Next Step—Earning a Tandem Rating
By Jim Crouch | Photos by David Cherry
Thursday, October 1, 2020
So, you’ve been jumping for a few years and you’ve decided it’s time to work on earning a tandem instructor rating. That’s great! Nothing adds excitement to a skydive like a 60-pound rig, a 200-pound student and a couple of extra handles on the container!
Tandem skydiving is a unique form of student training that has constantly evolved over the last 37 years. In early 1983, Ted Strong of Strong Enterprises in Orlando, Florida, performed the first tandem jump. About the same time, Bill Booth of The Uninsured Relative Workshop (now United Parachute Technologies) in DeLand, Florida, was also working on the development of tandem skydiving. In 1984, the Federal Aviation Administration issued those two companies a waiver to conduct this new type of jump.
Tandem skydiving required a waiver because it utilizes a dual-harness, dual-parachute system, and at the time FAA regulations required each skydiver to use a single-harness, dual-parachute system. At first, the companies thought the waiver would be necessary only for a short time; however, the FAA did not update Federal Aviation Regulations Part 105 to address tandem skydiving until 2001. During this exemption period, the manufacturers were solely responsible for training tandem instructors and instructor examiners.
Gradually, USPA became more involved with training and oversight and developed a comprehensive tandem program. In 2001, the FAA approved USPA’s tandem instructor certification program. Since then, those who earn their initial tandem instructor ratings receive them both from USPA and the manufacturer of the tandem system. Tandem candidates attending a course today benefit from everything USPA and the tandem manufacturers have learned about training and certifying instructors over the years. In other words, a whole bunch of work and countless hours of development time have gone into today’s modern tandem certification course.
Before you can attend a tandem certification course, you will need to obtain the course materials and spend some time reading through them. You will also need to arrive at the course with the open-book, written tests completed. This requirement helps to ensure you have actually read through the materials before you show up. The amount of preparation you will need also depends on your current experience level. Section T-1-A of the Instructional Rating Manual spells out the requirements for those who wish to attend a USPA Tandem Instructor Rating Course. Those are:
"a. reached the age of 18 years
b. holds or has held any USPA instructional rating
c. issued a USPA D license
d. logged 500 jumps on a ram-air canopy
e. a minimum of three years of experience in parachuting (FAR 105.45)
f. presented a current FAA Class 3 Medical Certificate or the equivalent acceptable to USPA
(1) USPA will issue a Tandem Instructor rating, even if the medical certificate will expire prior to the expiration date of the rating.
(2) Each USPA Tandem Instructor is responsible to keep his or her medical certificate current.
(3) Currently acceptable medical certificates include the FAA Class 3 Medical Certificate, military flight or diver physicals that are required by their position or duty status by their military command authority, or, for foreign jumpers, the civil aviation medical accepted in the country where they will be exercising their tandem rating privileges.
(4) The original medical certificate must be verified by the examiner and a copy must be submitted to USPA Headquarters for the initial rating and at each rating renewal.”
It is highly advisable to prepare to attend the course by first making an appointment with an Aviation Medical Examiner (or foreign country equivalent) to obtain your FAA Class 3 medical. If you can’t get through the process of obtaining a medical, you will not be able to attend the tandem course or hold the USPA Tandem Instructor rating. You can find more information about the FAA medical at faa.gov/licenses_certificates/medical_certification/ and you can locate an FAA medical examiner at faa.gov/pilots/amelocator/. Once you make an appointment with an AME, the FAA will direct you to complete an online questionnaire that requires that you list any known medical issues, as well as any convictions for driving under the influence or any felony drug arrests, before you show up for your medical exam.
Tandem Instructor Examiner Jay Stokes of Certification Unlimited works with his candidates to make sure they complete the prerequisites before arriving to his tandem course. Stokes said; “I prequalify candidates to make sure they meet the course requirements, obtain a medical and complete the written exams for both USPA and the tandem manufacturer before they arrive for the course.”
Even though he provides explicit instructions, Tandem Instructor Examiner Michael Wadkins of Xcelskydiving still finds that candidates will arrive at his courses unprepared. “Many candidates arrive for the tandem course without the prerequisites completed. So, it takes time to get them sorted out before we can start the course,” he remarked.
If you do not hold any other USPA instructional ratings, you will need to earn the USPA Coach Rating before attending the tandem course. The coach course typically takes three days to complete, and it also has prerequisites for attendance. Budget your time and finances accordingly. If you already hold a USPA AFF, Static-Line or IAD Instructor rating, it cuts down on the amount of training and evaluation required in the tandem course. The cost of the tandem course varies somewhat between examiners. By the time you pay the examiner fee, the minimum of 20 slots to meet the course requirements and rig rental for the 10 tandem evaluation jumps, the cost of the course will likely be between $1,500 to $2,000.
You will need to purchase or download the latest versions of the Skydiver’s Information Manual and the Instructional Rating Manual. The SIM includes all USPA rules and recommendations for skydiving, including information about the Integrated Student Program in Section 4.
The IRM contains the rating courses for all USPA instructional ratings. You will also need to download the latest forms packet that is available at uspa.org under the “downloads” section of the Information tab, along with the Tandem Instructor Proficiency Card.
The proficiency card works as a checklist to ensure you have completed everything before submitting your rating to USPA for processing. You must complete some of the card before you attend the course and some of it during the course. You will also need to contact the manufacturer of the tandem system on which you are getting rated to obtain the manufacturer’s rating course materials. Bram Clement, owner of Skydive Ratings in Zephyrhills, Florida, finds that some candidates arrive at his course without the manufacturer’s exam completed, even after being instructed to do so. (This is crucial, since both USPA and the manufacturer must receive the appropriate rating applications following the course, and USPA will not issue its rating until the manufacturer issues its rating.) Following the course, your tandem examiner will submit your USPA Tandem Instructor Proficiency Card to USPA for processing.
So, now that you understand the process for preparing for your course, it is time to sign up and attend it. This requires you to either travel to an examiner or bring an examiner to your local drop zone. Many drop zones have a tandem instructor examiner on staff, so check locally first. USPA provides a listing of current course examiners at uspa.org/safety-and-training/ratings/find-an-examiner.
The tandem course essentially consists of three parts:
- Classroom training and ground preparations
- Phase 1 tandem jumps (five initial tandem jumps)
- Phase 2 tandem jumps (five additional practice tandem jumps)
The initial classroom training covers a wide range of topics, including student training and how the tandem method applies to working toward a USPA A License, tandem equipment and packing, instructor responsibilities, routine tandem procedures, problem solving for routine tandem problems and tandem emergency procedures.
You will also practice packing the tandem system, learn how to perform a thorough gear check and practice correct procedures for harnessing students in a tandem harness, as well as practice tandem emergency procedures using a training harness. While every part of the tandem course ground training is important, these four areas usually receive extra focus … and for good reason.
Student harness adjustment is one of the most misunderstood and poorly performed parts of tandem jumping. The difference between a properly adjusted student harness and one that is adjusted poorly is very subtle, yet the difference in comfort for the student is significant. Clement probably has more rides on the front of tandem candidates than anyone else in the world. He said, “With 2,156 training rides on the front, I know what is comfortable and what is not comfortable when it comes to adjusting the student harness before each tandem skydive. Also, the behavior of the tandem instructor under canopy can affect student comfort. Hard turns and spirals might be exciting for the tandem instructor and help them land sooner, but it is usually very uncomfortable for the student, cutting off circulation and often making the student feel nauseous.”
You can see misadjusted harnesses on almost any drop zone on any given day because instructors forget their initial training. Some also just get lazy and throw the harness on the student as quickly as possible. Although minor misadjustments are not a safety issue, major ones can be. Correctly harnessing various body types is an important skill to learn properly and apply on every tandem jump.
Tandem emergency procedures can be complex and, depending on the type of system you use and the type of malfunction that occurs, may require you to take multiple steps in the correct order for a safe outcome. Certainly, every tandem system is more complicated than any single-harness sport parachute system. Instructor candidates must practice tandem emergency procedures for as long as it takes to make them automatic so that they perform the correct procedures without having to put a lot of thought into it during an actual emergency. After that, instructors must undertake frequent emergency-procedure reviews throughout their tandem careers.
To the Sky
During the course, candidates will spend three or four days working through the Phase 1 jumps and another day or two to complete Phase 2. The pace of the course depends on a lot of factors, but it is important that you do not let yourself continue jumping if you are getting tired or stressed. Rating courses can be mentally taxing, and tandem jumping is also physically challenging due to the added weight of the gear and student.
The first five tandem training jumps are designed to get you familiar with equipment, exits, droguefall, canopy flight and landing, all while attached to a tandem examiner, who is on the front in the student position. Each of the five jumps has a different dive flow. For some tandem systems, the first tandem jump is a solo skydive wearing tandem gear.
The focus of the first three jumps is proper door position, exit control, stable drogue deployment into the relative wind, handle checks, relaxed droguefall with heading control and deployment of the main parachute at the correct altitude. The final two jumps in Phase 1 are a little spicier and include flipping and rolling exits, freefall turns with a delayed drogue deployment and experiencing drogueless tandem terminal velocity! Each of the five jumps include a thorough briefing and practice on the ground for each phase of the skydive, as well as planning for the parachute descent and landing.
Be sure to bring a proper jumpsuit to the tandem course. A baggy jump suit is an important tool to use on tandem jumps, since the additional drag will help you control the exit and droguefall. Clement states, “Many candidates show up to the course thinking they can jump in shorts and T-shirts because they see experienced tandem instructors jumping that way. Unfortunately, that sets a bad example and new instructors want to jump that way, too.”
Although it comes as a surprise to most candidates, one of the most common challenges in learning tandem skydiving is flying the parachute smoothly and consistently and landing accurately. Most tandem canopies have a much flatter glide than the average sport jumper’s main parachute. Consequently, many tandem candidates end up landing way beyond the target until they can get used to the new glide path. Stokes commented, “For most candidates, learning canopy control is probably one of the most difficult parts of the tandem course. I try to ride on the front of the candidate on as many of the training jumps as possible to try to provide training and guidance while descending under the tandem canopy.”
Wadkins also finds that tandem candidates struggle with acquiring smooth and consistent approaches and landings. He remarked, “Because the weight of the tandem student is always different, the wing loading is different on every tandem jump. This changes the descent rate of the canopy on every jump and makes it harder for the candidate to master a smooth and accurate landing. It takes a while to really develop that skill.”
Phase 2 of the tandem course consists of five additional tandem jumps. These jumps may be completed with just about anyone, as long as they are B-licensed and have at least 100 skydives. Oftentimes, candidates complete these jumps with a rated tandem instructor. It is always better to have the most experienced person possible on the front while you continue to learn and refine your tandem technique. Ideally, you will complete these jumps with the examiner, which allows you to benefit from the wisdom of an experienced trainer and build on the skills learned on the first five jumps.
Whether you plan to help out your local drop zone as a weekend warrior or run to the sun and make a full-time career in skydiving, you should conduct each tandem skydive using the procedures outlined in your tandem course. It’s the best way to maintain a high level of safety. The real challenge with your new rating will be holding yourself to those standards. It can be easy to pick up the bad habits that other instructors on the drop zone have developed. Clement stated, “I sometimes see newly rated candidates ignoring the correct harness adjustments, making turns too low under canopy and being pressured into making back-to-back loads right off the bat. Unfortunately, some drop zones do not have very good mentors for new instructors, and the new instructor ends up following bad examples.”
The responsibilities of a tandem instructor are immense, and so are the rewards of performing tandem skydives. For the student, a first tandem jump is often a life-changing experience that gives them a huge boost in self-confidence and a feeling of achievement that is unmatched by any other activity. The tandem instructor plays a huge part in that experience. Make it count. The safety of your student (and yourself) should be your top priority.
About the Author
Jim Crouch, D-16979, was USPA Director of Safety and Training from 2000-2018. He is now a Federal Aviation Administration-certified airline transport pilot who is based in Tampa, Florida.