Skydivers of every freefall discipline have been injured or killed in freefall collisions. The number of reported incidents seems to increase as a discipline emerges then taper off quite a bit once training and equipment catch up to the new style of jumping. Hard-impact freefall collisions resulting in serious injuries and fatalities were once a common issue with formation skydivers and freeflyers, and now they’re an issue with wingsuiters. Modern wingsuit flying—which now has had more than 20 years to develop training methods and equipment and build a foundation of knowledge—cannot truly be considered a new discipline any longer, but it continues to struggle with injuries and fatalities from collisions in freefall, as well as collisions with the aircraft on exit. So, why are wingsuit flyers experiencing more collisions than jumpers in other disciplines?
After a series of fatalities in the early stages of modern wingsuiting, USPA determined that each of the involved jumpers had fewer than 200 jumps and experienced difficulties with the basic control of their wingsuits. To address this, USPA added a Basic Safety Requirement that required any jumper to have at least 200 skydives before flying a wingsuit. However, we continue to see injuries and fatalities involving wingsuit flight that are not specifically related to a lack of general skydiving experience.
Most of the wingsuit-related injuries and fatalities now stem from wingsuit jumpers running into something, either the tail of the airplane or each other. Despite countless warnings and training programs that thoroughly cover proper exit techniques, we continue to see wingsuit jumpers exit incorrectly and strike the tail of the airplane. Thankfully, most of these collisions are not fatal. However, colliding with the tail is an easy problem to fix and should not be happening. It simply requires each wingsuit jumper to follow correct exit procedures on every wingsuit exit: Verify that the pilot has configured the airplane for exit, and exit with the wings collapsed for two seconds to ensure tail clearance before inflating the wings.
Wingsuit freefall collisions have caused several recent fatalities. In formation skydiving and freeflying, freefall collisions declined as the disciplines gained popularity and jumpers learned how to participate in them more safely. But wingsuiting is a different animal. First, the speeds are high beginning with the first flight. Wingsuit flyers are also at a higher risk for head or neck injuries because they often collide head-first and cannot raise their arms to protect themselves due to the restrictions posed by the arm wings. Additionally, wingsuit flyers frequently begin flying large, advanced wingsuits quickly and before they are ready for the increased performance (and risk) they pose. When you add it all together, it’s easy to see why collisions in freefall are a continuing problem.
But it’s not a lost cause. Many in the wingsuiting community continue to push the sport forward with safety as the top priority. By continuing to focus on better training and a reasonable progression toward more complex formations and larger wingsuits, the discipline will see fewer fatal and non-fatal accidents.
Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training