“Alright, do whatever the #&*$ you want!” I said, letting frustration get the better of me. This was my final suggestion to the student who was refusing to follow my radio instructions as I tried to get her to set up for her planned landing pattern. It was not one of my better instructing moments!
The student was on her ninth or 10th jump, the airspace was clear, and I felt confident that she would at least not do anything dangerous, so I just continued to watch her as she flew her own version of her pattern and landed safely. Failing to follow the planned landing pattern was a topic of discussion during the debrief, and the student stated that she didn’t trust the instructions she was receiving. Such is the life of a drop zone radio operator, where anything is possible!
Providing students with radio assistance is serious business that requires focus and dedication to do well. Naturally, you need to know the 1,000-, 600- and 300-foot points for the various landing patterns at your drop zone, as well as how the student parachutes fly and land in different wind directions. Pattern turning points will change daily due to changes in wind direction and speed, so you have to be able to adjust the pattern based on the current day’s conditions. Spending a few jumps on student gear will go a long way toward helping you know how to guide your students to safe and accurate landings. More than likely, it has been several years since you have flown a large student canopy. Refamiliarizing yourself with the drop zone’s student gear will help you become a more proficient instructor. You also need to know your students, so that you know who needs a little handholding and who can receive less guidance.
Oftentimes, the failure to follow instructions is not entirely the student’s fault. It is very important for all of the instructional rating staff at your DZ to use the same terminology so that there is less chance of giving confusing commands. It is also a good idea to use the student radios when you’re refreshing yourself on how student canopies fly so you have an idea of how well they work! Is the sound clear at 5,000 feet? Students may also have clogged ears from a rapid freefall descent, so during ground training remember to tell the student to clear their ears after opening so they can hear the radio better.
All drop zones should provide thorough training that prepares students to fly on their own in case the radio fails. However, some drop zones like to use minimal radio guidance and remove the radio relatively early in their students’ training progression, while others keep radios on their students all the way through to the completion of the A-license training. The Examiner Rating Course teaches the classic model of directive-to-supportive learning, in which students wear a radio for longer but use it less as they progress. In this method, a student’s first canopy flights are largely instructor led, with the student receiving a lot of direction, verbal instruction and practice. By the time the student is working on the canopy drills outlined in the latter-category student jumps, the training becomes much less directive and support is minimal. That is, the student who is on jump 10 or higher understands what they must practice under canopy after minimal ground training. Little support is required from the instructor or the radio operator for the student to complete the objectives.
Photo by David Cherry.
What does all of this mean for the radio operator? Plan on spending more time and attention on the first-jump students and less on the students who are in their later training jumps. A first-jump student is likely experiencing some level of sensory overload, so use a calm, reassuring voice on the radio and say their name frequently to help them stay engaged. “That’s it, Bob. Pull the right toggle down farther to speed up that turn,” is much more effective than saying, “Right! Right! Right! Turn right!” A calm explanation is much more likely than yelling to get the first-jump student to do what they need to do.
As students progress, your radio instructions don’t need to be as detailed. A student on jump seven may require only a gentle reminder: “OK, Bob, you are in the proper holding area, so check your airspace and practice the parachute stalls we talked about earlier.” There is no need to go through a whole dissertation over the radio on how to do a stall and recovery, just give a reminder to perform the maneuver.
Regardless of the level of student you are teaching, it is helpful to have only one or two students in the air at the same time. With three or more students on radio, the radio operator is constantly giving instructions. The constant chatter can be distracting.
One valuable skill of a radio operator, which comes with experience, is to recognize what a student parachute looks like at 1,000 feet, and it is time to provide guidance to students through the landing pattern. If you misjudge the pattern altitude, simply keep the student flying toward a clear landing area; it’s a bonus if that happens to be near the intended target. The biggest priority is to have the student land in a clear, open landing area while flying with the wing level. One thing to consider: If they don’t fly over it, they can’t land on it! Whenever possible, you should plan for and conduct a student descent over a clear, open area with a final-approach path that allows for landing on flat grass, even if the student lands very short or long of the intended target.
First-jump students almost always start their landing flares too high. The ground comes up quickly, and depth perception can be a challenge for the first few landings. Coaching new students through the final 50 feet via radio can be a good way to improve student performance. Start repeating, “Not yet,” every couple of seconds after the student reaches 50 feet and once the student is about 10 feet off the ground, give the three-stage flare command: “position 1, position two … position three” (corresponding to “flare to the shoulders, flare to the chest, full flare”). Of course, the student will have needed to have learned and practiced this method during the first-jump course. This technique can reduce the tendency of students to flare too high, which in turn can reduce the possibility of serious injury.
Radio operator: It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it! And while 99% of the students go through the training without any issues, it’s the struggling 1% who keep instructors around the world continually working to improve the process. Students must learn how to land without radio assistance beginning with the first jump, but the radio can be a fantastic training tool when used properly. And if your students don’t want to follow your instructions, hopefully they have been trained well enough to land safely on their own (preferably without the swear words).
Jim Crouch | D-16979 and USPA Director of Safety and Training from 2000-2018.