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Wingsuit Cutaway Following an Unrecoverable Spin

Steve's Zulu-122 headed for a night in a tree
Steve's Zulu-122 headed for a night in a tree
Written by Kolla

Steve Hubbard, a jumper at Skydive DeLand recently attended a Wingsuit Speed Camp at Skydive DeLand, hosted by Jay Moledzki, Carlos Pedro Briceño, and Rob Heron – all well-known and highly experienced wingsuiters.
The camp split up in groups based on experience level, and in the video below, Steve was flying with Jay Moledzki and another jumper as a part of the experienced group. Shortly after exit, the third jumper fell quite a bit behind and was not in the mix for the rest of the jump. Nearing break off, Steve makes a small movement to check his airspace and locate Jay, which results in an unrecoverable spin.  Steve responded by deploying the main canopy to get out of the spin. Unsurprisingly, the main opened with a few line twists, and following the cutaway, Steve landed safely under his reserve.

Steve's Zulu-122 headed for a night in a tree

Steve’s Zulu-122 headed for a night in a tree

Instead of sweeping this one under the rug and acting like nothing happened (getting harder and harder to do in this GoPro age!), Steve immediately posted up the video and agreed to share his recollection of the jump so that other wingsuiters flying the big suits all out may review what took place and learn from it – thank you, Steve!

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Information about Steve and his equipment:

  • Number of jumps: 1400 jumps, of that 700 wingsuit jumps
  • Ratings and licenses: D-license, AFF instructor, Coach
  • Currency: Jumps every weekend – one of those “never been uncurrent” people. Averaging approximately 400 jumps per year.
  • Wingsuit: Tony Suits Jedei (about 150 jumps on that particular suit)
  • Rig: Aerodyne Icon I3
  • Main: Aerodyne Zulu 122
  • Reserve: Aerodyne Smart LPV 150 (the LPV designates a low bulk version)
  • AAD: Airtec Cypres 2

Steve notes that while the Zulu is not an appropriate wingsuit canopy for the masses, it can be safely used by experienced wingsuiters. In this particular case, probably only a round would have stood a chance of a clean deployment.  On a happy note, all gear was recovered, even if the main had to spend a night in a tree.

After the jump, Steve mentioned that he mostly felt relief that it was over. During the jump everything happened so quickly that there really was no time to think about the what to do. It was a matter of assessing the situation quickly and respond almost immediately. That is where skills, currency and experience come into play.  Steve did note that losing control like this is pretty uncommon for experienced pilots, but that it clearly does happens. This was the first time in Steve’s 700 wingsuit jumps that he had experienced being out of control in this manner. The procedure to handle a flat spin – and more importantly how to avoid one – is (or should be!) taught at every First Flight Course.

 

Fly Sight Data from the jump

Fly Sight Data from the jump

Steve Hubbard’s recollection of the jump: 

This was the last jump on day one of the Wingsuit Speed Camp held at Skydive Deland, hosted by Carlos Pedro Briceño, Jay Moledzki, and Rob Heron. Things had been progressing nicely throughout the jumps earlier in the day, with the groups getting tighter and faster. On the last jump of the day, we really wanted to push it and end the day on a very strong note, setting the stage for the remaining 2 days of the camp. 

On the jump, everything started out very typical, just faster than the previous jumps. Jay was flying faster, which made me have to fly faster. I was working hard to stay in my assigned slot in our formation (forward and to the left of Jay). We were flying strong, yet relaxed, and according to Jay’s FlySight data, we reached speeds of 150 MPH horizontally. As the jump continued, we executed our turns with no real issues. There were a couple of points where I slipped a little out of slot, but was able to come back and slide back in with little problem – everything was going great.

Once we made our final turn on to the return leg of our planned flight, we really turned up the speeds, as we had been doing on earlier jumps. Things were feeling great. I got a bit out in front of Jay and wanted to maintain visual contact with him and this is where the trouble started.

Once out in front, I turned my head to look back at Jay, but couldn’t see him. He was blocked by my right arm wing. Not a real problem – I could just lift up my shoulder, which should clear my view and I’ll be able to see where he is. Sure enough, that worked. Once I had Jay in my sights again, I returned my focus to straight ahead and attempted to return to my standard flight position, lowering my right arm back down to where it should be. In doing that, I over-corrected and my right shoulder dipped lower than it should have, allowing the 150+ MPH wind to hit the top of my shoulder arm wing, pushing me way off axis. This can be clearly seen in the video – when my right shoulder is far below my left I look almost sideways!  After reviewing the jump videos and talking to several highly experienced wingsuiters, it is that moment – where my right shoulder was below my left that was the beginning of the end. I tried to correct the situation, knowing that this could get bad quickly. I rushed that correction and that’s what started my roll (which you can also see in the video, from both perspectives).

Despite everything happening incredibly fast (all this took place in about 2 seconds), I till realize how much trouble I was in. Once the roll started, at those speeds, there really was no recovering it for me, but I tried everything I could think of in the moment. It seemed anything I did only made the situation worse. I was able to stop the rolling, but that only put me on my back, in an uncontrolled flat spin. It was here when I knew I was in major trouble. Thankfully, I had a fairly clear idea of where I was, altitude wise. The roll started at approximately 4500’ and the flat spin started very shortly after that. In the middle of the flat spin, while trying to recover and fly out of it, I had so many things going through my mind at what seemed like lightning fast speeds, yet I could very clearly hear my audible altimeter beeping at the prescribed altitudes – I heard my 4000’ alarm go off shortly after everything started, and then I heard my 3500’ alarm go off some time after that. At some point, between my 3500’ alarm and my final 2500’ alarm, I came to the realization that recovery and stability was just not going to happen – I had to resort to plan B.

Plan B. Yikes. I completely abandoned whatever stability I was hoping to obtain and immediately ran through every option I had. All I could hear is the voice of my mentor and friend, Scotty Burns, who taught me how to wingsuit. 2 things stuck out in my mind. First was that if you stay in a flat spin long enough, you run the risk of passing out, due to the centrifugal forces of the spin. The more violent the spin, the less time you have. My friends and I counted, after I was down on the ground – I did 21 rotations in 13 seconds – I don’t know if that would be considered violent, but it sure seemed pretty fast to me. I knew I had to end the spin one way or the other, and I had to do so fast. The second thing I remember Scotty telling me was that if you ever go completely unstable, you need to get a canopy out – this will at least slow things down and make them more manageable.

So my decision was made. I knew going to my reserve in that state was out of the question. I had to get my hand to my pilot chute and get my main canopy out, one way or the other. Now this sounds easy enough, but factor in the centrifugal forces from the spin and the massive inflation in the arm wings of the suit – this was no simple task. I estimate that it took me about 5 dedicated seconds to get my hands back to my pilot chute. Once I felt my hacky, I immediately deployed my main canopy, already knowing that there was no way this was going to come out cleanly and that I was certainly going to have to cut away – I was willing to sacrifice my main canopy for some semblance of stability. The main canopy came out (you can see it deploying over my right shoulder), yet the fun wasn’t over yet. As the canopy deployed, because of the spin, the lines were dragged across my helmet, from the right side to the left, and in doing so, it snagged on something – I’m still not quite sure what, but all of a sudden, my head was being pulled to the right. I now had to clear the snag before I cut away the main canopy, which had opened in an incredible amount of line twists and almost immediately started diving at the ground. I estimate that I was at approximately 2500’ when the main canopy came and stopped my flat spin – but the important thing is that it STOPPED MY FLAT SPIN.

I estimate that it took me approximately 3-5 seconds to clear the lines that were caught on my helmet, which allowed the canopy to come out in front of my, with my head going between the risers, giving me a brief view of the canopy – no good. It had line twists practically up the entire line set, from risers to canopy. Again – I was fully expecting a main canopy malfunction, so the view up the lines was just out of habit and to confirm. I immediately reached for my cutaway and reserve handles, pulled one, then the other, and AMAZINGLY, I had one of the best reserve canopy deployments I have ever seen. On heading, no line twists, flying straight and stable and it even had the courtesy of aiming me directly back to the dropzone, giving me a chance to land in a clear and open area.

Once the reserve was out and I realized that the situation was finally under control, I took a second to collect myself. I unzipped my arms from the wingsuit and looked at my altimeter – it read just above 1100’. To be honest, I really expected to be much lower than that – it felt that so much time had passed – I was truly surprised. I unzipped my legs from the suit and landed safely.

In the end, the important things I think to take from my ordeal are these.

  1. Pay attention to your training and NEVER, EVER get complacent. You’ll never know when you’ll need it.
  2. Even when things go wrong, it is vital to keep your composure and do your best to stay calm. Panicking will only make things worse.
  3. And maybe most importantly, you need to analyze your options, make the best decision you can, based on your training, knowledge, and experience, and once your decision is made on how to act, execute that decision, immediately. You can’t afford to wait. You’ll run out of time and altitude before you know it.

Hopefully this experience will help my fellow wingsuiters in some fashion – be safe everyone! 

 

12 Comments

  • “Steve notes that while the Zulu is not an appropriate wingsuit canopy for the masses, it can be safely used by experienced wingsuiters”
    This is an arguement morons use to justify poor decisions. Over years and years we experienced nasty openings on even smaller wingsuits. Here you can watch the result, an completely uncontrolled opening with a high-performance canopy. Of course, the opening with a conservative 7cell could have be entangled. Of course, this could have resulted in a reserve ride with a 7cell, too. But the spin wo be less fast and the loss of altitude would be a lot less…

    • Dan,

      I guess I am a moron? That’s awfully nice of you to say, considering you’ve never met me. But anyways, I digress. I’m not sure how many wingsuit (or non-wingsuit) skydives you have, but picture this. You’re at 2500 feet, spinning uncontrollably on your back. You know you have to get a canopy out, and going to your reserve in that situation is basically leaving you with no other options – so you naturally want to/have to get your main canopy out, so you still leave the option of cutting away and going to your reserve. My main did exactly what it was supposed to do in that situation – it got me out of the spin. I don’t care what kind of main I had – I was spinning at 2 rotations per second – I could have dumped a Navigator in that situation and it would have done EXACTLY the same thing and would have required a cutaway (remember the aforementioned 2500′?) Now include the deployment altitude of 700-800′ and the altitude that it took me to physically cutaway – I estimate that I chopped at about 1500′, give or take. Would you really have taken the time to try to get out of line twists below 2000′? If so, with all due respect, I would call YOU the moron. Not me. I knew when I made the decision to go to my main that it would come out in massive line twists and, considering my altitude, I would waste no time in chopping.

      That is how I decided to deal with the situation, and as it turned out, everything worked out exactly as expected, and I’m here to talk about it. I must have done something right.

      • The moron comment was not called for.

        I think what he was saying is that with a larger 7 – cell canopy less altitude would be lost during the time that you were connected to the malfunctioning main. This is a valid point and should factor in to a jumpers calculus when selecting a canopy.

  • I have very few WS jumps, but couldn’t this have been fixed by closing all wings (arms and legs) for a few seconds , so as to get stable again? Thanks

  • Steve,
    You did what you had to do to save your life. I’ve lost too many friends in this sport because of poor decisions.

    You were altitude aware. You did what you had to do to get some fabric above your head to begin correcting your problem. You were prepared for the malfunction. You successfully did your EP’s. You walked away with experience (and footage) in a situation that will certainly be a valuable lesson to someone else. I’m glad you’re ok! Thanks for sharing.

  • Some of the newer large wingsuits are designed to inflate quickly and remain as pressurized as possible. It’s not uncommon for leg wings to not be collapsible in flight, and with the centrifugal forces in a spin, collapsing the arms becomes much more difficult. Does this mean that the banana won’t often work in large suits?

  • Excellent article and I have <200ws jumps. Learned a lot for sure. A couple points. 1- get something out and over your head is what I learned in training. 2- Bring it all in. Altitude permitting I instinctively would have closed up and started falling. Those are the two emergency procedures I have etched in my head. (3ish)- Is that technically a flat spin? I had a different interpretation of what a flat spin is. Thanks so much for sharing with us. Hope to flock with you soon!

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