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So you want to learn to freefly? You’ve been belly-flying for awhile and after seeing a bunch of amazing videos on Teem and YouTube, you’ve decided you want to learn to fly in other orientations. On your back, in a sit, on your head… yeah that looks like FUN! Well, it IS fun. But there’s a bit more to consider when you start freeflying than whether you can manage to balance feet-to-earth.
What IS freeflying?
Freeflying can be simply defined as multi-orientation body flight. Any time you do anything other than maneuvering belly-to-earth, you are freeflying. This spans everything from freestyle aerobatics (flips and rolls) which can be initiated from a belly-to-earth orientation, to backflying, to head-up or head-down flight. All forms of freeflying share the trait of increased fall rate (relative to a basic belly-to-earth orientation). As you progress along the spectrum of freefly orientations, both fall rate and potential for instability increase.
No matter which variation of freeflying you are interested in pursuing, there are guidelines which it is highly recommended (and in some places required) that you follow before attempting a freefly jump.
1. Become a competent, belly-flyer.
2. Become a competent, canopy pilot.
3. Ensure your rig is freefly-friendly. Use a hard helmet and firmly secure all clothing.
4. Make sure you have both visual and audible altimeters. AADs are also highly recommended.
5. Know which direction jump-run is and understand how to orient perpendicular to it.
6. Understand the additional dangers inherent in a freefly skydive and be prepared to manage them.
In addition, all jumpers are encouraged to get professional coaching and follow a structured approach to learning this new discipline. Coaching results in a much safer and faster progression and prevents the development of bad habits (e.g. a sitfly position which while stable is backsliding).
Let’s take a deeper look at #6 above…
The SIM Section 6-2 clearly states the risks involved in freeflying:
Inadvertently transitioning from a fast-falling body position to a belly-to-earth position (“corking”) results in rapid deceleration from speeds upwards of 175 mph to belly speeds of 120 mph. If you are freeflying in a group, corking can cause high-speed collisions between group members which can be deadly.
If you are freeflying in a group, you MUST be able to remain in a fast-flying position at all times, and remain clear of the airspace directly above and below other freeflyers. You must also be able to quickly assume a slow-fall position if the rest of the group makes such a transition, as remaining in a fast-fall position in such a situation will put you below everyone else, creating a hazard at breakoff.
Loss of altitude awareness is more likely due to shorter freefalls, different visual pictures, difficulty in viewing visual altimeters in some orientations, and difficulty in hearing audible altimeters in the higher wind noise.
Horizontal drift due to backsliding can quickly bring novice or inattentive freeflyers into the airspace of the groups before or after them in the exit order, increasing risk of collision in freefall and under canopy. This can happen regardless of whether proper exit separation was given.
Before engaging in a freefly skydive, you MUST understand the jump-run line of flight, and be able to position yourself perpendicular to it in freefall to reduce the chances of sliding into another group’s airspace.
Rapid changes in vertical separation which can occur in freefly positions due to the large variability in fall rates make it easy to lose contact with others on the dive, which makes breakoff more confusing and much more dangerous.
Canopy opening at freefly speeds (due to premature opening, pitching from a fast-fall orientation, or failing to slow down sufficiently after returning to a belly-to-earth orientation) will be uncomfortable at best, can damage gear, and can severely injure or even kill you. In addition, a premature deployment in a group freefly situation can pose a major risk to any skydivers in freefall above the person whose rig inadvertently comes open.
Canopy-canopy or canopy-freefall collision with groups exiting before or after due to backsliding or turning your canopy back along the jump-run toward the landing area before slower-falling groups exiting before you have opened.
Freeflying is a progression. Each skill you learn builds on and incorporates those which come before. The recovery position for back-flying is belly flying; the recovery position for sit-flying is back-flying; the recovery position for head-down flying is sit-flying. Become competent in each skill before moving to the next, and enjoy the journey!
Learning to jump with others
UK gold medalist freeflyer Louis Harwood warns that when you start to jump with other freeflyers, you have a lot more to think about, including where the other jumpers in your group are at all times. As a minimum you should specify the following for a freefly jump with others, before you even get into the loading area:
Content of jump (don’t just say “we’ll see what happens” – have a plan and stick to it)
Base (specify someone as a base. Everyone else should then work toward being on level with that person)
Break-off (establish a break-off altitude; work to maintain level with the designated base; clear your airspace to break off; track away; establish horizontal separation while slowing vertical speed)
Mock up and dirt-dive your freefly jump just as you would a belly jump, from exit through to break-off.
Harwood goes on to say that when you are just learning freeflying you should only be jumping solo or with an experienced freeflyer. He offers the following as a conservative guide to how many people, maximum, you should be jumping with. This is particularly valid when all flyers are at the same experience level and have little to no tunnel time:
0-100 freefly jumps: solos or 2-ways
100-300 freefly jumps: up to 3 people maximum
300-500 freefly jumps: up to 5 people maximum
After this, do your best to use good judgment and common sense
Break-off on freefly jumps is more complicated than on belly jumps. Participants must not only achieve sufficient separation for a safe opening; they must also transition to a belly-to-earth orientation and SLOW DOWN before deployment if they don’t want to risk severe damage to bodies and equipment. The necessity for both of these is a big part of why freefly break-off altitudes are usually higher than belly break-off altitudes.
Multiple World Record-holding freeflyer Melissa Nelson-Lowe recommends that beginner head-up flyers break off by going first to a relaxed backfly position to maintain relative fall rate. Clear your airspace, then roll to your belly and track on your belly to
establish separation while assuring clear airspace below. Intermediate flyers can add in a couple seconds of controlled back-tracking before transitioning to belly.
Freefly-friendly gear: http://www.uspa.org/Portals/0/files/misc_ismyrigfreefly.pdf
Zach Lewis demonstrates the importance of a butt-bungee: https://vimeo.com/96037725
Freefly skills articles from AXIS Flight School: http://axisflightschool.com/knowledge_articles.php
The April 2015 issue of Parachutist magazine has a great article on a safe freeflying progression
BPA’s freefly progression manual: http://www.bpa.org.uk/assets/Training/Training-manuals/BPA-FREEFLY-PROGRESSION-MANUAL.pdf
IBA’s video series on bodyflight skills: https://www.tunnelflight.com/skills/
Olav Zipser – the founder of freeflying: https://www.cypres.aero/catching-up-with-olavzipser/ https://uspa.org/p/Article/olav-zipser-d-11733
The origins of VFS (vertical formation skydiving): https://melissalowe.com/2016/09/30/the-origins-of-vfs/
Freefly coaching at Skydive Arizona
AXIS Flight School: http://axisflightschool.com/
Individual members of Arizona Anthem also offer 1:1 coaching. You can reach them via the Arizona Anthem Facebook page.