From The Mag

OPINION: Wake Up and Smell the Birdshit

[This letter to the editor was shortened for print in the October 2012 issue of Blue Skies Mag and is reproduced here in its entirety.]

Wake Up and Smell the Birdshit

So what the hell is going on in wingsuiting? Why is there so much fuckin’ drama? Why do they think they need some special instructor’s rating? Why is this so damn important that there was a BOD meeting about it anyways!?

I’ve heard all these questions and they are all good questions. Personally, I’d rather tell y’all myself than have some other agency step in and tell everyone first. So let’s lay all this crap out there already, get past it, and move forward! (I think that’s what all flockers like to do most anyways, isn’t it? Move forward?)

Drama? Well that’s its own damn Emerson poem or Greek tragedy, whichever you prefer. As ol’ Ralph said, “All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.” No time or place for it. Wingsuiting is getting to be so far advanced these days that we are about where freeflyers were back in ’05, when some friends and I really got into this down here in Florida, and look where freeflying is today! I can’t wait to see the wingsuit community have that much skill, training, ability, experience, and camaraderie to pull off something like what the freefly crowd did at Summerfest! (Rook and everyone else had an easy 8 or 10 years on us) We will get there in time, flockers…keep your wingsuits on!Hell, a 6-way back a few years ago was a big-way! The best we’ve done so far was the 71- and 75-ways that we did back in ‘08 where no one touched each other once intentionally. We did it to see if we could, hell nothing like it’d ever been done before. Wow, how times change. Not only are we now “boxed” in flight, but some people put us in the “good guys” and “bad guys” boxes when we’re on the ground, too!

Some special rating? WTF? Why not canopies too? At first, I wasn’t too sure about it either. However, this is what you would come to understand rather quickly once you have been teaching wingsuiting for more than five minutes. When I started, there may have been 100 wingsuiters worldwide. Since 2008 or so, covering just three schools, I know of around 1,000 students. And that’s just with three active wingsuit schools in the last four or five years. We are seeing exponential growth of this discipline, and we need to solve this before it becomes much more of a problem than it currently is. Come to think of it, it’s never taken three months to order or receive a wingsuit before—normally two if they were busy. Now you’re lucky if it’s five months. That’s great! But where are they all going to?

In the past, most new wingsuiters were already skydivers, BASE jumpers, pilots, whatever the hell else they were doing and went, “Wow, I gotta do that!” So they did! Now, there are more people with 200 jumps than you can shake a wingsuit at! Many with no experience at anything other than video games, and the skydive training they have received.

Two things make this different from the canopy discussion currently going on.

First, there is no basic wingsuit or navigation (adequate for wingsuiting) instruction included in any AFF jump course anywhere. There is however, a lot of canopy control that has to be learned in AFF. A wingsuit flies quite differently than anything else, and has a very specific knowledge base required to fly one safely. It’s verydifferent thanany other training received previously in skydiving. Tail strikes, deployment techniques, and instability recovery are verydifferent thanthey were 10 years ago, then there’s that whole spotting thing that is a wee bit different for wingsuiters.

The second is most all wingsuit flyers have far different canopies than what the canopy discussion is about for a lot of reasons; however similar the wingsuit size/canopy size conversation may be, and our possible need to have a similar conversation about the wing area versus experience requirements, but, only Gary Connery’s landing one. Everyone else is landing their big ass parachute. Also, no other discipline is causing the amount of damage to aircraft or insurance claims at such an alarming rate. How often does a FF or CRW dog hit the tail?

So what? So… there’re a lot more for these newbs to learn before they just go zipping on a suit like it was back in the “Wingsuit Cowboy” or “BodyBag” days, where even if you rocked your flight you may have had trouble getting back from a long spot downwind. I haven’t heard of any freeflyers or trackers flying into oblivion landing miles away from the DZ recently, have you? It’s just about all most hear these days about these new prom dresses.

PD New Beginning

One of the first things I teach in my WS FJC is that the easiest way to get hurt in skydiving, is to land off the airport. Well, how far you can get off the airport these days if you do a high pull (like pull out the door), and go the wrong way? These new suits aren’t too far off from that. The larger wingsuit schools that provide this structured learning environment have had great success in their training methodology, and I think we have a few good ideas (at what a very minimum) noobs should be required for to learn. I’ve been flying something pretty much as long as I can remember, and I’ve never seen a more clear and present need for such a standard.

This information is already out there, and really I think we should create the standard before it’s done for us by theFAA. Has anyone heard about what regulations are like in other countries? Only the U.S. doesn’t have a standard. Pretty soon, if we don’t have a good example to follow, we’re likely to be given one that’s been proven elsewhere. That is not what anyone wants. At the BOD meeting about this, a spokesman for the20%said they moved to the U.S. to avoid the tight restrictions regarding jump numbers, and wingsuits that are present in his home country. I don’t blame him, and I couldn’t agree more! I don’t think any of us want to see overregulation like there is in other countries around the world. I think the best thing we can do is have a standard level of knowledge and training required to fly a wingsuit, which a USPA Rating would ensure.

The other thing we need is accountability and responsibility. I think that a higher level of professionalism in the wingsuit training industry is a welcomed and warranted thing. I think we can, and should, handle this together. Sure, there are some guys who can figure out how to do this pretty quickly, but we now have to plan on the gamer/couch potato/YouTube crackgrinders that we see so many of these days to avoid problems as we have seen in the past. We are into uncharted territory, and I personally, would like to have our shit together, and in place when the day does come that we need it. This only affects those that want to teach btw, and if you’re not at least a USPA coach, you shouldn’t be teaching anyone anyways.

So what’s up with these USPA meetings and petition crap? Well, that’s another long story. But we can sum it up pretty quickly. There was a “for” club, and an “against” club. Many people didn’t really have all the information, but decided their position on the opinions of others, going so far as to say that I was even put on a list, I never signed up for. Let’s quell all that silliness.

Rich Winstock, USPA National Director and Chair of the Wingsuit Instructor Rating Committee, recently had this to say in a statement for this article: ‘After several hundred emails, questionnaires, phone calls, and personal conversations, 80%of all responses received supports [sic] a USPA Wingsuit Instructor rating, 20%are in favor of self regulation. The problem is the 20%against the rating are louder, motivated, and more visible.’ Rich also went on to say, ‘If you speak to someone about this topic, be sure to ask questions. Make sure their motives are pure and represent the safety of the wingsuiting community and skydivers as a whole. The data is available and speaks for itself, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to make an educated decision. It is tough but try to stay clear of people with personal agendas, they are just clouding the issue.’ Winstock also, by the way, spent a lot of time, effort, and energy on trying to help the wingsuit community when he really didn’t have to. We should all remember that come election time. Hellwe don’t even want to deal with our drama. There really aren’t many reasons to be in favor of self regulation once you have seen the facts, unless you have some very specific intentions. Who now thinks AFF was a bad idea? Here’s a couple other things the 20% didn’t agree upon. Facts and statistics.

There were a dozen or so tail strikes in 2011—all verified by USPA, then called into question by the 20%. That number is not cool. We need to fix this. We also now have the largest skydive insurance company stating that if the current trend of wingsuit/aircraft incidents is not curbed, they will no longer cover aircraft allowing wingsuit operations. I was worried about theFAA, but it seems that private companies, who actually have to pay out on insurance claims from these incidents, are asking for standardized training immediately to provide them with an option other than no longer insuring aircraft that allow wingsuiting. Fortunately, before theFAAdid, but they’re sure to be shortly behind if the insurance companies are already there.

There will be a question on the November USPA ballot, asking “Should USPA adopt a standardized wingsuit instructor rating?” Without standards, we cannot show insurers nor theFAAthat we have training procedures and standards students are taught by. Without this, we may not be flying our wingsuits out of aircraft in the U.S. in the not so distant future. Vote to solve the problem, not see the end of wingsuiting as we know it. The time for action isNOW. I’ve spent a few years watching this discipline develop to where it is today, maybe you’ve seen one of my pictures, or been one of my students. I very much look forward to us all seeing where this is headed in the years to come, and doing my best to keep as many of you coming along safe as I can. Let’s find ourselves working toward a common goal of just trying to keep teaching a little better, flying together just a little tighter, and be a little better. Start teaching new members of our nutjob family better than we were. This can bring us all back together, and out the other side, hopefully not smelling like bird shit.


Scotty Burns

Z-Flock Wingsuit School

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