Preventing Death – The August Attrition
I lost a number of friends in August. Dead. Gone. Forever. I’d like to think these deaths could be preventable and I certainly don’t want to follow their fate. I’ve made a plan to survive.
5 wingsuit pilots died in a 7 day period in August 2013. I call it the August Attrition. It’s a phenomenal number. What’s worse is that they were all experienced BASE jumpers and competent wingsuit pilots. They were current and good at what they did. They weren’t the cowboy jumpers that didn’t have the skills and shouldn’t have been there. Yet they paid the ultimate price for living their dreams and achieving human flight.
By my count that’s 18 BASE jumpers that have died this year. In 2012 there was a total of 21 – I already think that that’s too high yet we’re on target to exceed that figure this year. In August 2012 there were 3 BASE fatalities worldwide yet in August 2013 there are 5 in 7 days. There were more fatalities in August after these 5 and there have been other experienced jumpers that have suffered some serious injuries. What are we, the BASE jumping and wingsuit community, doing? Certainly, we’re doing something wrong.
I only knew 2 of those that died personally. The first was Mark Sutton, the James Bond stunt double. I’d only messaged with him about his flights in Brevent, Chamonix a few days before. He’d been flying some pretty hardcore lines with success. He was current and competent and a hugely down-to-earth and fantastic guy.
I also knew Mario Richard, a Canadian that lived in the US. He was one of my BASE jumping instructors and I remember in detail as my legs shook when I turned up to Vertigo, in Florida, for my ground school with him. He quickly whipped us into shape and helped me get to where I am today. We were emailing earlier this year about working on a project together but had yet to put the details in place.
In wingsuit BASE jumping, pushing the limits too far in a non-permissive, non-forgiving environment with no outs often results in fatal consequences. Aggressive lines can still be flown well but, when some of the best have now checked out for good, we need to understand the risk in detail and mitigate it accordingly.
I love to fly my wingsuit in the mountains. I have found nothing more fulfilling or providing more freedom. Despite this increase in fatality rate I have a plan:
- Currency. While I believe this wasn’t a factor in the August Attrition, currency is paramount. I plan to take steps to remain current, visualise during my down time and progressively increase the technicality of my jumps, particularly when I’m not 100% current.
- Complacency. With experience comes complacency. I have so much more yet to learn and I plan to remember that. I will endeavour not to become complacent and respect the environment that I am in. These incidents happened late in the season and perhaps complacency or over-confidence became an issue.
- Weather. I believe that skydivers and BASE jumpers, in general, do not understand the weather enough. Do you know about anabatic winds and the lift they can provide, the high density air of the katabatic winds that can provide sink or the local meteorological knowledge that no visitor will truly be able to assess immediately on their own? With more than one fatality in the afternoon I do wonder if katabatic sink was a factor. I plan to lean more about the weather and how it will affect more flights – fore warned is fore armed.
- Fatigue. Without realising it fatigue can add up over a few jumps and we weaken, our reactions and senses slow and we can be unable to perform at our peak. When smooth yet fast and powerful reactions are necessary we have to operate at our best. I plan to stay fit and provide extra focus on my energy levels. If I’m not feeling perfect I will not attack an aggressive line.
- Cameras. I bet that over half of the people that died in August were wearing a camera. Focussing on the camera work, even just a touch, utilises brain power that could be used elsewhere for processing other information. My plan is to film only when I am completely comfortable. If I wear a camera at other times then it will only be ‘along for the ride’ and not a focus of the jump at all. I will need to monitor this situation closely as it can be too easy to get sucked in to the camera work.
Wingsuit human flight in the mountainous environment is completely survivable, even with some of the more aggressive lines. I plan to conduct it in a repeatable form and reduce the risks to an acceptable level. I’ve taken a step back, I’ve assessed what I need to do and I plan to treat it with more respect than perhaps I had been doing. I know some others are following a similar strategy and I hope many more will follow.
To Mark, Mario and all the other pilots that now fly for eternity, our flight paths will cross again but, I trust and plan, not for some time.