USPA Wingsuit Instructor Rating: My Take on the Debate

Should those who want to fly a wingsuit in the USA be required to do their first jump with a USPA-rated coach? Should the USPA get to standardize first wingsuit flight training? Is it worth creating a whole Instructor Rating structure outside of what currently exists, focused on only one jump with a person who has more than 200 skydives already? The United States Parachute Association is considering a proposal about implementing a Wingsuit Instructor Rating. In 2009, I made a presentation on this topic. I started out, fresh from South Africa where there are fewer than 1,000 skydivers, with the opinion that a rating standardized by the national association would be good. But after skydiving here for the past few years, I have changed my mind. Part of the shift is a celebration of the depth and talent of the skydiving population in the US - this country attracts the best, and so there are more coaching options here than possibly anywhere else in the world. And part of it is a better understanding of the USPA itself, an organization that does a spectacular amount with a very little bit of funding, run by very dedicated and under-appreciated staff.

At the last USPA Board Meeting, a subcommittee of the Safety and Training committee was formed to do some research into whether a Wingsuit Instructor Rating is a good use of the USPA's limited resources. Would this save lives? Prevent disaster? The chair of the subcommittee, after consulting with some of his colleagues, sent out a questionnaire to various wingsuit flyers. My response is below. It is kind of long and nerdy, but thorough. Worth skimming for those with any interest in flying a wingsuit in the USA.

To: Rick Winstock

Chair, Safety and Training Subcommittee on Wingsuit Instructor Rating

Date: July 19, 2012

Dear Rich (et al),

I attended the last USPA board meeting in San Diego with the specific intent of giving input on Douglas Spotted Eagle’s proposal for a USPA Wingsuit Instructor Rating. At that meeting, members of the Safety and Training Committee were told that “Wingsuiting is the new hook turning” and that they could prevent many deaths in the future by implementing a regulation that all first wingsuit jumps be done with a USPA wingsuit instructor. The curriculum proposed was the one that Douglas uses at the Skydive Elsinore Wingsuit School, which he offered to USPA to adopt.

I took issue with the fear-based discussion that focused on two assumptions that seemed to be gaining traction with little to no solid evidence:

a) Wingsuiting deaths are coming in numbers even greater than the current percentage of canopy-related incidents.

b) The only way for committee members to prevent these deaths is to adopt a very specific curriculum and wingsuit instructor rating regulating first wingsuit flights.

I notice that the way forward of the subcommittee tasked with examining the proposal has continued with a very narrow focus. The questionnaire that was sent out to select wingsuiters and posted on dropzone.com is not neutral, as it does not start with the fundamental question the USPA should be asking as an organization with limited funding and a responsibility to all of its members.

That question is, "What are the risks posed by wingsuiting?" Following that, the committee could ask, "What are the best methods of addressing those risks?" If the answer turns out to be an instructor rating after careful examination of the options, then perhaps the full board, and membership, could be convinced.

Instead, the Safety and Training Committee is asking only whether an instructor rating is better than doing nothing at all. These are not the only options on the table.

First, let me answer the fundamental questions. Then I will respond to the questionnaire as it was written.

What are the risks posed by wingsuiting? (with reference to the current SIM 6-9, "Wingsuiting Special Concerns")

a) Fall rate: Wingsuiters are at greater risk of tail strikes because of the added surface area when exiting the aircraft. The consequences of wingsuit tail strike are the same as with a CRW jumper or any other skydiver: danger to the pilot, other jumpers on board, and risk of a crash that could affect communities below.

b) Navigation: Wingsuiters can cover more distance in the sky, causing a greater risk of interference with other air traffic if they do not fly a safe pattern keeping them away from line of flight (open canopies, high pullers, students, and tandems) and other hazards such as descending jump planes.

c) Restrictions on motion: Some wingsuits restrict a jumper's motion in the suit. Greater surface area requires a different pull technique.

d) Water landings: (see Navigation.) Also, "In case of a water landing, it is critical that the arm wings and leg wing and booties are released before landing in the water to allow the jumper as much freedom of movement as possible after entering the water."

What are the best methods of addressing these risks?

First of all, who is most at risk?

a) Of a tail strike: experienced wingsuit pilots jumping larger suits. The most recent wingsuit fatality involving a tail strike was three years ago, and the person had hundreds of wingsuit jumps. New wingsuiters jump beginner suits, some with no more surface area than camera wings. With a 200 jump minimum in the BSRs, new wingsuiters are experienced skydivers already, with the capability to make their own decisions about gear. There have been no fatalities that I know of involving first wingsuit jumpers hitting the tail of an aircraft.

b) Of interfering with other air traffic: intermediate to experienced wingsuit pilots jumping suits with a lot of range. First flight students do practice pulls and jump smaller suits. Practice pulls put the jumper into the equivalent of freefall, so less distance is covered on the skydive.

c) Of having an incident due to an unstable pull in a wingsuit: Beginner or novice wingsuit pilots.

d) Of having an incident involving a water landing specifically due to a wingsuit: All levels of wingsuit pilot are susceptible to this problem.

Of these risks, which are the most concerning to USPA (based on incident reports and planning to avoid future incidents on a scale that could change sport skydiving)?

a) Tail strike

b) Air traffic.

What are some targeted methods to address the risks?

1. Wingsuit Instructor Rating. USPA would require all jumpers regardless of experience level and jump numbers to do their first wingsuit flight with a USPA rated wingsuit instructor/coach. After the first jump, there would be no regulation. Foreign jumpers who are already wingsuit flyers, or USPA members who complete a first wingsuit flight in another country or a non-USPA dropzone would be exempt from this rule.

Does this address the group of people most at risk of tail strikes? NO

Does this address the group of people most at risk of causing air traffic problems? NO

2. Educate S&TAs, DZOs, and pilots.

-USPA would mount a campaign to provide information about standard wingsuit patterns so that dropzones can implement and visibly post a plan/policy for wingsuit flights. This is not much different from encouraging local action to maintain canopy landing safety. A canopy pattern follows the same principals as a wingsuit pattern.

-Further education would allow and encourage S&TAs and DZOs to coordinate with pilots to discuss run-in speeds (a cut for wingsuiters makes a tail strike less likely) and descent patterns that stay away from wingsuit traffic.

-Lastly, an S&TA or other designated safety officer on the dropzone would check in when a new wingsuit pilot arrives on the dropzone to ascertain that their level of experience is appropriate for the type of suit they are flying. Once again, this is similar to the world of canopy piloting, where local responsibility is encouraged to prevent rapid downsizing and jumpers flying high-performance canopies without proper training.

Does this address the group of people most at risk of tail strikes? YES

Does this address the group of people most at risk of causing air traffic problems? YES

To summarize:

RISK POPULATION
Tail Strike Experienced Wingsuiters/Big Wings
Navigation Problem Intermediate and experienced wingsuiters

 

METHOD TARGET EFFECTIVENESS
First Flight Course mandatory First time wingsuiters LOW to NONE
Integrated education approach S&TA, DZO, Pilots, Experienced WS jumpers and coaches HIGH

Please find my answers to the questionnaire as written below.

Sincerely,

Taya Weiss

Wingsuit Advisor Questionaire

1.         Name:      Taya Weiss

2.         License:      D-27874

3.         Total Jumps:      3700

4.         Total WS Jumps:   3000

5.         Ratings:      USPA Coach, PASA (Parachute Association of South Africa) Jumpmaster, PASA Freefly Coach, PASA Wingsuit I/E

6.         Years:     In the sport- 11

7.         How many jumps did you have when you did your first WS jump?      500

8.         Did you take a First Flight Course?      I had a briefing

9.         Please explain how you progressed in the WS Discipline?

I was briefed by an experienced wingsuit pilot who accompanied me on my first flight, read the Birdman manual, and did 100 wingsuit flights before attending a Birdman Instructor course and getting the BMI rating. I also acquired a Phoenix Fly Instructor rating when it was offered (I did not renew it). I wrote the section on wingsuiting in the Parachute Association of South Africa's Manual of Procedures (MOPs), and designed and created the wingsuit coach rating, for which I became an instructor/examiner. I run wingsuit coach courses. I have jumped many brands of wingsuit, coached hundreds of students all over the world, and pioneered the discipline of XRW, where wingsuits fly relative to high-performance canopy pilots. I have organized all of the major wingsuit bigway events since 2008 (currently getting ready for the world record in September), and participated in creating standards and educating judges for the current USPA record program.

But really, any educated USPA member could make the same arguments I am and they should be taken just as seriously.

10.       Please give a brief description of your qualifications? See above

11.       Did you get your ratings before or after starting to WS?    With the exception of the wingsuit ratings and the USPA coach rating that I obtained upon deciding to be based in the US, before.

12.       Looking back and based on your current knowledge, experience, and level of competency; were you satisfied with the completeness, accuracy, and content of your First Flight Preparation? Yes

13.       Looking back and based on your current knowledge, experience, and level of competency; Do you feel you would have benefitted from a formal First Flight Course? The briefing I had was the equivalent in my opinion.

14.       Are you in favor of a mandatory First Flight Course?      No

15.       If you are in favor of a mandatory First Flight Course; should USPA be the one to adopt and oversee the process?  If not who do you think should oversee it?

I'm not in favor, but this is the part of the questionnaire where the line of questioning becomes stubbornly narrow. A mandatory first flight course does not address the most pressing needs of the fast-growing wingsuiting discipline and the dropzones who need to safely support it.

16.       If USPA decides to implement a First Flight Course and a Wingsuit Rating, should it be a coach rating or an instructor rating?  Please explain your reasons?

This line of questioning continues to assume that a rating can/will/might be implemented, without asking what other methods there might be to address the risks and needs associated with the growth and practice of wingsuiting. Plain and simple, the USPA does not have the institutional capacity or knowledge to start regulating advanced disciplines.

In particular, a wingsuit first flight requirement will not be an effective, targeted tool to prevent the incidents the USPA should be most concerned about. If people go ahead and do a first wingsuit flight without a USPA rated coach, will the USPA suspend their license? What will the punishment be? What will enforcement look like? Does the USPA have the desire and stomach to force experienced skydivers to learn a new discipline in a particular way when there are coaches out there, like me, who do not want to have the details of my curriculum (based on years of experience) subjected to the review of whoever is in favor at USPA? And what about the jumpers who do not want to have their choices about their own training after 200 jumps subjected to regulation by their association?

In a smaller country like South Africa or the UK, the entire national skydiving system is set up to encourage and regulate all coaching for all disciplines. This makes sense where there are 500 or a few thousand active skydivers. In the United States, there is a functioning free market for coaching in which advanced jumpers can make their own decisions about training because they have a variety of great options. The US attracts the best talent. Yes, there will always be incompetent coaches. But implementing a USPA rating won't change that. In the US, regulating advanced disciplines would bring liability to the USPA that it cannot afford, while putting a damper on the growth of our sport.

17.       Have you or do you know someone that has had to intervene with a student during a WS jump? Please give details without providing any names or locations .

I don't see the relevance of this question (in addition to which is it confusingly phrased, as wingsuit coaches do not “intervene” in the air “during a jump” like an AFF instructor does). This feels like a gathering of negative anecdotes as opposed to an open-minded line of questioning about the wingsuiting discipline and its relationship to USPA.

18.       Please add anything else you feel would help the Wing Suit Rating sub-committee on this topic?

See my comments above.