Photo by David Cherry.
Beginners to freeflying enter a completely new skydiving environment, and equipment is of first concern. The speeds and orientations of flopping around in freefall like a freshly caught fish can open your parachute unexpectedly and ruin everyone’s day.
First to consider: Is your rig designed for freeflying? Some rigs, especially older ones, simply don’t cut it. For a variety of reasons, you can rule out just about any rig modified from having the pilot chute on the leg strap to the bottom of the container. Even when a rigger does a good job of this conversion, their design hasn’t been tested. Typically, these rigs survive from before freeflying became a thing, and any number of details may make them unworthy.
Even if your container started with a BOC (bottom-of-container pilot chute), the elastic in the pouch lasts only so long. The elastic band that stretches across the mouth (feel it—it’s in there) gets lazy over time, leaving little more than the friction of the pouch’s cloth to keep the pilot chute contained. And most importantly, the pilot chute and pouch need to be compatible. Under pressure and activity, a too-small pouch can squeeze out its contents like toothpaste. Conversely, the swirling winds of freefly can coax out a pilot chute that’s too small for its pouch. How you pack the pilot chute matters as well. It needs to fill the pouch evenly with the apex well inside the mouth and the handle barely peeking out.
When you finish packing, absolutely no bridle should appear anywhere on the outside of the container. Not all rigs can do this, even with the best packing technique.
Freeflying also taught manufacturers a bunch about riser covers, and the older designs got updates for a reason. Generally, rigs older than seven or eight years use either an older riser-cover design, or the riser covers have by now gotten tired. That goes for both magnet and tuck-tab designs. Touch-fastener (aka Velcro) riser covers and pin covers excuse virtually every rig from freefly duty.
Similarly, tuck tabs used for pin covers may or may not make the grade. If it’s easy to check your reserve pin, that may disqualify your rig. Main pin covers loosen up quickly with use. Once one flies open in a sit position, the wind up your back can whip any exposed bridle around enough to dislodge your main pin. Blammo!
Newbies stress out a lot when deciding whether to get freefly main and reserve ripcord handles. The freefly-type-reserve-ripcord handle, similar to a cutaway handle, makes it hard for someone else to accidentally pull yours. But it also makes it harder to pull yourself. In fact, don’t pull it at all. It works best to strip it from the pocket’s touch fastener with a twisting motion, turn it flat and push down toward your legs. You’re much stronger that way and less likely to lose your grip. That’s a lot to add into an emergency procedure if you’ve only trained and practiced with a steel-loop-type handle.
A freefly main-pilot-chute handle (nicknamed “pud”) usually either resembles a stubby cutaway handle or a hacky sack. Both have an additional plastic tab inserted tightly between two layers of fabric positioned on the bottom corner of the container. Again, it’s harder to dislodge but harder to pull. Once you get used to a tuck tab, it’s easy. But before you jump it, try it out: Lie belly down on the floor, arch and deploy your pilot chute as you would in freefall. Often, you’ll need to first push it toward the pouch to clear the tab, then extract the pilot chute. Too many jumpers have learned this the hard way, resulting in a reserve ride or worse.
After all that, your rig needs to fit both you and your canopies. Every container has a canopy-size-compatibility range, and it’s especially important to stay within it for freeflying. A too-small main won’t provide the friction on the closing loop and pin to stay closed. An overstuffed container will strain the pin covers and cause them to flop open at the slightest provocation, leaving a main or reserve pin exposed to category-four winds and people bumping into you from odd angles.
A stretched-out older rig or one with a downsized main or reserve may not provide the tension on the edges needed to keep riser covers, tuck tabs and pin covers in place or provide sufficient tension on the main closing loop to keep the pin in place until pull time. If you’re not struggling to insert your pin, it’s too loose. And that means keeping an eye on the loop for the additional wear.
Because you don’t know how you’ll wind up positioned in freefall and for how long, your harness needs to bind you in, and your container needs to hug you close. Not only can a loose rig hamper your control, plenty of hapless newbie freeflyers have had to hike their leg straps back up their thighs from their knees before they could regain stability. And flying head down is no fun when a shoulder strap starts sliding down toward your elbow.
None of this should take away from the joys of properly prepared and coached freeflying, but before you begin, stop by your rigging loft for a gear assessment. If it passes, tie on the little elastic bungee to keep the leg straps in place when you sit, pay even more attention during your pre-flight checks and become more aware of the equipment you fly as you fly it. Freeflying’s a whole new world, and you don’t want to get suddenly yanked out of it because your gear wasn’t up to the task.
Kevin Gibson | D-6943 and FAA-Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner
Rahlmo’s Rigging at Skydive Orange in Virginia