From The Mag

The Rewards of a Mentorship

Written by Moe Viletto

Online Reprint

Originally printed in issue #110 (February 2019) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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More of Moe’s Monday Memoirs.

I have had many opportunities over the last 37-plus years to teach or mentor BASE jumpers. Early in those years, training was relatively simple. Those of us helping to pioneer the sport knew very little to begin with so there was not a lot of technical information to pass on. We were pretty much hucking our asses off shit with a few minor modifications to our skydiving gear. Most of this “testing” was done in the dark. Some of us were lucky enough to have VHS cameras to at least get some sort of grainy video to assess our test results. Quite a different use of cameras these days.

In today’s “I want it my way and I want it NOW” society, it’s not uncommon to see newbies show up at the DZ with the goal to wingsuit BASE. With social media’s influx of instantaneous “look at me” videos, the number of those newbies is increasing. (So are the deaths.) One problem is many people don’t understand the commitment necessary to participate in a safeish manner—wingsuit or not.

Early BASE jumpers were considered lunatics for only using one parachute, let alone jumping from ridiculously low altitudes compared to skydiving. Today we pretty much have the gear end of things figured out. Of course, the gear will continue to evolve, as more aspects of the sport develop and evolve as well. More than enough of our sisters and brothers have given life and limb for us to learn and progress.

Also today, mentoring has taken a backseat to all the accelerated courses being offered (with little or no follow-up instruction), as well as lower-experienced people “teaching” the no-experienced. Most of the reputable first-jump courses out there inform the student that follow-up training is necessary. But once the student has a tidbit of firsthand knowledge, immersed themself in a ton of videos and has an opportunity to jump something they are not ready for, they usually jump at the chance. Yes, pun intended.

Although! There is a new movement trying to take hold to bring mentoring back. FIND A QUALIFIED MENTOR and attach yourself to her or his hip. And don’t be shy about challenging her or him. A good mentor should have an open mind and be willing to evolve as the technology and the sport evolves as well. A good mentor should assess your overall skills and train you as an individual, based on those skills acquired in AND out of skydiving.

Usually when someone shows up at my drop zone and seeks me out with wingsuit BASE on their mind, I pretty much diss them and become the “grumpy old man.” I slither away hoping they will leave me alone. I have no interest in fueling their fire. In August 2012, a 23-year-old Andy Kenny was one such individual. Or so I thought. He was not the average “Joe Yahoo” though. He was polite, attentive and not foaming at the mouth. He had a degree in electrical engineering. He was also into and quite good at snowboarding, skateboarding, ice hockey and mountain biking. He had made a tandem jump two years earlier when he was 21. I enjoy training students with a history of high-energy sports. They seem easier to teach. They have kinesthetic sense. They understand how to be taught. A student mindset, if you will. They more than likely have been injured at some point and hopefully learned from their mistakes.

Andy also drove a sporty car with a standard transmission. How does that help you ask? Driving a stick requires anticipation of the road’s geography and traffic, feel and feedback, and eye-, hand- and foot-coordination. Starting out on a hill without drifting back or lurching forward. Knowing and adjusting speed related to being in the proper gear. A more delicate touch as opposed to driving an automatic. Driving is a dangerous activity that requires skills we don’t even think about … once we have acquired those skills and use them with maturity.

As time passed, I kept my eye on him and as I noticed his ego was in check, I started to open up to him. Eventually, his parents (who were roughly my age) came to the DZ to watch him jump. I met them and sensed a solid family unit and continued to monitor Andy’s progression.

He moved smoothly through AFF and when it came time for him to order gear, he consulted with me. I asked him if BASE was still his goal and, if so, he should get skydiving equipment with BASE in mind. He said he was willing to do whatever it took to proceed as safely as possible. I suggested he buy an oversized (for him) PD Storm 210. This canopy would allow for deep-braked landings along with a full control range. He could have purchased a 170, but a larger and lighter loaded canopy would perform closer to a BASE canopy.

When he got his skydiving gear, I had him land off target, on a slight slope, with trees, a fence and a building nearby. (Actually, that’s pretty much our DZ’s landing area anyway!) I asked him to attempt stand-up landings with no run out and purposeful foot placement. Of course, do a PLF if necessary and don’t force a stand-up landing. Every step you take in a harsh BASE environment could cause an injury. Andy continued to progress very well.

At this point I agreed to mentor him under the following conditions. We would have a GOAL to wingsuit BASE, but NO SCHEDULE as to when that would happen.

I tell all my students that making the commitment to learn wingsuit BASE takes time and money. The more time and money you have, generally, the faster the progression. Too much time and too much money can also get you maimed or killed if those two components aren’t used wisely. I also tell them that life can get in the way. Just a few examples: Family, relationships, work, health—LIFE! I also tell them these three things: If you have never been hurt before, chances are you will eventually get hurt; if you have never been to jail, you just might end up in jail or court; and, you just might die … but we are all dying anyway so that doesn’t count. It’s just a matter of when. Hopefully it’s not on a BASE jump.

So yes, a goal but no schedule.

This would come much later.

The next step in the process was to watch and discuss two full DVDs of BASE carnage videos. We also went over firsthand accounts I have been a part of in some manner. (The new acronym for BASE is: Bones And Shit Everywhere.) This included horrible canopy and body collisions, brutal impacts with objects and crash landings. Gut-wrenching screams and jagged bones poking out. Loss of life. Loss of limb due to amputation. Suicides. Paralysis. As well as heroic rescues that were life endangering in their own right. After all the gore and death, I ask, “How would you like your mom or girlfriend to change your diapers, clean your bed sores and feed you with a spoon? Every day, for the rest of THEIR life. How greedy are you?” BASE demands greed to stay alive as well. Death is easy. Being a veg, not so much.

Next, I had him purchase “The Great Book of BASE” by Matt Gerdes (as I do with all my students, BEFORE making any BASE jumps) and read it cover to cover. Then read it again. I could ask to highlight all the important things but that would mean highlighting every word. (NOTE: The third edition is now available and this book is invaluable even if you are or think you are an experienced BASE jumper. I have had people read it and elect to NOT BASE jump. They understand the commitment.)

While teaching Andy how to assemble, inspect and pack his BASE gear, I noticed his keen interest in rigging—as he should have. BASE jumping is an extremely equipment-intensive sport. I taught him how to properly assemble, inspect and pack his own skydiving reserve. He has now met all the requirements to become a certified rigger. He quickly learned to operate all seven of my sewing machines. I pulled out my BASE harness-container patterns and with a bit of guidance, he built his own BASE rig.

As far as a BASE-specific parachute, I recommended buying a brand-new canopy with a proven design and history. Manufacturers can only do so much testing in-house, along with their sponsored test pilots, who might be somewhat biased. Once the product is put out to the masses, the real testing begins. WE, are the true test jumpers. If any issues are found in the field, the manufacturer gets the feedback and follows up with modifications or recommendations. It happens all the time in the skydiving environment. A design that has been on the market for years has proven itself.

Another advantage to buying new gear is traceability. When the gear comes from the manufacturer, you know the history. The manufacturer keeps records and tests various material lot numbers, dates of manufacture and other quality-control data. When buying used, you can only assume the history is true unless it was purchased by someone you know and trust. For example, an ad for a used rig might say it was only jumped 12 times before his wife made him quit. That may be true. But what you weren’t told was when the guy double femured and spent a month in the hospital, his rig spent hours cooking in the sun during rescue operations and a month in the trunk of his car baking in the Arizona heat next to a pair of jumper cables with battery-acid residue … but it only has 12 jumps on it! You don’t REALY KNOW the whole story.

All this time, Andy continued to skydive while practicing skills related to wingsuit BASE. He purchased a tracking suit in 2013 and started using it on jump 115. His first wingsuit jump was # 185. (I know, I know, it’s recommended to have 200 jumps before jumping a wingsuit. I hate making judgements on jump numbers alone. I evaluate my students individually, taking into account their other skills as well as the rate at which they learn. I know people with 500 jumps who shouldn’t even be driving a car, let alone jumping from a plane.) Andy continued to hone his skills. He also jumped his BASE canopy in a skydiving environment to understand all of its characteristics, still doing no-step, stand-up landings in a confined area.

I have a training apparatus I call the BASENATOR. It consists of two sections of scaffolding with a platform on top. It is set up under a large tree. The jumper wears a harness with a single point attachment between the shoulder blades. A combination of rope, bungee and belay are connected to the harness and to a tree branch which is higher than the platform. This allows for a more realistic way to practice exits. Of course, Andy boinged from this many times.

In October 2013 with 215 skydives we went bridge jumping and Andy continued to excel. Eventually other objects came into play as well. He also rolled an ankle and got that injury I promised. It wasn’t even a hostile landing environment. Sometimes shit just happens.

Andy went the extra mile and made dead-air exits from hot air balloons and helicopters with tracking and wingsuits.

In 2015 we planned a trip to Monte Brento in Italy. This site provides a relatively safeish environment to perform most any type of BASE jump.

Andy started off jumping slick with good exits and transitions to track, along with clean deployments and accurate tip-toe landings. On his one-hundredth BASE jump, he donned his tracking suit and was cruising along so well after making enough jumps to satisfy me, I said, “Andy, everything you have done and shown me up to this point has been spot on. You have made good choices and progressed very well. As your mentor, I feel you are ready to jump your wingsuit.” His answer nearly floored me. “I really don’t think I’m ready,” he stated confidently. My jaw dropped. “Wow,” I said, nearly in shock. Most students would have jumped up and down, yahooed at the tops of their lungs and said, “Let’s get it on!” In fact, he had left his wingsuit at home, as a safety valve, so it wouldn’t be a factor enticing him to go for it.

I responded, “As your mentor I can only evaluate your progress and give you advice as I have done in the past three years. I appreciate your being ultra conservative. Only you know for sure and I respect your decision.” Andy finished off the trip tracking his ass off.

The following summer in 2016 we planned on returning to Italy. Andy was more than wingsuit ready. His skills were well honed. Just before we were preparing to go I got food poisoning, passed out and bashed my head through a plaster wall, ending up with a concussion and seizures (life got in the way). I could not make the trip. I felt horrible for Andy’s sake. I said, “Look Andy, you have been there before. You know the ropes. You know the locals. You understand the weather. You make mature decisions. You know yourself. You should go.” With no hesitation, he declined and said we would go together next summer. Another decision that made me respect him even more.

In August 2017, five years after his first jump, we would accomplish our goal. Off to Monte Brento we went. Andy started off with a few tracking suit jumps. Donning his wingsuit, he performed flawlessly. After a few more solo jumps we did a 2-way together, during which I cried in freefall for only the second time in 47 years of parachuting.

High fives and happy landings!

A few jumps later, I dispersed Scotty Carbone’s remains for his first wingsuit BASE jump while Andy filmed it. I didn’t cry on this jump. I laughed. It took a lot of shaking to get Scotty to leave the bag. After seeing the video, his wife Tammy said, “He must have been enjoying the flight as long as possible before being set free!” I might have even heard Scotty chuckle a bit too.

Scotty Carbone’s ash dive. Photo by Andy Kenny.

The reward for me went way beyond helping Andy reach his goal. That time helped me sharpen my skills as a mentor. In fact, this story has become a part of my first-jump course so the rewards are spread to the next generation. During those five years I have gained a true friend. I don’t use the word “friend” lightly. It takes time to develop a solid friendship. I don’t have a lot of friends. I have many acquaintances. Friends can count on each other. The mentorship rewards were for both of us and continue to this day. My relationship with Lane Kent, who helped to mentor me back in the early ’80s, is as tight as it gets for over 3-plus decades. Find a mentor … find a friend … for life. Live it … Share it … Love it.

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