was never tested prior to being put into the marketplace. The challenges with this system were discovered in the field, as seen in the video link below.
Pull tests were performed at various angles and configurations, with a Master Rigger in attendance.
As of March 2012, the manufacturer has recommended that skydivers immediately discontinue use of this system.
Moving Handles from the Rig to the Wingsuit
A third modification requires moving handles from the parachute rig system and relocating them to the wingsuit body via the use of Velcro. The rig is then connected to the wingsuit via ties/cords that are tied above and below the cheststrap/handles of the rig.
Due to pull forces and the random/chaotic nature of a deployment, this system has suffered multiple two-out scenarios across the country. Multiple dropzones have banned this wingsuit system from being jumped from their aircraft.
Tony Uragallo of TonySuits has responded to concerns, saying: "I am changing the Apache system to be similar to the Squirrel suit system." Squirrel suits have found a novel way of dealing with these risks by adding zippers that allows the rig to worn inside the suit (for BASE jumping) as well as outside the suit, with handles fully exposed. (for skydiving)
The vast majority of skydivers often don't give much thought to TSO's or FARs, and most have likely have never heard of PIA TS 135. These are the "rules of the road" for parachute gear in the skydiving world. These rules regulations and laws are there to protect skydivers from unsafe practices equipment, to provide standards of performance, and the safe operation of a dropzone and to prevent problems within the skydiving and non-skydiving community through standardized rules, laws and industry practices.
The FARs put aircraft pilots directly in the crosshairs when a problem occurs; this is why skydivers must demonstrate repacks when visiting a dropzone, for example. Should any incident occur, it falls on the pilot-in-command. Yet most aircraft pilots are unaware of what is or isn’t legal, as the dropzone assumes responsibility for equipment being legal and reserves in-date.
In this instance, a wingsuit designed specifically for BASE being used in the skydiving environment and requiring modifications to a rig or the rig operation is a violation of TSO and by extension, the FARs. This creates a legal headache for dropzone operators, S&TA;’s, rig manufacturers, and other skydivers on the lookout for standard equipment.
Wingsuits designed for BASE jumping are exciting, fun, and provide an added edge of adrenaline. Some skydivers may take the approach of "So what? It's an individual choice." Any reasonable jumper, base or skydiver, will conclude that skydiving is a different environment than BASE (which has no rules). In the skydiving environment, the manufacturers assure the FAA and the DZO that gear meets safety standards via the TSO certification. DZO's in turn, assure the pilot that equipment being used in the skydiving environment is legal, in-date, and approved. As skydivers, we assure each other's safety by using equipment that is legal, safe, and approved for the activity.
If you are considering jumping any product that may involve relocating handles or other modifications, first contact the manufacturer of the harness to verify the legality of doing so - and check with your DZO or S&TA; for any local policy.