Low-altitude emergencies—emergencies that occur under canopy below 1,000 feet—continue to plague our community. Poor decision making during low-altitude problems accounted for 55% of the fatalities last year and 65% of the other incident reports. Although we’ll never be able to eliminate these situations entirely, we can certainly do better at dealing with them and significantly reduce the numbers of injuries and deaths that occur each year. It all comes down to good preparation and decent decision making.
Jumpers do a fantastic job of rehearsing emergencies that happen at pull time. Just sit back and watch just about any jumper—experienced or student—in a training harness. Undoubtedly, that person will work their way through every total and partial malfunction that can happen at pull time. Unfortunately, that is where the practice session usually stops.
If jumpers at your DZ don’t regularly add low-altitude emergencies to their emergency practice sessions, Safety Day is a great time to get them to start, since so many get into hanging harnesses then. To respond correctly to low-altitude emergencies, jumpers need to routinely simulate their skydives all the way to the ground. After a simulated cutaway and reserve activation, the jumper should rehearse responding to an utterly new set of problems under the reserve. This does not need to occur during every simulation; at least three times per emergency review session should be adequate.
One scenario could be a simulated minor problem with the reserve (such as line twists or a slider stuck more than halfway up the lines) following the usual freefall emergency practice. Once the jumper successfully navigates the contrived problem, including a simulated altitude check at the end, the person running the simulation can tell them that they’re at 1,500 feet and a mile away from the drop zone. The jumper should then verbalize what they’ll do next.
At this point, the jumper should immediately realize that they are faced with an off landing. (Jumpers who don’t realize this should refresh themselves on the “halfway down, halfway back” method of determining whether they will land off, as described in Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 4-A 6.) The jumper should then talk through the procedures for finding an open area to land.
Again, the scenario should not stop there. Continue addressing problematic situations. For instance, after the jumper simulates turning onto their final-approach leg into the open area, the person running the simulation can inform them that they are high and that their trajectory will take them into the trees at the far end of the imaginary field. That person can add a little stress to the scenario by raising their voice and saying, “OMG! You’re going long; you’re going to hit the trees!” Hopefully, the jumper will simulate going into half brakes, making a slow flat turn and performing a parachute landing fall. But even if they don’t, the best time for a jumper to find out that their initial instinct is to panic and make a fast, low turn is during a simulation and not during the real deal.
That is just one example of practicing procedures for emergencies near the ground. Obviously, jumpers need to switch up what scenarios they practice, since low-altitude emergencies can take a number of different forms. To come up with realistic situations to practice, just take a look at recent incident reports, which USPA publishes exactly so people may learn from them. Reporting is at an all-time high, and there are plenty of low-altitude emergencies that you can learn from. Grab a few back issues of Parachutist and review the reported incidents. Decide how you can simulate one of the scenarios either through visualization or in a hanging harness.
Since it’s a matter of when not if you will encounter a low-altitude emergency, be prepared. Think about it; talk about it. And recognize that the only way to bridge the gap between knowledge and performance is to practice.