by Jim Crouch, USPA Director of Safety and Training
For skydivers, springtime weather can be both tricky and frustrating. After freezing all winter, many jumpers head to the drop zone at the first sign of a reasonably warm day, and they may be tempted to jump even if the winds are high or there are lots of clouds. But as the old saying goes, “It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
Gaining a better understanding about weather can help you make sense of the mysteries of winds and clouds and rain and snow. Fortunately, local news stations do a pretty good job of weather reporting and forecasting. There are also plenty of resources available on the Internet. But if learning more about weather is not your cup of tea and you’re simply asking others for advice, be sure that you’re not just going from person to person, looking for the answer you are seeking. Hopefully, your Safety and Training Advisor is keeping an eye on the conditions and can give you guidance (or will halt operations before conditions are risky).
Most of the time it is pretty easy to know when to call it quits. Solid cloud layers, frigid temperatures or winds above 20 mph make it easy to decide to call it a day and hope for better weather tomorrow. Marginal weather may tempt you to squeeze in some jumps, but doing so is just asking for trouble. Lots of jumpers have been injured or even killed by pushing their limits and jumping in bad weather. If the little voice inside your head is worried about the current weather conditions, that is usually a good sign to stay on the ground and wait.
The most difficult weather-related challenge for skydivers has always been the wind, a constantly changing variable that you can’t see but that greatly affects every jump you make. Experience is helpful when it comes to dealing with different wind speeds and directions under canopy. Learning to adjust the landing pattern to compensate for the wind begins at the student level in Category C, but really good canopy control and landing accuracy in winds stronger than 10 mph is challenging for most jumpers with fewer than 300 jumps. On days when the winds are 15 mph or more, landing accuracy is almost non-existent, and most jumpers are happy to manage a landing into a clear area … any clear area. So, the trick is finding the wind speed below which you can remain in control of your parachute throughout the entire descent and landing. Avoid the trap of pushing beyond that wind speed (through your own ego or peer pressure) and getting into trouble.
Strong winds are tricky, but gusty winds are just plain scary. There is no worse feeling than having your canopy collapse repeatedly throughout the canopy descent and knowing there is nothing you can do but hope to get to the ground at a time when the canopy is inflated and you can flare for landing. Even when gusts are slight to moderate, your canopy descent and landing may be dangerous and scary. Gusts are unpredictable and difficult to categorize because there are so many variables. For example, winds at 6 mph gusting to 10 mph are usually not a problem, but if there’s a row of trees or an obstacle a little upwind of the landing target, the effect of the gusts becomes much worse.
Know your limits, stay conservative and watch the weather closely. A cautious approach to dealing with winds and weather conditions will help you stay in the air when the weather permits and out of the hospital when it doesn’t.
Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety and Training