The USPA Instructor Rating Manual states in T3—Tandem Method, Section 3-4, F—Tandem Emergencies: “In the event of a main canopy malfunction, decide and act by 3,000 feet to cut away and deploy reserve.”
This recommended minimum decision altitude exists to give the tandem instructor enough time and altitude to perform emergency procedures with the highest probability of a successful outcome. The altitude not only serves as a minimum reserve deployment altitude to prevent an automatic activation device activation during cutaway, but also serves to provide the tandem instructor enough time to navigate to an appropriate obstacle-free landing area and prepare for landing. The concept of a minimum decision altitude has been the backbone of skydiving safety protocols for decades and has proven successful time and time again.
Today, however, we are seeing a growing trend of skydivers, including tandem instructors, violating their minimum decision altitudes while under malfunctioning main parachutes. This phenomenon tends to occur for one or both of two reasons:
- Loss of altitude awareness
- Attempting to fix a malfunctioning main parachute below the established hard deck
While loss of altitude awareness can certainly be identified as a contributing factor in tandem skydiving incidents, of equal concern is the tandem instructor population’s choice to ride their malfunctioning main parachutes through their decision altitudes in a continuing attempt to fix them. For some tandem instructors, it appears to have become a badge of honor to not cut away at their 3,000-foot decision altitude but ride through it and continue to attempt to fix the problem. This is particularly common with line twists and tension knots, as these tend to be low-speed malfunctions that appear to require only a small change in the parachute’s configuration to correct.
This behavior must stop. Period.
All too often, tandem instructors pass through their decision altitudes with their problems uncorrected, leaving them to initiate their cutaway procedures low. Thankfully, this decision rarely causes a deployment below the altitude needed for the reserve to successfully deploy, but it often puts the tandem pair in an initial open-canopy position that is low to the ground, leaving them with limited landing options. In the worst case, a tandem instructor spends so much time attempting to fix a main parachute below their 3,000-foot AGL decision altitude, that by the time they realize they cannot fix it, they are so low that they have taken away any reasonable chance for a cutaway and reserve deployment that results in a successful outcome.
An old saying common with aircraft pilots goes something like this: “The two most useless things are the runway behind you and the altitude above you.” While tandem parachutes have no need for runways, every foot of altitude at or above 3,000 feet gives the tandem instructor the most valuable asset they have to work with in an emergency: altitude that translates into time to act. Such time may prove critical for allowing the instructor to fix problems that may occur during reserve deployment and also to identify and navigate to a safe landing area on or off the drop zone.
We are asking USPA Tandem Instructor rating holders to make a renewed pledge to strictly adhere to all recommended decision altitudes, including a minimum opening altitude of 5,000 feet AGL and a minimum decision altitude of 3,000 feet AGL for emergency-procedure action, which is critical for tandem safety.
USPA Board of Directors Safety & Training Committee in conjunction with USPA Director of Safety and Training Ron Bell