Photo by Kelly O'Keefe.
At a recent boogie, a question that came up repeatedly was, “Umm, are these winds OK to jump in?” To the credit of the participants—many of whom had relatively low experience levels—they heeded the organizers’ warnings and decided to stay on the ground when the winds were questionable. However, over the course of the five-day boogie, the organizers had to revisit the question many times throughout each day. The younger jumpers seemed to have trouble integrating the available information into a consistent answer and looked for continued guidance.
The following weekend, the DZ held an event attended by much more experienced jumpers. The organizers didn’t get the “are the winds OK?” question once. But on the first jump of the second day, four jumpers landed off due to the winds. Three of these made questionable decisions for landing and unfortunately, one sustained a serious injury. (They’re going to make a full recovery, but it’s gonna be a long road).
Jumping in winds … it’s a topic that’s seen lots of discussion, but it looks like it’s time to open it again. So, here we go ...
You made it to the boogie. You’ve traveled, braved the virus, ate some bad airport food, sat in an uncomfortable airplane (or car) seat and got yourself to the DZ. You’re all checked in, signed the waiver, paid the registration, found an organizer and, out of nowhere, it’s windy. Really windy. The DZ just put out a wind hold for those who don’t have B-license or above. You’ve got a B-license, but you’re just not sure about the conditions. What’s the next move?
For a lot of people, the next move is to ask the organizer. But a windy day presents some difficulties for the organizer, too, and ultimately, it’s a personal decision. If it were raining or if it were cloudy, there wouldn’t be a discussion. But deciding whether or not to jump on a windy day is tough because the sun is shining and sitting on the ground can be frustrating when it seems … maybe ... jumpable. You’re excited to jump, you committed a lot to attend, and the organizers want to get you up in the air. However, few things can ruin your season faster than a landing incident, so let’s step back from the excitement for a moment and talk about some of the bigger issues.
What are Your Wind Limits?
The common answer to this question is, “I don’t know.” If that’s your answer, it should change. All skydivers need to know their answer to this question. There are a lot of other points to cover with regard to winds, but really, if you’ve established your answer to this question, all the other stuff is probably just icing on the cake.
You’re going to need two numbers to complete this question. The first is the maximum wind speed you’ll jump in, and the second is the gust differential. When you’re thinking about your max wind speed, you’ll want to consider things like your canopy size, your wing loading and what you think your forward speed is. Higher wing loadings and smaller canopy sizes usually translate to more forward speed, but your canopy type can also influence that. Keep in mind that the forward-speed goal for an AFF student on a conservative canopy that’s typically loaded at less than 1:1 is around 14 mph, which therefore is the highest sensible wind speed to jump in. So, if your forward speed is 20 mph, you’ll be going straight down when landing in 20 mph winds. Trying to land your canopy while going backward is a challenge, even in the most forgiving landing area. Setting your limit a little lower is probably best, and anything higher is putting you in some danger.
Gust differential is the difference between the low and high readings the DZ is getting on its landing-area anemometer (wind meter). Have you checked it? Different meters will show different information, but all will show the current windspeed and direction. The remaining info you need regarding the high, low and average wind speeds may be available, depending on the unit. If the info you want isn’t easily visible, you’ll have to ask manifest, who hopefully will be recording it.
When you’re thinking about the gust differential, you’ll again want to think about your canopy size, wing loading and canopy type. High gust differentials can contribute to canopy surges and partial or full collapses, so you’ll need to know how susceptible your canopy is. While smaller canopies may appear to be more resistant to turbulence (because they are usually moving faster through the turbulent air and have less surface area to be affected), when they experience a full or partial collapse there’s a lot less fabric there to reinflate. There are certainly some design characteristics that may be touted as better when it comes to turbulence, but in general no cross-bracing, airlock, or wizbang is going to outsmart Mother Nature. Understanding what kind of wing you’re flying will help you make a more informed choice.
The two numbers—wind speed and gust differential—are basic information that anyone can access when considering where to establish their wind limits. Take a little time to think about these numbers, preferably at a time when you’re not excited to jump. Your consideration of this safety information needs to be dispassionate. Then, after you establish these numbers, you must passionately stick to them. When you find yourself in a group of people you don’t know very well, it’s easy to feel the pressure to not back out. That’s bull. Set reasonable limits for yourself and treat your safety as a top priority.
For a little comparison, the wind limits for my (relatively experienced) vertical formation skydiving team are 25 and 10: max speed of 25 mph, and a gust differential of no more than 10 mph. [Editor’s note: the “relatively experienced” team is SDC Core, who are world champions and whose members have multiple thousands of jumps each.] Your numbers will be specific to you; these are just for illustration. When we train, the manifest staff knows our limits and just takes us off the load if the winds go higher. There’s no need for more discussion, because as a team, we’ve agreed on those numbers. You can put yourself in the same mindset by setting your limits and sticking to them.
OK, you’ve set wind limits. If you’re at the DZ and manifest reports winds over your limit, you can feel comfortable staying on the ground until the winds calm down. Typically, 20 minutes is the minimum amount of time you’d like the winds to stay under your limits before you consider getting back on a load.
You’ll also want to consider what the jump run is, what your spot might be like and what you can reasonably expect in terms of getting back to the DZ. You’ll want to know what the different wind layers are, from full altitude to the ground. Hopefully, the DZ has posted that information near manifest, but if they haven’t, you can always ask for the full wind report. There are also apps you can download to take a look for yourself, including Winds Aloft by Mark Schulze or Spot Assist, to name a couple.
Maybe the DZ is reporting strong winds that, although not over your limits, are very close. What are the other factors you want to consider?
Is This Your Home DZ?
Most jumpers are much more comfortable choosing to stay on the ground at their home DZs, and it’s only when they’re at a new DZ that they push their limits. When you’re at home, there typically isn’t the same self-imposed pressure to jump. You’re able to jump a few weekends each month, and if you don’t jump today, you can easily come back the next day or weekend. You don’t normally pay a registration fee at home, so staying on the ground doesn’t mean you’re out any extra cash. So, if you’re asking someone whether or not you should jump, chances are you’re at a new DZ or at a special event. Before you get on that load, take a second to consider a few things about your current DZ:
- How does this landing area compare to your home DZ? Is it bigger or smaller? What’s the layout? Are there main and alternate landing areas, or just a main?
- What are your outs? Have you reviewed the off-field landing options at this DZ? Have you ever landed off at this DZ? Can you land safely if your only choice is a backyard with trees and a fence and to land in that back yard, you have to go downwind at the current wind speed?
- What are the structures near the landing area that could cause turbulence? Does the current wind direction make you think turbulence will be an issue there? If you land off, how will the turbulence affect you in the landing area you choose?
- What are the rules for landing? Do you follow the windsock or tetrahedron, or do you follow the first person down? Are you comfortable following the first person down if they make a mistake and go downwind? If you realize when you’re low in the pattern that the landing direction isn’t into the wind, and your setup is kinda blown, are you comfortable changing your plan quickly? Can you safely change the plan and land off without making low turns? Some larger DZs, like Skydive Arizona, have multiple landing areas but only allow landings in cardinal directions (north/south only in one, east/west only in the other). As you can imagine, the wind doesn’t always cooperate. Are you OK with a 22 mph slightly crosswind landing?
- Do you know the current jump run? Is the jump run at this DZ pretty much always the same regardless of the ground winds, or do they change it throughout the day? How does your group fit into that jump run? Will you be first in the order? Middle? Last? Getting out on the ends of the run makes you more likely to land off, so you need to give special consideration to whether you can deal with the off-field landing options.
As you’ve probably noticed, there are a lot of variables here. Most of us can handle a very wide range of wind conditions when the landing area is familiar and wide open, but despite the best efforts of the people working to get you up in the air, it doesn’t always work out like that. We all would like to think that we’re going to get a good spot and land on the DZ, but try the mental exercise of putting yourself in the worst-case scenario. Can you handle that situation?
When Was Your Last Structured Canopy Course?
Canopy courses are an absolutely essential part of your growth as a skydiver. If you’re dedicated to becoming a better skydiver, consider the resources you’ve allocated to freefall. Have you gotten tunnel coaching? If so, did it improve your flight skills? Have you done some coached jumps? Was your coach able to help you bring your tunnel skills into the sky? Have you been on a team that hired a professional coach? Was their input helpful to your team? With little doubt, the answer to all those questions will be “yes.” Now, have you hired a coach for the skill that returns you safely to the earth after each jump? If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
Canopy courses exist for every level of pilot. Generally, professional canopy coaches are former competitive pilots and can offer information that’s valuable from the day you start skydiving through the day you stand on the podium of the canopy piloting world meet. However, it’s important to remember that most professional course material is not geared toward swooping! It’s designed to teach you about your wing and what you can (and can’t) do with it. Like other types of coaching, the goal is to get you to enter a challenging situation while still in a (relatively) controlled environment. The hopeful outcome is that you’ll be better prepared and your responses will be calmer, more informed and overall more successful in a real-life situation. Some notable learning points you’ll get in a canopy course that relate to this article are long-spot recovery, downwind and crosswind landings, flat turns and off-field landings, just to name a few. Those skills will give you a better perspective not only when you’re up in the air, but also when trying to assess the current conditions while on the ground.
If you’re convinced about the need for canopy coaching, where do you start? Course leaders can range from a local AFF instructor who teaches now and then on the weekend to professional instructors who make their living from teaching canopy skills. You’ll also likely find a wide range of prices and subject material. If you’re feeling intimidated about joining a course from one of the top professional schools such as Alter Ego, Flight-1, Brian Germain Coaching/Adventure Wisdom or Superior Flight Solutions, then getting started with your local instructor can be a good option. You’ll likely learn a lot and get a taste for what canopy coaching can offer you.
Hopefully, at some point you’ll get over the intimidation and sign up for a professional course. You’ll reap the benefits of years of coaching experience coupled with materials and teaching methods that have been refined over hundreds of courses. You’ll also likely find that there was no reason to be intimidated in the first place! These instructors are skydivers just like you, passionate about their discipline and committed to improving the skills and overall safety of our community. Once you get started, you might even want to make canopy instruction a regular part of each season.
What’s Your Experience Level?
This is a sort of general summing-up of what you’ve done in the past. Try not to let this question put you on the defensive. There are so many facets of your experience that only you are aware of, and the only way an organizer can help you answer the question of whether to jump in the current winds is to gain some limited understanding of your experience level. Do you normally jump in Hawaii, where the wind is strong nearly every day, or are all your jumps in more mellow wind conditions? Have you done hop-and-pops this season to work on your canopy skills? Have you done some canopy formation skydiving at your home DZ that made you more comfortable with canopy inputs and emergencies? How accurate have your landings been? Do you consistently land where you want to or are your landings in a shotgun-blast pattern around the DZ?
What you’ve done in the past isn’t a perfect predictor for how you’ll perform in the future, but it’s the only template we’ve got. Higher jump numbers can mean that you’ve already put yourself in marginal wind situations in the past, and that experience will hopefully help you in the current conditions, should you decide to go. Lower jump numbers will sometimes mean you haven’t gotten that experience yet, and then you’ll have to think about whether this boogie or event is really the time you want to find out if you and your canopy can handle this.
The Big Picture
So, how does your organizer accurately assess the skills you currently possess, so they can answer your original question? Honestly, they don’t. They try, by asking you a bunch of questions, but after the few minutes you spend discussing it, the picture will remain woefully inadequate. Based on that limited amount of information, the organizer will simply try to make the best decision they can.
A better option exists. That option is for you, when you next have a chance, to start working to educate yourself on these issues. Take the time to talk to experienced jumpers at your home DZ. On days that are even a little windy, head over to manifest and take a look at the anemometer they’re using. What information does it provide, and what other information would you like to know? Take the time each morning to get the full wind report from the DZ, find out the jump run and consider your landing options. Look into a canopy course and enroll in the first one you can. All of these habits you form at your home DZ, where you’re comfortable asking questions (and potentially asking for more information than is easily visible), will set you up for success at the special events you attend. You’ll have the confidence of knowing your limits, and knowing the information you need to make the choice to stay within those limits.
If you haven’t done some or all of these things yet and find yourself at an event with atmospheric conditions you’re not sure about, by all means, ask your organizer. Organizers generally are people who like to assist other people, and they’ll do their best to help answer. Certainly, you should seek the information you need from qualified sources. Even if you’ve done everything this article suggests, asking your organizer for their perspective is never a bad option.
Finally, however you decide to proceed, take a few minutes before your next jump (whether at home or visiting a DZ) to put the DZ manifest phone number into your phone, and take your phone with you on your jumps. If you do find yourself in an off-field landing situation, quick communication can make a big difference to the outcome.
Educate yourself. Make sensible decisions. Stay safe out there.
About the Author
Jason Russell, D-23161, started skydiving in 2002 and currently has about 18,000 jumps. He’s earned around 25 indoor and outdoor vertical formation skydiving championships at the national and world level. He regularly organizes at Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois, and Skydive Sebastian in Florida. Russell was one of the organizers for the last two Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Records for Largest Head-Down Formation Skydive, assisted with the last two head-up world records and is assisting with the upcoming Project 19 Women’s Head-Down World Record Attempts.