In the early 1990s, a skydiver reported that an automatic activation device saved his life. This jumper experienced a main parachute malfunction and pulled his cutaway handle but never pulled his reserve ripcord. His rig was not equipped with a reserve static line, so he continued in freefall until the AAD cut his reserve closing loop and released his reserve, which saved his life. The jumper said that after he released his main parachute, he “knew there was something else he needed to do but just couldn’t remember what it was.”
About 20 years later, he died after a hard landing under entangled main and reserve canopies. He had not pulled the cutaway handle far enough to release both main risers, and the main parachute entangled with the reserve parachute. This jumper likely died due to his poor initial training on emergency procedures followed by a lack of any review and practice of those procedures over the years.
With all the fun and excitement that skydiving provides, it is easy to see why the sport continues to grow each year, even though it has its risks. In order to reduce as much of that risk as possible and maximize our fun, we need a thorough understanding of how our gear works so we can be prepared in the event of some sort of equipment-related malfunction. A significant percentage of the annual fatalities in skydiving each year are attributable to the jumper performing their emergency procedures incorrectly. This tells us not only that jumpers must regularly practice their emergency procedures, but that they must make that practice thorough and realistic.
Reviewing and practicing emergency procedures—including regularly doing so in a training harness—reinforce the basic survival skills that every skydiver learns from the very first solo jump forward. Skydiver’s Information Manual Sections 4 and 5 contain recommendations regarding emergency procedures that are relevant no matter what experience level a jumper has reached.
Nineteen years ago, USPA debuted the Integrated Student Program. A thorough and robust training program, the ISP (found in SIM Section 4) includes repeated review and practice of emergency procedures and slowly introduces new information about various parachute components. Drop zones that use the ISP or similar programs provide students with great foundations on their way to earning USPA A licenses. Despite this, it is still fairly common to see jumpers mindlessly yanking down rapidly right then left, as if simulating handle pulls, and hear them proudly state that they practice their emergency procedures before every jump! In reality, these type of practice pulls are just building dangerous bad habits.
If you are wearing a harness but not suspended underneath it and are rapidly simulating handle pulls, you are rehearsing your emergency procedures ineffectively. In a real emergency, you will need to visually locate the cutaway and reserve ripcord handles, which will be located higher on your torso than they are on the ground when you are not putting any load on the harness. Additionally, in a real emergency, your pulls will not be quick, jerking motions, one right after the other. You will first need to grab the cutaway handle, peel the Velcro from the harness and pull the handle down and away to ensure the main parachute risers have released from both sides of the harness before pulling the reserve ripcord.
For run-of-the-mill partial malfunctions, emergency procedures are fairly standard across every harness-and-container system: locate the cutaway and reserve ripcord handles, peel the cutaway handle from the right side of the harness and pull the handle down and away, clearing the cables out of the housing. Ensure both main risers release before pulling the reserve ripcord. If your rig is equipped with a reserve static line or main-assisted-reserve-deployment device (a type of RSL), the reserve activation will likely start before you pull the reserve ripcord handle.
But being proficient at your emergency procedures requires more than practicing procedures for simple partial malfunctions. You need to be prepared for oddball emergencies, as well. For this reason, all skydivers need to have a thorough understanding of their harness-and-container systems, which have become more complex in both design and (in some ways) operation. For example, on rigs utilizing certain MARD systems, the reserve parachute might not deploy if the jumper pulls the reserve handle while under an inflated main parachute. This is important information to know if you are in a canopy collision or wish to perform a canopy transfer (deploy the reserve parachute before cutting away, usually performed at a low altitude where cutting away first is not an option).
Your response to a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction may also change depending on your gear. Jumpers usually have two choices when facing a pilot chute in tow: pull the cutaway handle and then the reserve ripcord, or just pull the reserve ripcord. Both responses have pros and cons. However, if your rig is equipped with a dual-sided cross-connector RSL, the only correct response is to pull the reserve handle without cutting away. On this system, you also need to know that if you end up with two inflated parachutes and you decide to release the main, you must first disconnect the RSL or the released main parachute will choke off the reserve. (See “A Problem With Two Solutions” by Jim Crouch, January 2016 Parachutist, for a more detailed article on the pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction.)
If your rig is equipped with a MARD system, it will be a bit more complex than a standard RSL. But no matter what type of RSL you have, you need to know how to connect it properly (even though there’s rarely a need for you to disconnect it). A misrouted RSL can be ineffective or even cause serious problems during a malfunction. Sure, someone might catch the misrouting during a gear check before you jump, but it’s a lot easier and safer for you to learn the correct routing for your RSL and make sure it’s in the correct configuration by performing your own gear check before each jump. A parachute rigger can help you learn what to look for.
Although you should read your owner’s manual for helpful information, manufacturers do not provide guidelines for how to practice emergency procedures with their equipment. It is up to you to ensure you receive the correct training and to practice for the equipment you are using. USPA-rated coaches, instructors and examiners are all great resources.
A solid understanding of the operation and limits of your gear and a thorough preparation for emergency procedures are a fundamental part of your education. Whether you have been jumping for 10 days or 10 years, you can never review and practice enough. So, grab an instructor and a parachute rigger and take some time to review your equipment and emergency procedures. It could save your life.
Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Coach and Tandem Instructor Examiner; AFF,
IAD and Static-Line Instructor; PRO