An unplanned water landing is a frightening scenario for many skydivers; it’s one of the reasons that live water training is required for a USPA B License (If you didn’t truly get wet when working on your USPA B license, your instructors weren’t doing you or anyone else any favors). Add a wingsuit to the mix and it’s enough to give pause to even the most experienced skydiver.
In 2010 alone, we’ve had three known unintentional wingsuit water entries in the USA. Wingsuits can fly further than skydivers can, and water is an attractive hazard to fly-over. Toss in a low deployment, restricted movement, and some adrenaline and a normal skydive can get really exciting really fast.
OK, so it’s not quite the same as Houdini and his locks, and skydiving in a “prom dress” or freefall in a straight jacket isn’t nearly as difficult as some make it out to be.
However, emergency situations do require a different approach.
Wingsuit skydivers should pre-plan for an unintentional water landing even if flight over water isn’t an issue at their home DZ. A boogie or other special event may put wingsuit pilots into unfamiliar situations where water is present.
Flotation devices should be a part of that pre-planning process if over-water flights are a common occurrence. Bear in mind that CO2 cartridges cannot be carried on commercial aircraft, and this factor alone makes using flotation devices a challenge for the traveling skydiver.
USPA TRAINING and RECOMMENDATIONS
Section 6.2 of the USPA Skydiver Instruction Manual (SIM) guidance for unintentional water landings tells us to:
a. Continue to steer to avoid the water hazard.
b. Activate the flotation device, if available.
c. Disconnect the chest strap to facilitate getting out of the harness after landing in the water.
d. Disconnect the reserve static line (if applicable) to reduce complications in case the main needs to be cut away after splashing down.
e. Steer into the wind.
f. Loosen the leg straps slightly to facilitate getting out of the harness after splashing down.
(1) If you loosen the leg straps too much, you may not be able to reach the toggles.
(2) Do not unfasten the leg straps until your feet are in the water.
g. Prepare for a PLF, in case the water is shallow (it will be nearly impossible to determine the depth from above).
h. Flare to half brakes at ten feet above the water (this may be difficult to judge, due to poor depth perception over the water).
i. Enter the water with your lungs filled with air.
j. After entering the water, throw your arms back and slide forward out of the harness.
(1) Remain in the harness and attached to the canopy until actually in the water.
(2) If cutting away (known deep water only), do so only after both feet contact the water.
(3) If flotation gear is not used, separation from the equipment is essential.
k. Dive deep and swim out from under the collapsed canopy.
All of these same procedures apply when wearing a wingsuit, yet preparations for an unintentional water landing don’t stop there. We still got work to do.
PRIOR TO ENTERING THE WATER
It goes without saying that the best way to avoid a water landing is to avoid being over the water. However, sometimes it cannot be avoided.
In addition to the previously mentioned, USPA-recommended actions, the wingsuit should be unzipped as much as possible prior to landing. This includes armwings, legwings, and body zippers if possible. Do not pull the cutaway/release cables on the wingsuit (assuming the wingsuit has cutaway cables, not all do) if the arms can be unzipped. An armwing that has been cut away will be much more difficult to move and unzip once it has filled with water and your arms are still in the sleeves (For example, the newest Phoenix-fly wingsuit arms might be cut away, as they detach the full wing from the arm, but the arm will still be inside a foam sleeve making it difficult to swim).
The tailwing may act as a drag point and force the upper body forward, putting the skydiver on his belly. Enter the water with feet and knees together.
Flying at half brakes should allow the canopy to continue forward. Do not flare. Take a deep breath prior to entering the water.
AFTER ENTERING THE WATER
The canopy is a potential point of entanglement. It is recommended that a main canopy be cut away once you are fully in the water. If there is a current, this will prevent the main from dragging you along with it. A reserve cannot be cut away without a hook knife (if you are going to carry a hook knife, carry a metal, not plastic hook knife. A $5.00 hook knife will not do the job).
Roll backward or sideways onto your back. If you have not deployed the reserve, the reserve will keep you floating for approximately 30 minutes in fresh water, longer in saltwater. With the tail (and perhaps the armwings) potentially being still inflated, being on your back will prevent the tail and rig from forcing your face into the water. Try to remain calm, breathe deeply and begin the process of removing goggles, helmet, and legstraps (chest strap if it was not undone in the air).
The arm and legwings of a three-wing style wingsuit are similar to a ram-air parachute; there is an inlet and air fills the cells. These same inlets and cells can fill with water as easily as they fill with air. Although water in the cells alone will not cause the wingsuit to sink, movement of the wing will cause the suit to be dragged downward. This means that attempting to tread water will drag you under. Do not attempt to tread water, but rather keep your legs motionless.
If there is any current, it is imperative that you stay on your back and try to keep your head upstream. Keeping the legs apart will help achieve this goal. Even a slow current will move your body very fast. Remaining calm is perhaps the most important aspect of clearing the suit and surviving.
Once you are fully unzipped and your legstraps loose, slide your rig and armwings off. After the upper body has been freed, “sit down” in the rig and suit to put you head-high. This allows the torso to roll forward so that it’s possible to dive deep and away from the rig, allowing the legs to escape from the legstraps and tailwing.
Although the USPA SIM instructs skydivers to swim away from their rig, I have made the personal choice that I will not swim away from my rig if the reserve has not been deployed. It may be used as a flotation device and might be the difference between life and death. I will cut away the main canopy and swim away from the main.
This is my personal decision and is in opposition to USPA recommendations. Follow at your own risk.
During the various water experiments, there were a total of 49 water entries in various conditions and wingsuits, all with a rig or dummy rig in place, many with a main canopy attached. Performance Designs Sabre II, Silhouette, and Storm canopies were used.
We jumped into still water 18’ deep, 6’ deep, current pools 34” and 24” deep with speeds up to 7 knots. We also jumped into wave pools with swells of up to 3’, which are small to moderate compared to coastline swells.
During these entries, three things became clear;
~Go into the water with as many zippers undone as possible. Your chest strap should also be undone for best possible speed once in the water. while this may seem logical, in at least two of the three unintentional water landings, the wingsuiter forgot to unzip arms while dealing with other issues.
~Get onto your back as quickly as you can. Stay on your back as legstraps, zippers, helmet releases, and goggles are removed. You may want to consider leaving the helmet on if in moving water and head protection is needed.
~Take a deep, calming breath. Even though my experiments were intentional water landings, they were still nerve-wracking when the suits were fully zipped up. Being jittery is entirely likely. Staying calm and keeping heart and breathing rates down may easily be the difference in survival, particularly in cold water.
~Be sure to stay clear of the canopy and lines. Currents may drag the canopy around a bit. Rescuers might have an easier time finding you if they can spot the canopy in the water so staying somewhat near but well clear of canopy and lines is a good idea. A hook knife should be part of your kit.
~When landing in water that has a current, try to keep your head upstream while getting out of the suit. Leave the helmet on to protect your head from rocks and other objects. Stay as far away from the canopy as possible. This is easier said than done. Note that in the video, the current combined with the canopy drag was more than two men could manage even in shallow water. This is where a hook knife would be beneficial.
~If the rig has a reserve still packed in it, it will float. It also is very easy to escape once the legstraps are undone, as it will remain on top of the water as you dive forward away from the container.
In conclusion, if over-water wingsuit flights are planned, seriously consider a floatation device. They will not have a significant impact on the comfort of the suit, and are not relatively expensive. ParaGear, ChutingStar, and other skydiving supply shops sell these devices. Remember that CO2 cartridges may not be carried aboard a commercial flight, so you’ll need to source or ship cartridges to your final destination.
If a flotation device is not part of your gear/kit, have an advance plan in the event of a water landing. There have been at least three known unintentional water landings in the US this year; only through luck and calm procedures did the wingsuiters survive. Read the Incident Report below to see how one survivor described his experiences and how multiple errors led him into the water.
Big puffies and blue skies (and calm waters, I suppose)!
douglas spotted eagle is a USPA AFFI, Coach Examiner, PRO, and PFC Senior Examiner (North America) on staff at Skydive Elsinore.
Student’s Incident report:
My age: 31
Years in the sport: 4.5 yrs.
# of skydives: 287
# of Wingsuit SD’s: 7
# of BASE: 70+
I recently purchased a new Phantom2 Pheonix fly wingsuit and was super eager to get in the air. I got to the DZ and got on the first available load which was a 10 minute call.
On any typical skydive, an immediete 10 minute call upon arrival isn’t so bad, but setting up a wingsuit system quickly is not a great idea….but i did.
Mistake #1: I forced myself to have to rush to get on a load to do a technical jump for no apparent reason. In the end, I don’t think my rushed preparation lead to the actual situation, but
I guess my mind wasn’t where it should have been.
I was the last to exit from 12,500′. I had a really great (mostly stable) flight, flying around some clouds.
At pull time, like most jumps, I was out over the ocean. I took one last look at my wrist alti at 5K’.
Based on my audibles 4000′ warning, I’m guessing I was open between 3500′-3000′.
Mistake #2: I shouldn’t have pulled that low with a WS on with my low experience level.
Mistake #3: I have made 6 previous WS jumps. All more than 2.5 years ago. I did not physically or mentally dirt dive this jump before getting on the plane.
After a stable pull (I felt), I immediatley opended with line twists.
I’ve had line twist before with this canopy/harness (Sabre 1, 150; 9 cell/Infinity dom;1997) and was able to kick out of them in the past.
This line twist began to accelerate instantly. I made 3-4 attempts to kick out of it, but with the restricted movement of my legs in the WS, and spinning horizontally around the canopy, it didn’t do much at all.
Mistake #4: I was under too small of a canopy for a WS jump. My exit weight= 240lbs. Wind loading= 1.6. I should have been under a more docile (7 cell), or larger canopy.
So, having no luck with my kick attemps, I chopped it. It took me a few seconds to locate my handles (one hand on each).
In my haste, I did a “T-Rex” style cut-away. As soon as I saw my right riser clear, I let go of the handle and pulled the reserve (also “T-rex”). Obviously leading to my main still dragging off my left shoulder.
Mistake #5: I was jumping a borrowed rig. Although I’ve had about 20 uneventful (other than line twist) jumps with this rig. I wasn’t really familiar with it.
Mistake #6: Probably the biggest one. I DID NOT CLEAR MY CUT AWAY CABLE/HANDLE COMPLETELY!
Mistake #7: This goes right along with the above…Pulling my reserve WAY TOO SOON!
I think because of my slightly slower descent rate (caused by my main still being attached), and my reserve already fired, I felt the second set of risers bouncing around on my head and saw all the lines whipping infront of my face.
As the reserve was slowly coming to line stretch, the lines were beggining to entangle with my helmet (actually the camera on my helmet)
Mistake #8: Wearing a camera on a “student” WS jump.
With the lines still “somewhat” relaxed, I thought of dumping my helmet but instead I picked/brushed the lines off the camera, clearing them. A split second later, I felt the canopy pressurize and go to complete line stretch.
Instantly, the reserve risers had forced my head completly forward, making my chin squeeze into my neck. I knew I had MAJOR line twists on my reserve now too.
So now, I’m under one collapsed main still dragging off my left riser, and one tightly twisted up reserve to my right side, still fully zipped into my WS, and I’m getting choked from behind by the reserve risers and can’t lift my head to see any of it.
I kinew I wasn’t “falling” anymore and that the canopies were not entagled.
I don’t know, but the reserve must have been “un-spinning” because the pressure was slowly coming off the back of my neck and the twist opened up enough to squeeze my head back through, behind the risers.
Mistake #9: Not sure if I could have prevented this one. If my arms had been unzipped and out of the wings (which they weren’t) I may have been able to reach back during the reserve deployment, and guided the risers in-front of my head before pressurization.
At this point, my first objective was to finally cut the main off so I could get completely out of my reserve line twists. The main was still being held on by 1cm of ripcord cable still in the three ring release closing loop.
In any case…I was focused on getting that last tinny bit of rip cord out of the closing loop. I had “tunnel” vision on trying to pick at the centimeter of cord. There was too much tension on the riser so I couldn’t get it out.
I was definetly not thinking clearly at that moment. ALL I had to do was find my cut-away handle floating behind me and pull it another 1/4 inch.
In retrospect, the dragging main (acting like an anchor) may have kept my reserve from continuing to twist and spin me into the ground/water. I’m not sure if completely cutting away at that point would have been any better.
Mistake #10: Had I been thinking clearly, I would have found my handle and finished the job of cutting away.
At this point I stopped all attemps to correct anything. I saw that I was about 300 yards(?) of the beach, over the water at about 500-300′(?) up. I knew I was going for a swim.
The swell was small (2-3′), but definetly was not flat and calm. In preparation for my mid day swim, I started unzipping everything…chest, arms, legs, chest strap. I then reached above the reserve line twist, grabbed the rear/right line set and did a “rear riser” turn towards the visibly shallower water over the reef.
I dont know if that helped at all because I pretty much felt like I was under a round canopy with no directional control. I just knew i was drifting towards the reef now.
Not knowing the shallowness above the reef gave me a second of pucker factor, but at this point I had not much control or time anyway.
I then did a “backwards” PLF (obviously with no flare, toggles still stowed and twisted).
I slammed the water pretty hard….
Mistake #11: Although this is what saved me from serious impact, I landed in the water with a WS on….not good!
While I was underwater, my wingsuit quickly turned into a tunasuit, but before I even had time to deal with the next hurdle……..I stood up.
I was now standing 300 yards out in the surf, in 3 feet of water with both canopies attached and the WS on, all filled with water.
I was getting dragged in-land with the swell a little bit, but had plenty of time to finally cut-away the main and completely step out of the WS.
I saw all the scrambling of people on the shore. I was soon reached by a couple of skydivers and a rescue kayak. We loaded up the rig on to the kayak and swam back to shore.
Mistake #12: I probably should have made my first priority to un-zip my wings. Although, at no point did I feel like they were restaining my movement (until i wanted to steer towards the reef).
I guess I unzipped them right when I had a moment and thought it was totally needed.
Massive thanks to:
Lake Elsinore Casino
Tooele City Pool
Joey Allred, Aaron Hutmacher, Jose Calderon, Mannie Frances, Karl Dollmeyer, Scotty Burns, Chuck Blue, Jarno Cordia, Bence Pascu, Joe Turner, Frank Hinshaw, T.K. Hinshaw, Tom Deacon, Jim Crouch, Jack Guthrie, Scott Callantine, Jeanie Curtis, Mike Harlon, Chris Squires, Robert Pecnik, Jeff Donohue, and Andreea Olea.