Decisions, Decisions—Responding to a Pilot Chute In Tow
Safety & Training | Mar 01, 2021
Decisions, Decisions—Responding to a Pilot Chute In Tow

Jim Crouch

It’s easy to let your guard down when it comes to emergency procedures. A large percentage of jumpers go for years (and thousands of jumps) without reserve rides. Still, most of us practice our emergency procedures all the time to stay prepared for the inevitable. All that right-left simulated handle yanking on the way to altitude is bound to be good for something, right? Well, yes and no.

Choices

Pulling handles in the correct order is certainly important. But is that your plan for every single malfunction? Should it be? Maybe, maybe not! A pilot chute-in-tow malfunction is a common malfunction, and it actually has two possible responses, both of which lead to successful outcomes in almost all cases. Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-2 lists the two responses for a pilot chute in tow:

Pilot-chute-in-tow procedure 1: Pull the reserve immediately. A pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction is associated with a high descent rate and requires immediate action. The chance of a main-reserve entanglement is slim, and valuable time and altitude could be lost by initiating a cutaway prior to deploying the reserve. Be prepared to cut away.

Pilot-chute-in-tow procedure 2: Cut away, then immediately deploy the reserve. Because there is a chance the main parachute could deploy during or as a result of the reserve activation, a cutaway might be the best response in some situations.

So, why are there two different procedures? Why doesn’t USPA just pick one and make it the only recommended response? That argument goes back a long way, probably as far back as the development of the first piggy-back containers (where both the main and reserve parachutes are on the back of the container rather than the reserve being on the front). “The Parachute Manual” by Dan Poynter (published in 1984) states that jumpers should go straight to the reserve ripcord in the event of a pilot chute in tow. “Do not waste time pulling on the bridle or breaking away,” it reads. But an article about deployment problems in the July 1986 edition of Parachutist magazine recommended cutting away first, then deploying the reserve. However, an editor’s note disagreed with that recommendation, stating that cutting away only wastes time, and jumpers should go straight to the reserve ripcord. Like many things in skydiving, there are plenty of opinions to go around. You’ll find recommendations for either procedure depending on who you talk to.

The trick is to decide now which procedure you will use. Look at factual information, discuss it with your Safety and Training Advisor and instructors at the drop zone, know your parachute system and any special considerations for it, practice frequently using the procedure you have decided on and stick with your procedure when faced with this type of malfunction. Screaming through 2,000 feet with a deflated pilot chute is no time to begin a debate with yourself about whether to pull the cutaway handle or just go straight to the reserve. So, which procedure is right for you?

Choose Your Own Adventure

You break off from a formation at 4,000 feet and track for six seconds, sit up slightly and flatten out to slow down for three seconds and then throw your pilot chute. After three seconds, you find that you are not getting that familiar tug of the deploying main parachute, so you look over your shoulder to see what’s going on. You are now at 2,000 feet (and still eating up 1,000 feet every six seconds) and you are blowing through your decision altitude!

Regardless of which procedure you choose, you need to take immediate action.

Procedure One

The first option—going straight to the reserve ripcord without pulling the cutaway handle—gets the reserve deploying immediately and you’re not wasting any time pulling the cutaway handle. But you have to be prepared for this response and pull the handle with no hesitation. If you spend several seconds questioning whether you should cut away or just pull the reserve, it negates the whole argument that going straight to the reserve ripcord is faster than pulling the cutaway handle first. The chances are very good that the reserve pilot chute and bridle will launch past the main pilot chute and the reserve will deploy into clean air. If there is an entanglement, hopefully the freebag will do its job, come off of the reserve canopy and still allow the reserve to find its way to a successful deployment. Once the reserve is out of the container there will be less pressure on the main container flaps and the main closing loop. It is not unusual for the main parachute to deploy and form a biplane or a side-by-side with the reserve parachute. The good news is that you have stopped the freefall, and you can now deal with the two canopies out.

Note: Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-1 also includes the recommendations for dealing with two canopies out. There are a variety of possible configurations, so, knowing your parachute system and having a plan ahead of time is critical. The two canopies might form a stable biplane, a stable side-by-side, an unstable side-by-side, a downplane or some sort of entanglement. Before cutting away, it is helpful to disconnect the reserve static line by pulling on the releasable snap shackle connected to one riser. This just allows the main risers to disconnect from the container without having to pull the RSL off the container as the main detaches. There is less chance of some sort of entanglement. The Parachute Industry Association conducted a study of dual deployments that provides useful information for dealing with both a main and reserve open and inflated. You can find that report at pia.com/wp-content/uploads/TB-261.pdf

Procedure Two

The second option for responding to a pilot chute in tow is to first pull the cutaway handle, then pull the reserve ripcord. The advantage of this response is that your emergency procedures remain the same for any malfunction. Pulling the cutaway handle first will release the 3-ring system on your main risers, but as long as your riser covers stay closed, your risers should stay put and not interfere with the reserve deployment. After the reserve deploys, if the main container opens and the main parachute inflates, it will instantly detach from the harness. Hopefully, it detaches cleanly and doesn’t interfere with the reserve parachute. But there is a chance that part of the main parachute can entangle with the reserve. Because the risers have disconnected from the harness, there is not much you can do to try to improve the situation. Essentially, you can only hope that the main parachute does not entangle with the reserve. This is the one downside to the option of pulling the cutaway handle first.

Gear Considerations

Depending on your harness and container, there may be only one proper response to a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction. For example, the Parachute Labs Racer container uses a double-sided reserve static line. In the event of a pilot chute in tow, it is essential that the jumper pull the reserve ripcord without cutting away. Then, if the main parachute does deploy and you decide to release it, you must disconnect the RSL first. If the RSL remains connected to both risers and you pull the cutaway handle, the main risers will slide up the lines of the reserve parachute, causing it to deflate. This situation is addressed in the owner’s manual for the Racer container.

Most manufacturers don’t give specific instructions for emergency procedures and leave it to the owner of the container to seek out proper training from appropriately rated skydivers. In the absence of any specific guidance from the manufacturer, it comes down to the training you receive as to how you will handle a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction.

Learning from Incidents

A review of fatalities dating back to 1999 shows only one fatal accident that started with a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction. The jumper pulled his reserve ripcord, and following the reserve deployment, the main canopy came out of the container and the suspension lines entangled with the jumper’s legs before the parachute inflated. He pulled the cutaway handle, but the main parachute entangled with the reserve following the cutaway. Additional complications from the entanglement with his legs worsened the situation.

There have been several close calls over the years where jumpers survived entanglements after pulling the cutaway handle first, then deploying the reserve. At least two of those involved jumpers who were jumping Parachute Labs Racer containers with RSLs, so they should not have pulled their cutaway handles. Both experienced hard landings under partially inflated main and reserve parachutes. Another jumper got very lucky after he pulled his cutaway handle and then deployed his reserve. He could only watch helplessly after his cutaway main parachute snagged his reserve slider and pulled it up the reserve lines, choking off his reserve while the main parachute remained mostly deflated above it. He descended into tall trees that initially stopped his descent before he hit the ground. However, the branches gave way and he dropped from approximately 40 feet and suffered a back injury from the hard landing. Had he not been over trees, he likely would not have survived the impact. There are undoubtedly plenty of other non-fatal accidents involving this type of malfunction, but a lack of reporting of non-fatal accidents over the years means the data is not available for research.

When dealing with a pilot chute in tow, either option can provide a successful outcome, but both also come with drawbacks that you must carefully consider. Using the same emergency procedures for all malfunctions might be best for some jumpers, while others might decide that just going straight to the reserve is the best option (and that they will be able to quickly identify the pilot chute in tow and react correctly). Know the facts, discuss it with your instructors and Safety and Training Advisor, and decide on the best option for you. Then, practice your emergency procedures regularly using a hanging harness or training vest, and always include a response to a pilot chute in tow during the practice session. Careful preparation and frequent practice will go a long way toward ensuring a successful outcome.

Prevention

The best defense against a pilot chute in tow is to avoid the situation altogether. Correct packing and careful maintenance will help ensure that your main pilot chute and bridle work correctly. Failing to cock the main pilot chute when packing is the most common cause of a pilot chute in tow. Almost every collapsible pilot chute includes an inspection window in the bridle to check the kill line to make sure the pilot chute has been cocked. A pin check should also include checking the kill line for a color (usually blue) in the inspection window. If there is no color on the kill line in the window, there is a good chance the pilot chute has not been cocked or it is only partially cocked.

The second most common cause is misrouting the bridle. Following the manufacturer’s packing instructions is the best way to ensure that you’re packing correctly. A few years ago, after several jumpers experienced a locked main container due to the main closing pin piercing the bridle, most manufacturers developed alternative packing instructions for the bridle. If your rig’s manufacturer provides two routing options for the main bridle, choose one and incorporate it into your routine. Packing the same way after each jump improves the chances of packing correctly.

Pilot chutes also wear out over time and should be replaced before they become a problem. Consult with a parachute rigger or the manufacturer to determine whether your pilot chute is in need of a replacement.

While not as popular as the throw-out pilot chute, a pull-out pilot chute offers greater protection against a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction, since the jumper manually extracts the closing pin before throwing the pilot chute for the main deployment. Although the throw-out pilot-chute system is the deployment system largely favored by jumpers around the world, many manufacturers still offer a pull-out pilot chute as an option.


About the Author

Jim Crouch, D-16979, is an FAA-rated Airline Transport Pilot based in Tampa, Florida. From 2000 to 2018, he was the director of safety and training at USPA.

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