This article is a companion piece to the new educational video “DZ Unknown,” available on adventurewisdom.com.
Landing off the drop zone can be exciting and fun or it can be terrifying and dangerous, depending on how prepared you are for the unexpected. The process of selecting a safe place to land and executing a good pattern and flare is complicated, but if you take it step by step with a calm heart and mind, you can move through the experience with grace and wisdom.
The first step toward landing off without harm is early acceptance. The higher you are above the ground when you realize that you can’t make it back to the drop zone, the more options you will have. This begins with an early analysis of your trajectory. Take the time, after clearing your airspace and evaluating your canopy’s viability, to point toward the primary landing zone and notice the relative motion. If the target appears to be rising, it is time to consider other good options. You may still choose to implement glide-enhancing configurations—such as flying in deep brakes when in a strong tailwind or getting into optimum rear risers when the wind is not increasing your ground speed substantially—as you scope out your options. Use this time to slow your breathing and relax your body as you observe each possible field, and visualize the approach pattern that would work in each case.
Going With Plan B
Once you have determined that you have to go with Plan B, you need to determine the wind line in order to make further plans about where and how you are going to land off. Glancing back at wind indicators in the main landing area (if you can find it) will obviously be helpful for determining landing direction in most cases, but the winds where you are may differ from the drop zone’s due to topography and other environmental factors. Try going to fairly deep brakes and looking straight down. If altitude allows, hold this heading for at least 10 seconds and notice your ground track, as well as your ground speed. Now turn 90 degrees either right or left while still in deep brakes and observe the ground again for 10 seconds or more. Once more, turn in the same direction another 90 degrees and hold this heading for 10 seconds or so. Now you should have a pretty good idea of what the wind is doing, at least at the test altitude. You will find many scenarios in which the wind changes in both direction and velocity as you descend, so you may want to do this more than once.
Another benefit of flying in deep brakes, especially facing into the wind, is stress reduction. When you use this time to relax your breathing and calm your mind, you will be better able to observe your reality and act appropriately. Adrenaline tends to cause overreaction and underreaction, and what you need is appropriate action. Slow down and regain your composure so you can plan your future with a clear head.
Choosing an alternate landing field is obviously about size, but there are plenty of other considerations to take into account. It is not enough to get to a safe place to land, you also need to have a stable canopy over your head as you do it. Therefore, the direction of the wind in relation to objects that might cause mechanical turbulence is very important. Plan to land on the leeward side of the field if it is surrounded by trees, hills or buildings and as far downwind from these turbulence-creating hazards as possible. This might mean deliberately flying over scary things on your base leg and part of your final approach, possibly flying low over objects that you would otherwise avoid. This is a reasonable risk if it allows you to land in smooth, non-turbulent air so that you have the ability to flare for landing
Another consideration is the terrain of the field. It will be hard to know the lay of the land when you are above 1,000 feet, so be prepared to modify your approach a little on final so you are landing in the flattest part of the field, if possible. If landing on a hill, aim to land across the fall line (the generally flatter area between elevations that runs across a hill), rather than downhill or worse, uphill. Taking that heading and forgoing the windline may be your best option. When running out your landing across a hill, step one foot directly in front of the other, as in a mountaineering traverse. This prevents having one step higher than the other, risking injury and awkwardness as you run it out. Always consider using a parachute landing fall when landing in a new location. Better to roll it out than eat it in the middle of nowhere. Additionally, sometimes a field will have crops and thus significant furrows. Landing parallel to such rows in the field is advisable, even if that means ignoring the windline a bit. This is especially helpful when landing in cornfields.
Something else to consider when choosing your landing spot is the proximity to access. Landing on a road provides a high risk of hitting power lines or getting run over by a vehicle. That said, landing in the general vicinity of a road will help you get a ride home. Further, if your landing is less than stellar and you cannot walk, it is really nice to be close enough to a road that people can easily find you and get you to the emergency room. Along those lines, the farther you are from help, the less risk you should take, so don’t make any high-speed approaches when landing off. You can go big on your next jump when you get back to the DZ.
Your Approach and Your Angles
When considering your approach into an unknown DZ, expect that your altimeter will be off, possibly way off. The farther you are from home, the less likely your altimeter will be at zero when you land. If the ground comes up much sooner than you expect, you may find yourself landing on your base leg or worse, making an unexpected low turn. So, use your eyes more than your instruments when landing off the DZ. This means that it is essential to cultivate your ability to fly a safe pattern based on angles, as opposed to altitude and location checkpoints. When flying a pattern in a normal location, you may become regimented and married to flying based solely on locations in relation to altitudes (aka “collecting easter eggs”), and it can lead to lead to a myopic, robotic mentality on approach. If you don’t observe your angles in relation to the target, you’ll be unable to recognize a problem until it is too late. So, let’s talk more about the angle.
The glide of your canopy will range between 2:1 and 3:1, depending on its size, trim and planform. This means that you will glide, on average, about 250 feet forward for each 100 feet of decent, assuming no wind. If you plan to be on final approach at 300 feet above the ground, this means your parachute will glide approximately 750 feet if there is no headwind. In a headwind that reduces your ground speed by half, you will glide approximately half that distance, or 375 feet. If the groundspeed of your canopy is equal to the windspeed, then you have no movement across the ground at all when facing into the wind, but will travel about 1,500 feet across the ground on your downwind leg (750 x 2). Just food for thought.
Now, you need to learn the sight picture of full glide in a no-wind condition and interpolate in order to expect what things will look like if the wind is one quarter, one half or three quarters of the parachute’s natural full-flight groundspeed. Start by standing in a wide-open space. You will need three or four objects to put on the ground as references. Place one object near your feet. Then lay down on the ground with your feet near this object, body fully extended. Now place another object near your head. Next, stand up again near the first object, and observe the angle as you look at the second object. This is a 1:1 glide ratio, or a 45-degree flight angle. Now walk up to the second object and repeat the process, placing a third object near where your head is, progressing in the same direction as before. Return to the original location and observe the third object. This is a 2:1 glide angle. Repeat this process to visualize a 3:1 glide-ratio. This scale model of your final approach will inform you of the time to turn to final when flying your base leg. Consider your base leg as a time to look to the side at your intended target, and wait as the target slowly rises in perspective to the angle that you predicted is correct for your into-the-wind relative glide ratio. When the target rises to match the expected angle, turn to face the target.
This scaling process is not something that most jumpers do, but you will be amazed how helpful it is. You can then sample your glide angle by flying into the wind for 10 or 15 seconds at 1,000-2,000 feet and observing. Use this to create your visualization of your approach pattern. Even when landing in a completely foreign location with an unknown altitude, you can still get pretty close to your intended target using this method.
If you are fortunate enough to have a no-wind scenario when landing off, try using a four-point pattern. (Although this can be a bit rude when in a high-traffic situation, it is solid-gold intel when landing off.) If you are fairly sure that the altitude of your alternate field is similar to your normal landing zone, begin by being directly above the target at 1,200 feet, heading across the windline. If there is a bit of wind, as there often is at 1,000 feet even when the wind is nil on the ground, displace your D-point up the windline a bit. Then fly the pattern shown in the following diagram: out, down, back and finally toward the target. It works like magic. You should still observe the angle as you look at the target and modify as you see fit, but in most cases, this box pattern works like a charm.
If there is some wind, you can still use this approach method to get to the target. You simply need to move the 1,200-foot D-point farther up the wind-line, where you cross the intended final-approach runway. If you prefer to do a drift pattern, expect that you need to begin quite far up the windline, possibly farther than you expect. If you are too far, be ready to use deep brakes on the downwind leg if there is wind, or rear risers if the winds are light. The advantage of flying a ferry pattern in off-field scenarios is that the groundspeed is slow on the pre-base and base legs, which keeps you closer to your target. Either way, if the winds are strong, be prepared to face into the wind more and longer than usual prior to your downwind leg, and lift any brakes you might be holding while flying downwind. This will reduce the distance you travel, and keep you from blowing too far past your target.
Keep in mind that landing above or below your altimeter’s zero setting may bring you some exciting surprises, so when in doubt, start higher and plan to do some S-turns or an altitude-dumping sashay before your turn into the wind. This is a huge no-no back on the drop zone, but it can literally save your life when landing off. Just keep your eyes wide open, and when you appear to be getting low enough, turn to final and be ready to flare. If you are too low, make the turn in brakes, and consider the possibility that you will need to flare during the turn without going back to full flight. Parachutes surge toward the ground when the brakes are released, and likewise, they surge and oscillate when a turn is released. A toggle turn is simply half of a braking maneuver, so letting it up will increase your descent rate for a moment. This will make your lines slack and increase your chances of taking a collapse in turbulence or having a hard landing from letting that toggle back up quickly too close to the ground. This is why there is no substitute for practicing a wide variety of low-turn techniques with the help of a great canopy coach. Get yourself into a canopy course as often as possible. Once is never enough.
Although there are many other things to consider when landing off, the information in this article gives you a good start. Obviously, you want to do all you can to avoid such occurrences, like checking the spot and pulling high enough to get back, but landing off once in a while is an inseparable part of the sport. If you have deep canopy skills and a really good plan, landing off can be a great opportunity to show yourself how good you really are. It is an opportunity to meet new people and see how nice most folks are to strangers who fall out of the sky into their backyards. If all goes well, you will simply land softly in a fresh new place, pull out your cell phone (you jump with one, right?) and call the drop zone (on speed dial, right?), and give them the good news that you are fine. Landing out is a hero-or-zero scenario, and most of the time, you will walk away the hero, with a new feather in your headdress.
About the Author
Brian Germain, D-11154, is a widely traveled canopy flight instructor, parachute designer and test pilot. He has written the foremost book on the topic of canopy piloting, “The Parachute and its Pilot,” and developed the train-at-home video canopy course “Parachute Flight Safety.” His many educational videos—including the latest, “DZ Unknown”—are available at adventurewisdom.com and on his YouTube channel. Germain has accidentally landed off the drop zone many times, but it’s the experience he gained during inhopps (deliberately off-DZ jumps) that gave him the knowledge to pass along to others.