How to Become an Old Skydiver
By Doug Garr
We’re in an unforgiving sport. We’re made aware of this each time we sign a liability waiver, every time we read an incident report. Those who have been jumping for 30, 40 or 50 years have seen a lot, and the smart ones know that there’s always one new thing they haven’t seen that leads to something going wrong. Many years ago, a wise skydiver remarked that the path to disaster is often a chain of events where if just one small thing changed, the tragedy could be avoided. “It’s the little things in this sport that can get you,” he said. Today, this still resonates. If you’d like to become an old timer yourself, the minute details are crucial.
Take the closing loop: It’s the simplest, cheapest item on a complete sport parachute system, which typically runs $5,000 to $7,000 new. A closing loop costs a dollar (or it’s free if you have a charitable rigger or packer). Closing loops last about 60-70 skydives, even if you are careful enough to remove the pull-up cord from underneath the pin when packing to slow it from wearing out.
When a closing loop breaks, it’s often in the packing area, where it’s quickly and easily replaced. So, when one begins to fray, a skydiver’s typical thought is, “It’s got five or six more pack jobs left. I’m on a 10-minute call, so I’ll swap it out for the new one at the end of the day.” But here is a hypothetical scenario that’s worth pondering: Suppose you’ve just opened the door at 13,500 feet, a skydiver behind you jostles your backpack and the loop decides to take its last gasp as you’re climbing out as the rear floater? You now have a situation that can make your skydive a miserable, dangerous experience or worse. Perhaps the bridle wraps around the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer. Unlikely, of course, but possible. And not only can it happen, it would be disastrous if it did. Keep a spare closing loop in your gear bag and change it before you think you need to.
Sooner or Later
Surprisingly, many newer jumpers—even those with 150 skydives or more—have never had an off-field landing. But trust me, if you’ve never landed in someone’s postage stamp of a backyard, sooner or later you will. Maybe not at your home DZ and maybe not today or tomorrow, but it’s certain to happen as you add to your jump total and begin traveling to boogies and events. You’re going to have a bad spot or an opening snivel for what seems like forever and possibly both at the same time.
A closing loop costs a dollar. Keep a spare closing loop in your gear bag and change it before you think you need to.
So what if—uh oh—you’re the one who’s not going to make it back? Know you may not see a flag or any kind of indicator to help you with the wind direction. Know you may land crosswind or downwind. Know that you may have to land in brakes and do a parachute landing fall. You might even be under your reserve and distracted thinking about where your main and freebag are going (certainly a secondary concern).
Now let’s talk about the reserve ride that you may not have had yet. Here is an example of a little thing that a skydiver didn’t anticipate that caused a lot of problems: Last season, an older jumper with thousands of skydives experienced a spinning main, which caused a lot of tension on his cutaway pillow. He had difficulty cutting away, and he was lower than expected when he deployed his reserve. He landed off the DZ and downwind in a tight alternate landing area to avoid trees and other obstacles, and the harder-than-normal impact resulted in a broken foot. After the incident, he said he never should have put himself in that situation. His past training in the hanging harness (on older gear where the cutaway pillow was not pocketed inside double webbing) emphasized simply pulling down instead of peeling the Velcro in an upward direction and then pushing down to full arm extension. It’s something he won’t soon forget the next time he’s in the hanging harness.
So, let’s think about having difficulties during a cutaway. Can it happen to you? Many skydivers haven’t been in a hanging harness since their student days. If you’ve never had a malfunction or haven’t had one recently, get in the hanging harness. Remember the truism: If you can’t do it on the ground, you won’t be able to do it up there. “Simulated emergency” is a quaint oxymoron, isn’t it? But if you haven’t experienced the real thing, it’s the best available training protocol.
Head on a Swivel Is Not Enough
Peel the Velcro and
then pull to reduce the force needed to cut away.
Now let’s think about some things that can happen under an open parachute. You’ve had plenty of canopy training and perhaps you’ve taken a canopy course after you earned your A license. During this time, you’ve undoubtedly heard someone say that you need to “keep your head on a swivel.” Constant vigilance in your airspace is necessary, of course, but it’s not enough to just keep twisting your head around. Bryan Burke, the longtime Safety and Training Advisor at Skydive Arizona in Eloy, has watched many thousands of landings (and too many collisions and near misses). He concluded that “head on a swivel” just isn’t enough. There’s a 70-degree space behind you (from about 130 to 200 degrees on the compass) that you just can’t see no matter how much you strain your neck. You must rely on other skydivers to see you. Plus, you must keep scanning below, because the canopies under you have the right of way. It’s very easy to miss someone who is below and behind you, especially around 1,000 feet, when a number of skydivers may be entering the landing pattern. Also, someone below and behind may not see you, because their canopy blocks you out.
Here is a real-life incident that will give you pause: Last spring, two canopies were landing, one following the other with what appeared to be normal separation. The first jumper touched down, and was about to gather in his canopy—not dawdling with his toggles or slider—when the other was preparing to execute his flare. The skydiver on the ground’s canopy suddenly fully inflated straight upward due to a gust that came up at the worst moment, and the landing jumper flew directly into it. Fortunately, he dropped only a few feet and was uninjured. Safety and Training Advisors often point out that when you’ve landed, you should immediately look up and clear the landing area. Still, the lion’s share of responsibility belonged to the one who hadn’t yet touched down. He put himself in a potentially dangerous situation by flying directly behind the other jumper. That’s a little thing that he’s now very aware of.
A footnote to canopy awareness, now that it’s August and the days are still very long: Several years ago, a double fatality occurred when one skydiver couldn’t see the other because the bright sun blinded him at the worst possible moment. It doesn’t take long for a situation like this to occur. He collided with the other jumper. They were both too low to implement emergency procedures. Another little thing: When you’re in the plane on a summer load near the end of the day with the sun dipping down, be extra cautious.
Expect the Unexpected
Staying aware of the little things should prompt us to expect the unexpected. Just absorb this: During the first jump of the morning on a cold day in New Jersey in February, a group of experienced winter skydivers wearing full-face helmets went up for a formation skydive. All were expecting the normal fogging at altitude. What they didn’t anticipate was that it was so cold in freefall that their visors not only fogged, but frosted over. Peering through both fog and frost on their visors was like looking through a frosted glass shower door. They broke off early, because nobody could see. One jumper could not open his visor because it was frozen shut. He could barely make out the landing area, so he flew as far away from the others as possible. The landings were challenging (to say the least) and required PLFs.
Weather conditions often change on the way to altitude. Sometimes it's best just to ride the plane down. Photo by Cheryl Brown.
Eventually, you’ll be in a decision-making position when the plane is already at altitude. Let’s take a hypothetical from an actual situation: You are on a Twin Otter, riding to altitude through a broken layer of clouds at 3,500 to 4,500 feet, planning to make an 8-way jump. There is plenty of sky when you take off, but—as they often do—the weather conditions change by the time you get to altitude. The holes are few, and the scattered clouds are closer together and more ominous looking. As you spot, you can see the airport, but otherwise, it looks iffy. Although it will likely be OK, there’s a remote possibility your group could end up in dense clouds at breakoff time, creating a potentially hazardous situation as everyone tracks away blind. What do you do?
Frankly, if you’re spending a lot of time debating whether a situation is dangerous, it’s very likely to actually be dangerous. If you and the rest of your 8-way are debating the chances of being in a cloud at breakoff time, then the conclusion becomes obvious. Although nine times out of 10 you could jump without incident in these conditions, why risk it when that 10th time could result in disaster—a hard collision in freefall?
And that brings me to one more thing: Constantly think about the jumping conditions. We’ve all been on the ground when the winds are flaky and questionable (or it’s partially cloudy but jumpable) and friends ask whether you can make a 20-minute call. As you’re mulling it over, how do you decide when to stay on the ground? What is your personal threshold? You may want to look to the oldest skydiver on your DZ. If they scratch, that’s a pretty good indication that you should, too. The sky will always be there, and gravity hasn’t yet sent a memo that it’s leaving the planet.
So, the next time you’re about to manifest, after you check the uppers, the landing pattern and your gear, make sure you think about the little things, too.
About the Author
Doug Garr, D-2791, who began skydiving in 1969 at age 20, is still actively jumping at age 71. He attributes his long, injury-free career in the sport to an increasing understanding of risk assessment and a greater attention to the small details as his jumping career progressed. Garr wrote this article based on a talk he was scheduled to make for Safety Day at Skydive Sussex in New Jersey, which was cancelled due to the coronavirus.