Chris Geiler Believes Data Can Save Lives in Skydiving

Chris Geiler Believes Data Can Save Lives in Skydiving

SportTechie’s Athletes Voice series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. SportTechie recently talked to wingsuit pilot Chris “Cruza” Geiler about aerodynamics, safety, and learning to fly.

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Chris Geiler began skydiving as a hobby in 2010, and competed in his first wingsuit racing competition just four years later. He’s also an avid wingsuit BASE jumper, launching himself off fixed objects on land, such as bridges and cliffs, and flying in close proximity to the ground.

Geiler secured his first podium spot in 2015 with a third place finish at the Elsinore Performance Cup, a small wingsuit race held annually at Skydive Elsinore in Southern California. Athletes compete based on time, speed, and distance flown. Since then, he’s won first place at the World Air Sports Federation’s World Championships (2016) and World Cup Championships (2017), the U.S. National Championships (2017), and picked up a range of top finishes at other competitions such as the Australian Open, the Italian Open, and Red Bull Aces.

In 2017, as his sport increasingly gained attention, Geiler was part of a group of world-class wingsuit pilots who began creating a curriculum for aspiring pilots. The program, called Next Level, seeks to formalize wingsuit education.

Geiler is an ambassador for Merit (formally Sigma), a digital credentialing company that upgraded the U.S. Parachute Association’s membership system in 2017. He is also a test pilot for wingsuit brand Squirrel, which has brought new materials and designs to wingsuit aviation.

Flight Data Recorders

“FlySight was a really big thing that kind of changed wingsuiting for me. We use FlySights, which are little GPS receiving devices that you put in the back of your helmet. They can record all the GPS from your flips, jumps, to canopy piloting. At my first wingsuit competition, I had no idea what I was doing. But I was in Europe, and there were all these guys [with] FlySights.”

“I was lucky enough from that competition to win, as a prize, one—a FlySight. And that’s how I started to use it. I thought ‘Well, I might as well try to use this thing.’ I taught myself how to interpolate that information and how to train better and fly better with it.”

It’ll come up with different color lines to different types of information. There will be a black line, which is a rotation, a red line, which is horizontal speed, and vertical speed, total speed, glide ratio, dive angle. There are quite a few different things you can read from it, and it’s sort of how they’re all correlating with one another that you can see how you’re able to create energy and then convert it.”

Flight Testing

“There’s a lot of trial and error, of trying to work out if that’s the best you could have done and how you can change the configuration of the wing to see if you can pull more performance out of it by making slight adjustments. It’s the little things, the actual shape you’re making with the wing can be slightly adjusted if you push down more with your arms, or rotate your wrists a little bit more. It takes a lot of jumps trying each of those little things to work out which is giving you better results.”

“You can do wind corrections as well. Ideally you want to be in zero-mile-per-hour wind conditions so you can accurately see the differences between results. With FlySight, you’re able to make corrections based on the effects that you’re getting from the wind.”

“I’ve even tried out how the fit of the wingsuit might affect my performance. Is it better to have a suit that’s too tight or a little loose? I tried that out with suits of different thickness and doing repetitive jumps to see the results.”

Wingsuit Aerodynamics

“Ever since Squirrel came onto the scene, they started to push the envelope of the technology of wingsuits. Before that it was a lot more of a guessing game. Squirrel put a lot of R&D into getting suits to fly better, and to give them more purposes as well, having the right tool for the job, a specific wing for a specific task. When they brought the Aura out, that was the first BASE-specific wingsuit. They used different materials that made it safer because you’re able to control your parachute faster.”

“With computer-generated images, CGI, looking at the aerodynamics of the wing a lot more, and changing the flying style a lot too, we really are taking a more aviation approach to wingsuits. I think most people before thought it was magic that you kind of fly down a mountain.”

“[Now] we’re seeing a much higher pressurization in suits, which gives them a firmer shape. That means the wing’s shape is stronger, which is going to give you more performance. This sort of extra-high pressurization is really only on advanced suits worn by people with a lot of experience because they can get themselves into more trouble if a person hasn’t built out their skill level at that point. Higher pressurization is going to give it a more rigid shape which is going to have the potential to create more lift.”

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Chris Geiler)

Tracking Experience

“Sigma [Merit] was an answer to problems within the sport. It was too easy in the past for people to fake their logbooks/jumps and that opened up potentially dangerous situations where people were lying about the experience they had, the amount of jumps that they had. They would do this for their equipment as well. I know of people, and have friends, who would just go to a dropzone where they didn’t normally jump and say ‘Oh yeah I just did my wingsuit course over at this other dropzone,’ and would go for their first wingsuit jump with no training. I’m hoping that’s going to be a big shift in the whole system now with the integration with Burble [an app that tracks jumps]. It’s going to be possible now to go to a dropzone and they’ve got all your information right there, all the training you’ve done.”

“The sport of wingsuiting has grown so much over the last six years, it’s blown up. Now, it’s a much larger number of people who are unsafe and dangerous. A lot of us within the wingsuiting community know that if we can’t find a way for people to be trained better and to be controlled better, wingsuiting can be banned. All of a sudden, insurance companies aren’t going to want to insure dropzones that allow wingsuiting—if there’s a tail strike, someone jumps out and hits the tail, brings the plane down. It’s only going to take one or two instances of that happening for insurers to not want to be involved.”

Learning to Fly

“I’m part of a conglomeration of professional wingsuiters and we got together to change the educational syllabus. We had been talking about how we weren’t happy how people were being taught and that there wasn’t an actual systematic progression, everyone was kind of teaching different things. We all got together to agree on how things should be taught at all different levels of wingsuiting—from a beginner all the way through to someone who wants to be a wingsuit BASE jumper—to make them better pilots. We’ve been trying to do that with different camps and issuing Sigma [Merit] merits, which makes it easily recognizable for any dropzone that they’ve done training with NextLevel.”

“My best advice would be not to rush and be in a hurry with it. The more skill you can build up first, the better it’s going to be for you to begin with and the longer you’re probably going to be in it as well. Everybody seems to be in a real hurry. If you’re doing it just to get YouTube famous, you’re wasting your time. You should do it because you really love it. I think the YouTube fame period is done now really, the shock value is gone because there’s been so many years of seeing these videos over and over. ‘Awesome, it’s a guy flying close to the ground.’”

“I don’t post a lot of videos, but the ones I do I try to show the technical aspect of flying, putting GPS data on my videos and [showing] people the difference of flying with really good technique and the performance you can get with it. Anybody can fly close to the ground. You can do it [well] or you can do it badly. One of the problems is in the early days, people weren’t flying well, they were just barely staying alive. That’s what we’re coming to understand now.”

“People weren’t really approaching wingsuiting with that aviation mindset, and they weren’t being taught general aerodynamics of unpowered flight. Back then, people would BASE jump that skydived occasionally, but now most people are realizing that you should be a skydiver primarily who BASE jumps as well because you just learn so much more from skydiving.”