Most contemporary skydivers jump with an automatic activation device, a microprocessor that senses when a skydiver has reached an unsafe altitude at an unsafe rate of descent and sends a signal to sever the reserve closing loop. If all goes well from there, the reserve opens and the skydiver gets to explain how they got into such a pickle. Current AADs enjoy a reputation for reliability, functioning when necessary and not functioning when unexpected. A vast majority of drop zones and special events require them for all jumpers. So even if your DZ doesn’t, you can’t go far without one.
The cost for a new AAD ranges from about $1,000 to a little north of $1,200. (Since almost all of them come from Europe, the price ﬂoats with the dollar’s value against the euro and has varied more than 10% over the last 18 months.) Alongside the price for a new AAD, you’ll want to consider the actual cost of ownership, which gets a little more complicated.
The three new AADs you’ll see on the current market—in order of appearance and market penetration—are the Airtec CYPRES from Germany, the Advanced Aerospace Designs Vigil from Belgium and the MarS M2 from the Czech Republic. The Aviacom Argus from Belgium is no longer manufactured, but the four-year periodic service is still available from Para Concepts in Ottawa, Illinois.
Without going too deeply into details, let’s just say all have a negligible failure rate (keeping in mind that nobody is supposed to ever need one, right?). USPA requires that student skydivers wear an AAD, and the Federal Aviation Administration requires them for tandem jumps. While the FAA doesn’t require AADs for solo skydivers, anyone who wears one must follow Code of Federal Regulations 105.43.c, which states, “If installed, the automatic activation device must be maintained in accordance with manufacturer instructions for that automatic activation device.” The FAA’s Advisory Circular 105-2E explaining CFR 105 holds the rigger responsible “that [the AAD] meets all safety requirements on the day [the reserve] is packed.” But after that, the FAA leaves it up to the user to “determine AAD airworthiness and ensure conformance to the regulations.”
So, riggers need to know about all the AADs they pack, and AAD owners and users need to familiarize themselves with the one they have in their rigs. Unfortunately, even a close read of an AAD manual can leave a user a little uncertain about what’s required to operate an AAD safely and legally.
The MarS M2 manual states that the AAD requires an annual check, including how much battery remains and the relative accuracy of the pressure reading compared to another device. In earlier M2 models, a vertical bar visible between two arrows on the display must disappear at 475 feet to indicate the unit is arming. The M2 has a 15.5-year service life. Some service operations can be handled locally (by Alti-2 in the USA), more complicated ones in the Czech Republic.
While MarS requires an annual check, the owner can do it. The manual explains how to get the battery percentage and pressure reading in hectopascals. Another jumper can observe the arming indication while climbing in the aircraft if a vacuum chamber isn’t available.
On CYPRES units manufactured prior to 2016, Airtec requires a factory-authorized inspection every four years and every ﬁve years on 2016 units. On units manufactured in 2017 and beyond, Airtec relaxed the ﬁve-year check from “required” to “strongly recommended.” The service costs $160, plus shipping and handling and takes three to eight weeks mailbox to mailbox, depending on workﬂow and whether the service can be performed locally (SSK Industries in the USA) or in Germany.
CYPRES units coming up on the service date display it each time during start-up, so an observant user won’t get surprised. CYPRES units have a 12.5-year or 15.5-year service life, depending on date of manufacture. The break occurs in January 2017.
Advance Aerospace Designs does not schedule an inspection for its Vigil AAD throughout its 20-year service life. Vigil batteries should last “ﬁve years or 2,000 jumps, whichever occurs sooner,” according to the manual. Units must be sent oﬀ for a battery change at 10 years. During battery changes, Vigils typically receive ﬁrmware updates and sometimes new hardware, similar to CYPRES. A wide range of Vigils are subject to mandatory service bulletins, and that information is on the website at vigil.aero.
Beyond battery changes, Vigils often must go to Belgium for service and repairs. Service price varies, and time ranges from a week for just batteries to up to 6-8 weeks for more extensive work. The battery date appears on a holographic tag on the battery case inside the reserve container. Batteries for the ﬁrst-generation Vigils (from around 2007-2009) are no longer available, so those units have to be replaced if the battery expires. The company oﬀers a small discount.
As with all AADs, Vigil owners can determine the number of jumps on the unit display during start-up. However, wingsuit jumpers may ﬁnd a much larger count than actual jumps on the unit, since Vigils will reset during a powerful wingsuit ﬂare and count it as another skydive.
Used or New?
The life limit for Vigil units is 20 years. CYPRES units must retire at 15.5 years for current units and 12.5 years for units manufactured before 2016. MarS M2s last 15.5 years. So, in eﬀect, with the required service, you can expect the cost per year of ownership for CYPRES to be higher than the others, as long as the others don’t have a recall or required update. (How’s that 2012 laptop doing for you)?
An AAD is either working or it isn’t, so an older in-service model should serve as well as a new one. However, you’re typically better oﬀ buying a new AAD if only because of the inﬂated price on used ones. Nobody wants to drop $1,000-plus for a new AAD, so used mid-life units generally sell within minutes on the online listings for more than they’re worth. Make sure to research the service schedule to know what you’re getting.
Not Plug and Play
Most importantly, don’t just install your AAD and start jumping. Just about everyone in the industry agrees that it’s desirable to set AADs to fire higher than the default setting out of the box. Plainly put, your factory default ﬁring altitude may not allow your reserve time to open and save your life. Almost all microprocessor AADs have user-adjustable altitudes you need to set only one time. See the manual.
Also realize that if you saddle in under canopy too close to the AAD’s pre-set ﬁring altitude, your AAD will still discharge the cutter. Again, see the manual. Each jumper has to plan emergency procedures and bottom-line altitudes compatible with their device.
Modern AADs often have a range of programming modes that could endanger a jumper who’s jumping outside the parameters of that mode—meaning you could get an unwanted reserve deployment while ﬂying a good main canopy. Make sure to read the manual and understand what’s on the display when you turn yours on.
So, when choosing an AAD for yourself, you can’t go very wrong with any of the choices available today. Once you decide, you must familiarize yourself with the service schedules to make sure you, your pilot, your rigger and your drop zone are in compliance. That’s right—the FAA holds you all jointly responsible for AAD requirements when they are installed. Then make sure you understand the AAD you have by reading your manual. Finally, revise and review your procedures to make sure they match your AAD’s functions for your style of skydiving.
Kevin Gibson | D-6943 and FAA-Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner
Rahlmo’s Rigging at Skydive Orange in Virginia