Far too often, skydivers face difficulties pulling their pilot chutes, and the results are often far too serious. A jumper gets a new rig or a more secure main-deployment handle with a tuck tab to make the rig safer for freeflying, then on the first jump—without having practiced deploying on the ground—there’s trouble.
With any new rig or change to the deployment system on an old one, consider all the possibilities, including that you didn’t think of them all. At a minimum, devise the most realistic scenario and practice a complete deployment on the ground. Practice while lying face down on the floor to make it more cumbersome to move and so the rig settles into your back (where it’s going to be at pull time).
If you have trouble reaching or pulling the handle while you’re on the floor, it’s sure to be hard in the air. Anticipate this by pulling at a higher than normal altitude to allow time and brain space to deal with a fumble. Your new setup may take a couple of jumps to get used to.
Manufacturers oﬀer containers of diﬀerent sizes (for bigger and smaller canopies), but also diﬀerent shapes. The same container that takes a 170- and 160-square-foot main-reserve combo can be tall and skinny, putting the pilot chute handle lower on your back where it’s easy to reach, or short and thick. Just going to a smaller container in the same planform (ratio between height and width of the backpad) can place the pilot chute higher up your back and make it harder to reach.
Jumpers also come in various degrees of flexibility. Limits might result from injuries, age, over-developed shoulders or shorter limbs relative to body size, to name a few. Not every rig suits every person. Many unprepared jumpers on the lower edge of the flexibility bell curve have found themselves unable to find, much less touch, the bottom corner of their rigs in freefall.
Handles with tuck tabs (left) are harder to extract than hackey handles (right), which makes them simultaneously safer and more dangerous.
Handles with tuck tabs are harder to extract, which both makes them safer and more dangerous. The high speeds and random presentations to the wind in freeflying require extra security to prevent the main pilot chute from working its way out before you’re ready to open. So just pulling a tuck-tab handle outward is meant to be difficult or nearly impossible. You might need to push it inward first to clear the tab … not something you want to work out in mid-air. Again, it’s usually just something to get used to, but it may take a few jumps to build it in as a reflex.
When you are suddenly faced with a hard pull, your skydive will flash from amazingly fun to terrifying. While your brain busies itself trying to process and organize what’s going on (another way of describing panic), all that’s called for is action. The correct response and following procedures are key: Try arching harder on the second try—it may be counterintuitive, but it often solves the problem of a hard-to-reach handle.
After two tries on the handle, go to the reserve. It doesn’t matter how foolish it feels that you can’t pull your own pilot chute or how close you think you are to getting it: Don’t think; execute your plan. Getting a nice clean reserve deployment at a decent altitude is far better than diving or tumbling after groping for your handle while losing who-knows-how-much altitude.
It should go without saying that if you’re borrowing a rig (shudder), you’ll want to get familiar with its most basic function using these ideas.
Kevin Gibson | D-6943 and FAA Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner
Rahlmo’s Rigging at Skydive Orange in Virginia