A Pact with Yourself—Setting and Sticking to a Decision Altitiude
Safety & Training | Sep 15, 2021
A Pact with Yourself—Setting and Sticking to a Decision Altitiude

Erin Orwig

Above photo by Curt Vogelsang.

Recently, a jumper with a few hundred jumps deployed his canopy and it opened in severe line twists with the slider stuck two-thirds of the way up. It began gently spinning. Fortunately, he was able to get it flying straight, but he then spent a long time aggressively kicking out of the twists. He was a bit low, about 1,600 feet, when he finally cleared the twists and turned his canopy toward the landing area.

The drop zone’s safety officer, whose job (among other things) was to watch for safety issues from the landing area, walked out to the jumper after he landed and asked him what his decision altitude was. He replied, “2,000 feet,” and then said, “but I’m not going to cut away something that’s flying straight and level.”

The DZSO explained why this was not a great decision, saying, “What if, after you got out of all those line twists, you went to unstow your brakes and had a locked toggle? Or discovered something else that caused the twists in the first place?”

Your decision altitude is a pact with yourself, a solemn vow to implement your emergency procedures if, by a predetermined altitude, you do not already have a canopy that you can steer and land (not one that you’re pretty sure you can get to that point).

While your exact decision altitude may change a little bit as you gain experience, you should always know what yours is and stick to it. It is not just a concept for students. The cost of a repack is less than the cost of a bunch of hospital bills, and it is certainly less than the cost of your life. People die in this sport every year because they spend too long fighting malfunctions. Before your next jump, take a few minutes to reaffirm your personal decision altitude and renew the pact with yourself to abide by it.

What’s Your Number?
Factors that may affect your choice of decision altitude include:

  • Experience level: USPA recommends a decision altitude of no lower than 2,500 feet for students and A-license holders and 1,800 feet for B- through D-license holders. There is nothing wrong with having a higher decision altitude. If yours is lower than the recommendations, please think long and hard about the reasons.
  • Currency
  • Main and reserve parachute type and size
  • Familiarity with your main (and your reserve)
  • Firing parameters of your automatic activation device (including any user-modified settings)
  • Layout of the DZ (availability of outs, dangerous terrain features, etc.)
  • Special circumstances (wearing a wingsuit, jumping with props, night jump, unfamiliar DZ, etc.)

Note that whether or not you have an AAD, reserve static line or main-activated-reserve-deployment (MARD) device is not on this list! These items are backups, not fail-safes; you should implement your emergency procedures as though these backups will not work, and you should select a decision altitude independent of the presence of these devices.

Photo by Guru Khalsa.

Why Have a Decision Altitude?
Having and sticking to a decision altitude is wise for several reasons:

  • You are more likely to maintain altitude awareness if there is a specific altitude that triggers action.           
  • It gives you a margin for error in case you lose your grip on or fail to pull (or find!) one of your handles on the first try.
  • It gives you a margin for error in case you don’t have a clean cutaway or your reserve pilot chute hangs up in your burble.
  • It gives you time to correct any opening issues (such as line twists) with your reserve.
  • It gives you time to find and get to a clear, open area in which to land your reserve.
  • It gives you time to perform practice flares with your reserve. (Public Service Announcement: Reserves do not fly or land like mains … not even like seven-cell mains.)

Addressing Misunderstandings
A small percentage of people may disagree with the above information, but they are in the distinct minority. If you hear comments such as, “Decision altitudes can change from malfunction to malfunction,” or, “Stable line twists aren’t a malfunction,” or, “Back in the day, canopy formation skydivers cut away below 2,000 feet, and as long as it was above the 1,000-foot hard deck, it was fine,” just consider the following: 

If your decision altitude changes moment to moment based on the circumstances of your malfunction, you don’t have a decision altitude. A decision altitude is predetermined and set before you even get on the plane. It’s a do-not-wait-any-longer-to-implement-emergency-procedures altitude. If you have low-speed or otherwise seemingly manageable malfunction, reaching your decision altitude means you must execute emergency procedures. If you have a high-speed or otherwise uncorrectable malfunction, it’s wise to implement emergency procedures higher than your decision altitude. As USPA said in a recent safety campaign, “Don’t delay, cut away.” The altitude below you—not the altitude above—is the only thing that can help you.

Back in the day, the average canopy opened faster, was more lightly loaded and was less responsive than the average canopy today. Back in the day, jumpers pulled lower. And back in the day, the fatality index was much higher.

Canopy formation skydiving has its own set of guidelines and procedures to accompany the risks involved. But you will not be in any better position after chopping a CF canopy at 1,200 feet than you will be after chopping a standard sport canopy at that altitude.

Malfunctions can be high speed or low speed. Given sufficient altitude, you can correct some malfunctions with a bit of luck and a bit of technique. Jumpers sometimes call correctable malfunctions such as closed end cells, hung sliders and stable line twists “nuisances.” But any nuisance becomes a malfunction once you reach your decision altitude. If you do not have a canopy that has passed a controllability check by your decision altitude, you need to implement your emergency procedures. Rest assured, you will not look like a bad-ass if you suck it down an extra few hundred feet. You will look foolhardy. To put it kindly.

Spinning malfunctions, no matter the cause, are not nuisances and you should implement your emergency procedures immediately.

Low-speed malfunctions—particularly those that begin as nuisances—have a unique danger. Because these malfunctions are stable, altitude loss is gradual and the jumper may feel as though they are in control, the malfunction presents in a form that appears imminently fixable. Because the canopy is flying straight and level, it is very easy for a jumper to forget that parachutes do not remain aloft indefinitely and the jumper stays trapped in fix-it mode. The longer you spend working at fixing a malfunction, the more your sense of time will distort. It is very easy to lose track of altitude. Make a habit of checking your altimeter every few seconds (few breaths) when dealing with low-speed malfunctions and nuisances.

Finally, Safety Day is not the only time of year that jumpers should review their emergency procedures. Practice them frequently, and if you have any questions about malfunctions or emergency procedures, do not hesitate to find a USPA Instructor or Safety and Training Advisor to ask for a review.

About the Author
Erin Orwig, D-35756, is a drop zone safety officer at Skydive Arizona in Eloy. She is a USPA AFF Instructor and Safety and Training Advisor and a Federal Aviation Administration Senior Rigger.

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