Safety Check | Instructing Wingsuit Flyers
by Jim Crouch
Six years ago, at the winter 2012 USPA Board meeting, members proposed that USPA create and adopt a wingsuit-instructor rating system. That led to a great deal of discussion over the next year, and USPA polled the membership for feedback on the subject. After the discussions, opinions were just about evenly split between being for and against adopting the rating. Then, at the winter 2013 board meeting, members introduced a complete outline for a wingsuit-instructor rating program, and the proposal to adopt it was put to a vote. After fierce debate, the motion failed with a vote of eight for and 12 against.
When modern wingsuiting began to take off in the early 2000s, USPA supplied no rules or guidance specifically for the discipline. However, when five fatalities involving wingsuits occurred over a span of a few years—all involving skydivers with fewer than 200 jumps—USPA began requiring every wingsuit skydiver to have completed at least 200 skydives and hold a skydiving license. USPA also strongly recommended that each new wingsuit flyer receive training from an experienced wingsuit coach, which were mostly experienced jumpers authorized by the suit manufacturers to provide training and guidance to new wingsuit jumpers. In 2002, USPA began providing very basic wingsuit guidelines in the Skydiver’s Information Manual and in 2013 replaced that with a very detailed first-wingsuit-flight course. Despite these changes, 16 percent of fatal accidents (four jumpers) in the U.S. in 2017 were jumpers who were wearing wingsuits.
Over the years, many hoped that the wingsuiting community would develop safely without the need for heavy-handed regulation from USPA. Those who opposed a wingsuit instructor rating argued that USPA does not—and should not—require specific training for or regulate advanced skydiving such as freeflying or high-performance canopy piloting. The best example of a skydiving discipline that developed excellent training methods and safety guidelines without requiring USPA regulation is canopy formation skydiving. The pioneers of canopy formation skydiving learned what worked well and what didn’t work well and formulated the best processes and techniques for teaching jumpers who are new to the discipline. Those guidelines continued to evolve and improve, and now it is very rare that a fatality occurs during a canopy formation jump.
However, wingsuiting is growing much more quickly than canopy formation skydiving ever did. Rapid growth without much oversight seems to be causing growing pains for the discipline. The community continues to struggle with fatal and non-fatal accidents, many of which could have been prevented through better training and supervision of the new wingsuit jumpers and their instructors. Whispered rumors of sub-standard first-flight courses provided by unscrupulous wingsuit trainers to jumpers with fewer than 200 skydives abound. However, those with direct knowledge don’t seem willing to take a stand against it, put a stop to it or report it to USPA to consider for disciplinary action.
There have been a lot of recent advances in wingsuit performance, and the suits are getting larger and more complicated to fly. The wingsuit community needs to step up to the plate and tackle the problems within the discipline. More thorough and structured primary-flight training and better supervision of both trainers and students would go a long way toward reducing wingsuiting accidents. Many feel that USPA should have stepped in and more heavily regulated wingsuiting back in 2012, and those same concerns over the same issues are still in play today. Something needs to change, and that change just might mean a heavier hand from USPA. Wingsuiters, it’s really up to you.
Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training