It is natural to think that accidents will happen only to other skydivers, those who court disaster by idiotically violating every rule in the book. And although it is true that they will take most of the heat, even the most experienced and responsible skydivers are not immune to a bad roll of the dice. That’s why it’s important to master the few basic skills you learned during training so you can stay calm under pressure.
When humans become stressed or panic, they often suffer from cognitive tunneling, which makes it harder to think clearly and makes routine procedures and skills seem difficult or even impossible. You will fare much better if you mentally and physically slow down during a skydiving emergency and concentrate on the basics. If you do not deal with a skydiving emergency swiftly and accurately, it can swiftly lead to injury or even death. No matter what the situation is, sticking to the simple rules you learned when you were a student can get you through virtually any situation. These rules could have prevented all the skydiver deaths in the U.S. in 2020 and most of the fatalities of the last 20 years.
Some instructors refer to these basics rules as the “survival skills of skydiving.” These priorities are taught in the first-jump course and will never change. They are designed to keep you from getting in a bad situation, but they can get you out of one, too.
Working from the top of the skydive down, the first of these survival skills is to monitor your altitude:
- every five seconds or every 1,000 feet.
- every time you complete a maneuver.
- every time you encounter difficulty.
Altitude dictates what your options are in any situation. Always knowing where you are in relationship to your deployment altitude, decision altitude, hard deck and the ground will help you make the right decisions in those stress-filled moments when something goes wrong.
The second survival skill of the skydive is knowing your pull priorities:
- Pull—You must deploy the parachute.
- Pull at your assigned altitude.
- Preferably pull stable.
You can deploy at any altitude if something goes wrong during your skydive. You want to mentally slow the situation down by focusing on basics, but you also literally want to slow down by reducing your physical speed. In freefall, you do that by clearing your airspace, waving off and deploying your parachute. If there are no problems during the jump, you default to the second priority on the list: deploying at your assigned altitude. The final pull priority, as stated in the Skydivers Information Manual, is to “pull at the proper altitude while stable,” followed by a disclaimer that essentially says that stability is important but not a necessity. Hence many instructors have defaulted to saying, “preferably pull stable.”
The third survival skill is knowing the rules of the air:
- Look before you turn.
- Turn right to avoid other jumpers.
- The lower jumper has the right-of-way.
This will help you safely navigate the traffic over a landing area and allow your canopy flight to be predictable to other jumpers. When followed by everyone, these rules combined with everyone flying the same landing pattern turn the chaos of a congested holding area into a smooth-flowing landing pattern, even at the busiest drop zones.
The last of the survival skills is following landing priorities:
- Land with a level wing and flying in a straight line.
- Land in a clear and open area, avoiding obstacles.
- Flare to at least the half-brake position.
These are the universal laws of surviving any landing situation. Not applying these simple principles claimed the lives of 45.5% of those who died skydiving in the U.S. in the last 20 years, 60% of whom ignored the first item in this list to their detriment. I do not know how to say this any clearer: It is better to hit a building or tree than to make a low turn to miss them. Obviously, if you are at 300 feet or higher above the ground, you have the time and altitude to adjust your flight path a little to bypass an obstacle. If you are below 300 feet, it’s better to go to half brakes, slow yourself down and strike a tree or building than it is to make a turn and increase your velocity as you hit the planet. Too often, jumpers fixate on getting to a clear, open area, even though landing with a level wing is so much more important. Rarely does a jumper die from a tree or building landing, but low turns are often fatal.
Again, the idea is to slow things down in stressful situations. In a low-altitude emergency, this means mentally doing so (by concentrating on landing with a level wing and in a straight line) and physically doing so (by going into half brakes, which slows forward speed and descent rate).
Simple in their nature, basic in their application, these survival skills can save you that dreaded ambulance ride out of the landing area. When applied to every skydive, these simple rules, each for a different area of the skydive, can help you have a long and rewarding skydiving career.
Ron Bell | D-26863
USPA Director of Safety and Training