The Four Stages of Competence

Scotty Bob, flying steeper than 98% of wingsuit pilots have ever experienced.
Scotty Bob, flying steeper than 98% of wingsuit pilots have ever experienced.

The other day, Scotty-Bob showed me some of his as-yet unreleased footage from this past summer in the Alps. It is impressive. He and Vincent Descols are, in my opinion, flying the most serious lines that I have ever seen, staying connected to complex and varied terrain for long periods of time with an incredible amount of precision and control. What do I think of when I watch this video?

My first instinct is, as a human and a wingsuit BASE jumper, to compare myself to them - I think about other similar lines that I have flown, and imagine myself flying these new Scotty-Bob and Vincent lines with similar commitment. This is a natural reaction, and if you are a wingsuit BASE jumper or an aspiring wingsuit BASE jumper, then you may have the same instinctual reaction when you see the latest and sickest footage: you compare yourself to the pilots in the video.

There's only one Scotty Bob, and he's as much a flying legend as the Wright brothers. Scotty Bob Morgan has been flying amazing proximity lines for years, without hype, just doing his thing because he loves it. This compilation of his best flights will have you wincing away from the cliffs and trees.

This natural reaction is not always accompanied by a more important thought process which analyzes how Scotty and Vincent came to fly the way they do: when we see footage like this, we need to think very carefully about how exactly it came to exist. Were they born different from you and I? Do they own a magic wingsuit? Or are they just somehow lucky enough to spend more time in the Alps? The answer is no, to all of those. It’s just a question of practice, commitment, and progression. Here are the four stages of progression and competence as relayed to me by a supremely competent member of the US armed forces:
1. Unconscious incompetence
2. Conscious incompetence
3. Conscious competence
4. Unconscious competence

1. Unconscious incompetence

At this first stage, you are crap. The problem is that you are so crap that you don't even know that you are crap. Don't laugh, we could be describing you! It is critical to understand that in order to move beyond this first phase of incompetence, you must admit that you know very little about whatever you are doing, and you must admit that you need a lot more knowledge and training to improve yourself. Advancing beyond this lamentable state requires self-awareness, good judgment, and humility - qualities that don’t come naturally to all of us.

The problem is that you are so crap that you don't even know that you are crap

Just because you have flown a wingsuit fifty times does not mean you have been doing it right, doing it well, or understanding it much – practice makes permanent, not perfect, and you could still be doing it wrong after all those jumps. There are many wingsuit pilots out there with hundreds of jumps, but a low level of competence and an inaccurate perception of their skill. They fit squarely into this category of unconscious incompetence.

An unfortunate number of wingsuit skydivers and BASE jumpers fall into this category. We can point to several recent wingsuit BASE fatalities that are perfect examples of unconsciously incompetent pilots. These are wingsuit BASE jumpers who were trying things that they should not have been trying, because their inexperience caused them to misjudge their own skill and competence – they couldn’t accurately assess their own abilities, and it killed them.

Learning to fly in tight formations is an excellent training exercise.  — by Justin Duclos
Learning to fly in tight formations is an excellent training exercise.  — by Justin Duclos

2. Conscious incompetence

At this stage, you understand that you are not awesome, and have a lot to learn. Congratulations, you’re honest with yourself and you now understand that you currently suck! Again, don't laugh, because this is a major breakthrough that you should take seriously. At this point in your progression, you should be able to look at Scotty-Bob's video and know for sure that there is a lot of something separating you from doing exactly what he is doing – and a big part of that something is called training and education. You need to train with very experienced wingsuit flyers, talk to the most experienced wingsuit BASE jumpers, and think critically about how much training Scotty-Bob completed before getting to the point he is at now.

Congratulations, you’re honest with yourself and you now understand that you currently suck!

Do you know how many wingsuit skydives Scotty-Bob has? Do you know how much time he spent in Europe? Do you know what percentage of his income and total available minutes of life he devotes to wingsuit BASE jumping? I think the answer would surprise you, but if you are consciously incompetent at least you are open to the idea of thinking about it. Too many jumpers have made the mistake of thinking that the only thing separating them from the most radical videos is a plane ticket and a few big jumps in Switzerland. At this stage, you probably shouldn’t even be considering complex terrain flights or technical wingsuit BASE jumps.

Andy Farrington, backflying the Squirrel C2. All 'competent' WS pilots can backfly.&nbsp;&mdash;&nbsp;by <a href='https://skydivemag.smallteaser.com/user/mattg' class='captionLink'>Matt Gerdes</a>
Andy Farrington, backflying the Squirrel C2. All 'competent' WS pilots can backfly. — by Matt Gerdes

3. Conscious competence

After a few years of practice, you’ve finally arrived at the stage in which you can fly pretty well. If you’re a wingsuit BASE jumper, then there is no possible way that you’ve achieved this level of competence without at least a few hundred BASE jumps, and more wingsuit skydives. If you have less than that but think you are at this stage, then there is a chance that you’re still at stage one.

a great deal of thought, planning, and foresight is needed for every jump if you want to stay alive

At this stage, you know what you are doing to a certain extent, but a great deal of thought, planning, and foresight is needed for every jump if you want to stay alive. Weather, terrain, physical and mental factors all must be ideal in order for you to be flying within your abilities. Although anyone in the community would consider you to be 'very experienced', the fact is that even a small problem with weather conditions, footing on exit, gear configurations, or your mental state could easily result in a fatality. At this stage, a series of errors is not needed to finish you off – just one problem or small mistake would be enough.

Matt Gerdes following Scotty Bob off of Brevent, in Chamonix, France.
Matt Gerdes following Scotty Bob off of Brevent, in Chamonix, France.

4. Unconscious competence

At this point, when you’re standing on an exit point, you know how far you can fly and what landing zones are possible. If conditions aren’t perfect, then you will be able to adapt your exit technique to make up for it. Although it is very possible for anyone to burn-in as a result of one small mistake, at this point in your progression you are more likely to survive a small error in judgment, or an unexpected change in the conditions or factors on each jump. But never forget that the problem with wingsuit BASE jumping is this: wingsuit pilots at this level still die, every year.

When the most capable and experienced wingsuit BASE jumpers die – guys that are operating at an unconsciously competent level after years of full time practice – what does that mean? Saying that judgment and ego are equally important to competency would probably be accurate, and the best pilots normally succumb to a series of factors that fit into the competence, judgment, and ego categories.

For me, the main point is that it is incredibly dangerous to do this thing that we do. The extreme nature of it, and the fact that even the best can perish unexpectedly, drives me to take progression, training, and ego/judgment considerations more seriously every year. I believe we all need to make intense efforts not only to practice our skills, but to hone our judgment and keep our egos in check. Here’s hoping that the fatal accident trend-line will trend in a happier direction one day.

This article was originally published on skydivemag

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Ed Lightle

Ditto what Dan BC said about this stuff applying to all skydiving disciplines.

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Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld

All the same ideas can be applied to every skydiving discipline. Thanks Matt!

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