Wingsuit Progression Part 2: Exits
by Matt Gerdes and Taya Weiss
The subject of wingsuit exits—specifically, in what order wingsuit flyers should exit and how to conduct the exits—seems to cause a lot of confusion and worry among wingsuit flyers themselves, as well as other jumpers at the DZ. Much of this confusion and worry can be resolved by simply doing a little pre-planning before boarding the aircraft.
Wingsuit flyers—because of their low vertical speeds and extensive horizontal reach and the possibility that they’ll remain under the aircraft for several seconds after exiting—should exit last to avoid conflicts with other groups. The consensus of wingsuit pros is there are almost no exceptions to this rule. It holds whether the other jumpers on the plane are freeflying, on their bellies or a tandem pair. It even holds if the other jumpers are pulling high (with the possible exception of experienced canopy formation skydivers who request a dramatic offset or distant spot).
Jumpers who pull right out of the door generally exit last, so they may feel that they should do so even if there are wingsuit flyers on the plane. However, this is not a good idea because there is a high likelihood that a high-puller’s opening will continue right into the wingsuit flyers’ flight path. Additionally, if the high-puller takes even a slightly longer delay than intended, they could cannonball right through the wingsuit group. A high-puller who exits last can also become a dangerous obstacle under parachute for wingsuit flyers on the load, even if there are multiple passes.
Some jumpers worry that wingsuit flyers who exit last could change direction and fly against the jump run, creating a potential collision with other groups. However, this is unlikely if the jumpers stick with their flight plans. In fact, the best way for jumpers of any discipline to avoid conflicts is to develop a plan and stick with it: Vertical flyers execute a vertical skydive, high-pullers pull at the stated altitude, and wingsuit pilots fly their intended plan inside established lanes. If the wingsuit flyers exit last and begin their flights in the direction of jump run, their vertical speed (sink rate) will put them well below the high-puller before their horizontal planes can cross.
Whether or not an aircraft will need to fly an extra exit pass depends on the airspace that is available at your DZ and the number and type of groups on the plane. If your DZ has two established lanes of flight for wingsuit flyers and tracking dives and two established parachute opening zones (one for each lane), then only two wingsuit/tracking groups should exit per pass. There are very few DZs where more than three wingsuit groups can exit and fly safely back to the DZ on a pass.
Organize the wingsuit groups on each pass in terms of vertical speed. Generally, this means that jumpers wearing the smallest suits exit first and the largest suits exit last. However, everyone still needs to talk about their dive plans since those wearing large suits may be making a high-vertical-speed dive (such as an angle dive) and may need to exit earlier.
Let’s look at an example:
A Twin Otter load contains 11 wingsuit pilots in four groups. Also on the plane are a 4-way belly group, three freeflyers, an AFF student with a single instructor and a tandem pair. (Wow, full load. Sure wish those wingsuits would scrunch up. We’re missing a seat. Someone sit up front, and hey, would you please exhale and think skinny thoughts?)
Regardless of how many passes there will be (and it looks like at least two), the wingsuit flyers will exit last on each pass.
• Non-wingsuit skydivers exit in order from lowest to highest fall rate (and consequently, most to least drift), with the tandem going last.
• Wingsuit group one: A 2-way group consisting of a beginner wingsuiter and a coach, both in small suits. They will fly within the DZ's established Wingsuit Lane 1 and exit before the rest of the wingsuit flyers and after the tandem. The duo will open their parachutes in the intended opening zone for Lane 1.
• Wingsuit group two: A 5-way group wearing small suits. They will stay within the DZ’s established Wingsuit Lane 2 and give the AFF-student-and-instructor 2-way a wide berth.
• Wingsuit group three: A 2-way group flying medium and large suits at a normal speed. They will begin their jump inside Lane 1 and execute breakoff with enough altitude to open their parachutes in the intended zone.
• Wingsuit group four: A 2-way flying large suits at a normal vertical speed. This group stays within Lane 2 and opens in the zone for Lane 2 flyers.
What if very experienced wingsuit jumpers are on the load and want to do a steep-angle jump? A pre-boarding discussion should reveal the fact that this might not be the best load for that style of jump, because it would be difficult to avoid a conflict. Even if they exit first on the second pass, there is still the threat that their high vertical speed could put them near to the first-pass groups. If they exit first on the first pass, then there is the chance of them interacting with the tandem (unless they plan for that and begin their jump with a transit glide, increasing their separation but also consuming altitude, which most jumpers do not want to do and will tend to cut short). The moral of the story is: Don’t be so attached to your wishes that you endanger other people on the load, and try to communicate with manifest and the other jumpers at the DZ about your plans before gearing up.
Don’t be afraid to move groups into different planes. Prevent potential conflict by discussing your flight plans with others on the load before manifesting. Weigh each group’s plan to determine the uses and limitations of the available airspace. Some loads can accommodate only one wingsuit group due to the group’s composition, jump plan or size (for example, a highly experienced dynamic group planning many turns and transitions). Winds aloft, jumpers who plan to pull high, the number of jump runs available and other considerations can restrict the number of groups a load can accommodate.
The bottom line: There might not be room on this load for you or your group. Find out and manifest appropriately.
Exiting the Plane: Be the Penguin
The first priority for any wingsuit exit is to avoid the tail of the aircraft. Stability, navigation and a successful approach to the group are lower priorities. Before exiting, you should think about (in order) the tail, your stability relative to the group and finally your own stability. Your personal stability is the third priority; it’s more important to avoid causing a plane crash or a mid-air collision than it is to have a comfortable and stable exit!
Although most wingsuit flyers know that they must minimize the surface area of their arm and leg wings on exit, suits have evolved and some don’t allow the jumper to fully close the arm wings simply by pulling the arms in. This means that jumpers must build good habits that go beyond wing closure to include angle of attack to the relative wind and prop blast.
When exiting the plane, be aware that the higher your angle of attack, the higher up toward the tail the wind will push you. It’s particularly important to lower your angle of attack in addition to closing your wings when wearing an intermediate or advanced suit. Think of how a penguin slides into water, and imagine yourself sliding head first into the relative wind instead of belly-flopping against it.
If you exit into the relative wind with the proper angle of attack and minimize your surface area by properly closing your arm and leg wings, you are very unlikely to strike the tail, and as a bonus you’ll be flying sooner and will therefore join the formation sooner.
Opening arm wings too soon
If you don’t know where your hands are, your arm wings could be open. Different instructors use different techniques when teaching exits, but most of them involve an exercise to increase awareness of your arm position. If you can feel your hands grabbing another part of your suit in a wings-closed posture, then you are less likely to make an error in proprioception (limb awareness), which could result in an open wing.
Losing awareness of the aircraft tail
If you can’t see the tail of the aircraft after you exit, you might not be past it. Most instruction includes aircraft-awareness training. If you have had a close call or simply want a way to help prevent tail strikes, think about maintaining a good posture and angle of attack until you see the tail pass you, which is when you know it’s safe to open up.
Don’t! A good wingsuit exit never ever involves jumping up. There is never any reason to jump up out of the door. Dive out and down, if anything. If you are having a hard time with this, imagine what it feels like to put your hand on a low fence and swing your legs over it. From a low position, put your right hand (if it’s a left-side door) on the floor in the door, and swing your legs out as you exit with the top of your head (and spine axis) pointed into the relative wind. This should keep your torso more level to the relative wind and prevent any tendency to exit upward.
Losing awareness of aircraft settings
Know what proper wingsuit exit conditions feel like, sound like and look like. Check for them before exiting. This varies with aircraft type, but in general turbine power should be reduced (cut), flaps should be at least partially down (varies with aircraft), airspeed should be reduced, deck angle should be level and the pilot should be aware that wingsuit flyers are ready to exit.
Before exiting, run a quick checklist:
• Aircraft Settings
• Be the Penguin
• Dive Out and Down
• Watch the Tail Clear
Write it on your hand if you need to!
Next month: A Wingsuit Skydive from Start to Finish, an Incomplete Guide
About the Authors
Taya Weiss, D-27874, and Matt Gerdes, D-32437, are dedicated to advancing wingsuit training to keep pace with the evolution of the discipline. Gerdes is the founder of Squirrel, a manufacturer of wingsuits and equipment, and the author of “The Great Book of BASE." Weiss is the founder of the Lightning Flight wingsuit instruction group and an organizer of the world’s largest wingsuit formations. Both are on the Next Level Flight team, an organization working to further the education of wingsuit pilots and BASE jumpers worldwide.