We live in the age of GPS spots, turbine aircraft and high-performance ram-air main and reserve parachutes that have lots of forward speed. So, we’re finished landing off the drop zone, right? Unfortunately, not! Murphy’s law—the foundational rule of skydiving—says, “If it can go wrong, it will.”
Maybe you are on a big-way dive or in a tracking contest or really finding out what your wingsuit can do. Maybe the weather is tricky or your exit delayed. No matter the situation, when you open your canopy and find the drop zone is w-a-a-a-y farther away than you wanted, your plan went wrong. So, how can you avoid this situation? And what can you do when it inevitably does come up?
The first way to avoid landing off the DZ is to know your opening point: where you should be over the ground when you deploy. In the days of round parachutes, this was critical. Today, it is—at a minimum—important. And it’s really important if you have a malfunction or a low opening, are jumping at a tight drop zone or are making a demo jump. It also makes recovering freebags and cutaway canopies lots easier.
The first step in opening where you are supposed to is familiarizing yourself with the DZ and nearby landmarks. Hopefully, the DZ has a map of the area available. If not, Google Earth probably does. Failing that, look out of the aircraft on the way to altitude to stay oriented to the landing area (especially important for the demonstration jumper who is intentionally landing away from an established DZ).
Also, find out what jumpers are using for an opening point on the day you jump. Maybe it’s the same old spot or maybe you’ve got something different today. Talk to DZ staff—pilots, instructors and maybe manifest. Watch where the loads open, how the jumpers handle the winds and, of course, where they land. At this point, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where you should be over the ground when you open.
Even when you’ve determined a good opening point, keep in mind that conditions can change. If you can watch jumpers from previous loads as you are climbing to altitude, pay attention to how they’re doing. It may be hard to know exactly where they exited, but if most jumpers are landing off the drop zone, you may want to ask the jump pilot to communicate with the ground to see if conditions are changing.
Before you exit, check where you are over the ground. Knowing that you’ll cover some distance while you climb out and exit, is this where you want to be? This is also a great time for an airspace safety check. Is your freefall path clear of jumpers from other loads, wandering aircraft and clouds?
After you exit, do a quick check of where you are over the ground. When you don’t have the aircraft as a frame of reference, you may find that you’re not really where you thought you were. In any case, if the surprise is big enough (i.e., you’re much farther away from the opening point than intended), you might be able to correct the problem in freefall by tracking to the correct opening point (safe only if you’re on a small load—like from a Cessna 182—and know where everyone else is) or by safely adjusting your opening altitude. For example, if you’re upwind, you could open higher than normal to take advantage of the winds aloft to get back to the DZ (although you’ll need to fly off of jump run until you see the other groups open). Of course, you don’t want to open unexpectedly or exceptionally high if there are other jumpers in freefall with you or if there are loads behind you that your open canopy could endanger. In that case, you might want to read the following paragraphs.
After you’ve opened, check where you are over the ground. Again, sometimes you’ll be surprised. Maybe you had unexpected freefall drift because of the winds aloft or you weren’t able to check your spot when you exited. You’ll want to know right away whether your opening point is correct, because it’s a lot easier to effectively adjust from 3,000 feet than it is from 1,000 feet. If you’ve got a lot of ground to cover, flying directly to the landing area is much more productive than making turns or practicing stalls. (Again, check for other canopies on the load before you start flying back up jump run.) And if you’re close to the DZ, facing into the winds aloft might be all you need to do to get to the correct entry point for your landing pattern.
In any case, if it looks like you might not get back to the DZ, you need to start thinking of alternative landing areas while you’ve still got plenty of altitude. Then, as you get lower, you’ll have an idea of where to go if it becomes probable that you can’t make it back. And remember: People have hurt or killed themselves trying to get over that last set of trees or power lines near the landing area instead of landing safely a bit farther out. When in doubt, land in an alternative safe area. You seldom go wrong landing in the middle of a big open field. One of the seminal personalities in the sport, Roger Nelson, used to say, “Better a long walk to the DZ than a short ride in an ambulance.”
Here are a few guidelines for landing off the DZ:
- Open fields are great, but watch for straight lines that often indicate hazards such as hedges, fences, powerlines and ditches. Also, if there are structures in an open area, watch for power or telephone lines connecting them to a road. Roads usually have powerlines or fences paralleling them. By the way, it is hard to see powerlines from altitude, but watch for the poles or towers that support them and assume there are lines in between.
- Flying a standard downwind-to-crosswind-to-final-approach landing pattern is a great idea for good canopy control that applies even when you’re landing off the DZ. Perhaps especially when you’re landing off the DZ. Flying a standard approach will give you an excellent idea of what the winds are doing and an opportunity to alter the pattern to adjust your landing point. A standard pattern also gives you the opportunity for a good look at the landing area, perhaps allowing you to become aware of obstacles that you may otherwise miss if you approach from just one direction.
- If you found a nice, open field in which to land, stay away from the edge where you could get turbulence or a sudden drop of wind speed from trees or other obstacles bordering the field. By picking the middle of a field, you also are in a better position to adjust your final approach. However, be cautious of any animals in the field—they don’t always like visitors. Finally, when picking an alternate landing area, try to figure out how to get out of that area after you land. Where are the gates or roads leading back to civilization? Sometimes, like when landing in tall corn, it’s just deciding which direction to walk that is the challenge.
- When deciding on your landing direction in the absence of your DZ’s wind indicator, look for other clues such as smoke plumes (which are great indicators), flags, the way treetops are swaying, dust billowing from behind a vehicle or ripples in a pond or lake. If there are other jumpers landing before you, watch their landings. Do they stand up or do they go skipping across the ground in a cloud of dust? And which way does the dust blow? All these things will give you an idea of how you should make your approach.
- If you do get a surprise on your final approach, don’t make sudden turns near the ground. The more unfamiliar you are with the canopy or the higher performance the canopy is, the more likely a sudden turn near the ground will be more harmful than an unexpected obstacle. Besides, you’ve always wanted to practice those emergency landing procedures and parachute landing falls you learned in the first-jump course.
- Once you have successfully landed off the DZ, try to leave as small a footprint as possible. It will keep the neighbors happier, which in turn will help keep your skydiving operation open. Try not to damage crops (walk along crop rows instead of across them), close gates if you open them and don’t play with the farm animals.
- Drop zones are usually pretty good at sending pickup vehicles for lost jumpers. Otherwise, make yourself comfortable, field pack your canopy and enjoy a quiet walk in the countryside. Don’t play with the fire ants or neighborhood dogs. Find a road and follow it. Whatever way you get back to the DZ, be sure to check in with the drop zone staff so that you are accounted for. This will minimize calls to the sheriff or search and rescue.
Your skydiving adventure doesn’t end when your canopy opens. Even with precautions, if you jump long enough, you will experience a landing off the drop zone. Just keep it safe.
About the Author
Paul Sitter, D-2714, started jumping in 1969 and has made more than 5,000 skydives. Despite having been a Nationals competitor, member of the U.S. Army Golden Knights and USPA Board member, his most consistent contribution to the sport has been in safety and training, where he was active as an instructor examiner, was one of the first AFF Certification Course Directors and wrote Parachutist’s Annual Fatality Summary for 35 years. He is a recipient of the USPA Lifetime Achievement Award. He is currently semi-retired and lives in Napa, California.