Don’t Delay, Cut Away!—The Link Between Spinning Malfunctions and Difficult Cutaways
By USPA Director of Safety and Training Ron Bell
As a community, we must address the fatal mistakes that we’re making during spinning malfunctions. There have been five skydiving fatalities in the U.S. as of May 15 of this year. Four of those involved spinning malfunctions. All four could have been avoided had the jumpers recognized immediately that they were not improving their situations and then performed their emergency procedures promptly. To raise awareness of this problem, USPA is initiating an educational campaign: Don’t Delay, Cut Away!
Skydivers under spinning, diving canopies must stop looking up at their line twists and assuming they are something they can easily fix. Many skydivers have a false sense of security that they can solve the problem, since just about every jumper has had plenty of time to kick out of line twists before reaching decision altitude under a canopy that flew relatively straight. However, a line-twisted canopy that is also spinning presents the jumper with at least two malfunctions—the spin and the twists—that they need to fix before the canopy is ready to land. In addition to rapid altitude loss that gives a jumper less time to respond, spinning malfunctions can also complicate a cutaway by disorienting the jumper, subjecting the jumper to centrifugal forces and making it more physically difficult to shear the Velcro and pull the cutaway handle.
As part of an ongoing research project, USPA recently requested information from jumpers who had difficulty cutting away from spinning malfunctions. We received several responses. Excerpts of those responses are printed here for their educational value.
My last malfunction was an eye opener
One jumper, who has made more than 11,500 jumps over 45 years and flies an elliptical canopy loaded at 1.7:1 said, “I’ve had three malfunctions on small parachutes and all of them were spinners, but until the last one, I never had trouble cutting away. All three had line twists with a fully inflated canopy. The first one on a small canopy took me by surprise, because I had never experienced G forces in a spinning line-twist situation when jumping older, more docile canopies [where] cutting away was never a problem.
“On the last one, I had line twists and the canopy immediately started to dive and spin, so I immediately started my emergency procedures. Here in Canada, we are trained to put one hand on the cutaway handle and one on the reserve handle, which is what I did. But when I tried pulling the cutaway handle, I couldn’t dislodge it from the Velcro. Admittedly, I was probably a bit more nonchalant than I should have been, since I have never had trouble cutting away on any previous malfunctions. I remember thinking to myself that the reason I couldn’t pull the cutaway handle was because I was probably pulling instead of peeling the Velcro, so I tried to push the palm of my hand against the pillow to peel the Velcro apart, but it still didn’t want to separate. After a couple of attempts with no success using my right hand only, I let go of the reserve handle and with both hands I pulled the cutaway handle in an upward motion, which allowed me to separate the Velcro, and then in a downward motion to cut away. I must admit that it took me by surprise, since I have never had trouble cutting away before.
“The one thing that I’ve learned from jumping smaller, more modern canopies is to never take my openings for granted. Also, having a difficult time cutting away on my last malfunction was an eye opener for me. Can you imagine what it must be like for a junior jumper?”
The canopy started spinning
A senior rigger and jumper with about 2,450 jumps who was flying a 170-square-foot main canopy reported, “On main deployment, I typically have closed end cells. During the final stages of deployment, I reach up, grab the toggles, pull down on the steering lines to finish the slider moving down, inflate the two end cells on each side and start steering the canopy. Earlier this year, that action of pulling down on the steering lines occurred just as the parachute went into a spin and resulted in multiple line twists. The canopy started spinning and put me in a flat spin. My original deployment was at 3,500 feet AGL. I dealt with the line twists and spin until 2,000 feet. You can see me check the altimeter in the video. I made one more attempt to start removing the line twists, to no avail. I started the cutaway attempt at about 1,600 feet. I could not pull the cutaway handle with my right hand alone. I had to then move my left hand over and use both hands. The cutaway occurred at about 1,400 feet. The reserve static line pulled the reserve pin and I had an open reserve flying at 900 to 1,000 feet.”
I had an issue pulling the cutaway handle
A jumper with about 140 jumps reported, “I had a brake fire with spinning line twists. I didn’t waste much time cutting away but was still in a flat spin, back to earth. I used one hand on the cutaway handle and one on the reserve handle. I had an issue pulling the cutaway handle and had to switch to two hands. When I was in the flat spin, the cutaway handle was up around my armpit and in tight to my body, which made it very difficult to pull with one hand. I did try to pull straight down instead of peeling up to clear the Velcro first. I was able to cut away but accidently pulled the reserve as I was reaching over with my left hand to the cutaway handle. The reserve opened just as the main lines passed the opening reserve canopy and opened without entanglement. I do open at 4,000 feet, and my decision altitude is 2,500 feet. I have talked to many AFF instructors about opening lower, and not one has said opening below 4,000 feet is a good idea.
“This was my first cutaway, and it was an eye opener. The way my AFF instructions beat it in to me helped me get out of this situation and walk away. I have since switched to using two hands on the cutaway handle and then going to the reserve handle with two hands.”
Back to the basics
A jumper with 4,000-plus jumps was flying a new-to-him 84-square-foot canopy loaded at 2.4:1. He had several hundred jumps under similar canopies and had successfully dealt with malfunctions of this type. He reported, “This time, after what seemed like a normal opening, I suddenly felt a pull to the right that spun up my lines and proceeded to put me into a spin on by back. I spent about five seconds trying to get the canopy flying straight before deciding to perform my emergency procedures.
“My AFF instructors spent a lot of time drilling into me how important it is to use both hands for each handle and the importance of pulling up to clear the Velcro and pushing down to full arm extension before proceeding to the reserve handle. But, now with several years, thousands of jumps and seven cutaways behind me, I had become lazy and regressed to grabbing my cutaway handle with my right hand and reserve with my left and punching down each pull without even trying to clear the Velcro first. This time when I punched down on the cutaway handle, I realized that my canopy didn’t release. I looked at my hand and opened it to reveal … nothing! I then looked at my cutaway handle still attached to my main lift web and grabbed it with every bit of strength I could gather and punched it again. Nothing! My hand had slipped off it again. My first thought was that I missed a zip tie somewhere when assembling the rig and I was about to die. Thankfully, I gathered my thoughts and told myself, ‘Back to the basics.’ While talking to myself (‘look, grab, cut away’) as I proceeded with both hands (‘peel up, push down to full arm extension’), I was surprised and delighted to feel the release of my main canopy. I thought to myself, ‘Holy s***, it worked!’ I then pulled my reserve and saddled out a little low but still with enough altitude to make a safe landing back at the drop zone.
“Honestly, going straight to my reserve never crossed my mind. I was well below my decision altitude by the time I finally cut away and deployed my reserve, but I had not reached my hard deck yet. Hopefully, if I were not able to cut away by 1,000 feet, I would have at least deployed my reserve and hoped it slowed me down enough to survive the landing. This is something I always cover with my students now: not being able to cut away or being at or below your hard deck.
“When I was a student, I hated how much my instructors drilled my emergency procedures and the precision they demanded. ‘I got it already,’ I would think to myself. ‘This is going to save your life one day,’ they would repeat time and again. After a few cutaways, I thought to myself, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Now I’m glad they spent the time to drill my emergency procedures because the first seven cutaways were easy … nerve-wracking but easy. I completed them so easily I had become complacent about my emergency procedures. This time something was different. My nonchalant approach was not working, but falling back on the basics that were drilled into me many years ago pulled me through. And now, every time I see a student roll their eyes at me when I say, ‘Again!’ I smile and follow it up with, ‘This is going to save your life one day.’”
A big shot of adrenaline
A USPA AFF instructor reported, “I was the reserve-side instructor on an AFF level I and the student was a really tall and lanky guy (I’m 5’6”) and was butt up the whole time. I was working my a** off to keep him belly to earth, and when the main-side instructor finally dumped him out at pull time, I tracked away. My canopy opened into a spinner, which I fought for about 500 feet before deciding to cut away. By this time, my arms were so fatigued from fighting the student and then my main canopy, I couldn’t pull the red handle on the first attempt. A little bit of ground rush; a big shot of adrenaline; telling myself, ‘Save yourself, weakling;’ and then a more focused peeling of the handle got the job done. Peeling the handle has become standard operating procedure for me after that jump.”
The G forces caught them off guard
In two separate instances, jumpers with decades of experience in the sport were unable to cut away from their spinning line twists. In one case, the jumper gave up trying to cut away at about 1,000 feet and refocused attention on clearing the malfunction of the main parachute. The malfunction cleared at approximately 300 feet, and the jumper landed safely under the main parachute.
In the second case, the jumper deployed the reserve after several unsuccessful attempts at cutting away. Amazingly, the reserve deployed and inflated without entanglement. The fully inflated reserve stopped the spin, and the two canopies settled into what can only be described as a hybrid of a side-by-side and a downplane. Without the ability to flare, the jumper made a parachute landing fall and walked away banged up but not broken.
Both jumpers described how the G forces caught them off guard. They also both commented that had they not been able to work out their situations, they feel they would have been classified as yet another skydiver who got preoccupied by trying to fix a main canopy, lost altitude awareness and died as a result, when in reality they were jumpers who experienced something they were never trained to handle and something they never considered a possibility.
I was unable to look down
A jumper had his first cutaway in 640 jumps on an elliptical canopy loaded at 1.3:1. He said, “I found myself in severe spinning line twists. I quickly realized I needed to cut away. Because of the way the risers were bunched and twisted, I was unable to look down to see my handles, but I found them quickly anyway. I learned and practiced the single-handed cutaway and reserve-deployment method, so with my right hand on my cutaway handle, I attempted to peel the pillow before punching it away. I found, though, that I was unable to do so, and after two attempts with one hand, I was able to cut away using two hands. After thinking about it, I thought I was unsuccessful because I must have also grabbed a handful of my jumpsuit, which hindered the peel and push. But now, I don’t know and can’t recall if the problem was that I couldn’t peel the pillow or that I couldn’t punch it!
“As an extra bonus for my first cutaway and reserve ride, when my canopy left, the RSL [reserve static line] hooked under my chin, giving me a nasty line burn and slamming my mouth shut, resulting in several loosened teeth! But my reserve worked as designed, and I landed safely.”
Many factors can lead to a hard cutaway: dirty cutaway cables, added friction on the Velcro as the main lift web presses up tight against the body from the spin, and the cutaway pocket clamping together as the main lift web stretches from the additional G forces the jumper is experiencing during a spin. Even improper technique can make a cutaway seem harder than normal. No matter what the cause or combination of causes, a spinning malfunction with line twists seems to magnify the problems.
There is no way to know how many of our fallen comrades experienced similar problems, because they didn’t live to tell their stories. This is exactly why reporting non-fatal incidents to USPA is so important. We can learn so much from someone who survived an incident. By sharing your stories, you are saving lives in the future. Thanks to all who did so for this article.