The Red Zone

Specific Risks in Sport Parachuting

Dave Wilkie

Skydive Express

Western Australia

July 2005

This document is comprised of a number of brief outlines of specific risks associated with sports parachuting. The scenarios outlined here have caused serious and often fatal injuries to skydivers either here in Australia or elsewhere in the world. These scenarios are presented here with the intention of increasing awareness of these specific risks, promoting discussion and hopefully reducing the incidence of adverse outcomes.

Equipment

Failure to cock the pilotchute

This can result in a pilotchute in tow or a bag lock malfunction. The low drag of the uncocked pilotchute may not be sufficient to clear the bag lock after cutaway. Both the pilotchute in tow and the bag lock have the potential to result in a main/reserve entanglement.

Check the mark on the kill line when closing. Green means fully cocked.

Kill line too short.

Friction will cause the kill line to shrink over time. This means the pilotchute will remain partially collapsed even when cocked. This has the same potential problems as an uncocked pilotchute.

Check inside your pilotchute to see if the kill line is pulling down the apex when cocked.

BOC too loose.

This can result in a premature opening on exit or in freefall. On exit this can cause impact with the aircraft tail plane. In freefall it can cause impact with any jumper above. Premature openings in high-speed freefly body positions can be hard enough to kill the jumper and/or severely damage the equipment. If you are a freeflyer your BOC pouch is the most important part of your equipment. Have it replaced at the first sign of looseness.

Main closing loop too long.

This can result in a premature pack opening on exit or in freefall. Adverse outcomes include impact with the tail plane; impact with any jumper above and horseshoe malfunction with the risk of a main/reserve entanglement.

Keep your loop short enough to ensure a tight closing pin. If it looks worn replace it.

Steering lines worn.

These need replacement before other lines as they wear on the guide ring and on riser velcro. The line below the brake set loop suffers most and is untested by opening shock. This means it will break at the worst possible moment; when you are digging yourself out of a low turn. Brake lines also shrink with use which changes the flight and opening characteristics of the canopy. Most significantly short brake lines make a canopy easier to stall.

Have a rigger inspect your brake lines and remove any velcro from the risers.

Bridle covers, riser covers and pin protector flap security.

Poor condition of these components can result in premature openings or horseshoe malfunctions. This is especially true for freeflying where high airspeed directed onto the container will tear open anything loose.

If in doubt ask a rigger to inspect your gear especially if attempting freefly maneuvers.

Reserve and cutaway handle security.

The velcro on these handles can wear out risking floating handles that are hard to find when you need them as well as accidental cutaway of the main or premature deployment of the reserve on exit or in freefall.

Lack of 3-ring maintenance.

This can result in a hard or impossible cutaway. If you are unable to cutaway you have the options of landing a malfunction or deploying the reserve without cutting away risking a main/reserve entanglement or a down plane. These are very poor options. An efficient cutaway system is essential for safe parachuting.

Check your 3-ring configuration, cutaway cable length and follow the recommended monthly maintenance plan.

Aircraft

Single point restraints.

Failure to use these in large aircraft has resulted in multiple fatalities in forced landing situations when those at the back of the aircraft are slammed into those at the front crushing them. Restraints can also prevent the occupants sliding towards the rear and causing the aircraft to stall and crash. Helmets, especially those with cameras can become lethal weapons in a forced landing. These should be on your head or on a restraint.

Buckle up for take off, landing and flight below 1000 feet.

Tail plane strike.

A large twin engine or turbine engine aircraft has a high airspeed with the potential to cause an exiting jumper to hit the tail plane. This can result in serious or fatal injuries. Don’t exit until you have the permission of the pilot either verbally or via a light system such as green light for go. Up to that point the pilot is reducing the airspeed and changing the aircraft attitude to dip the nose and raise the tail. Even then be careful not to launch up and into a high lift position. This is especially true if wearing a baggy jumpsuit or camera wings. Birdman suits have been known to provide enough lift to take the jumper over the top of the tail.

Assume a low, no lift exit position.

Premature openings.

These can result in impact with other jumpers or the tail. A tail strike can disable the aircraft. Take care not to allow your main or reserve pins to contact the edge of the door on exit especially when backing out or head jamming. Be careful when taking grips not to inadvertently grip the main or reserve handle of another jumper.

If you have an opening outside the aircraft exit immediately to reduce the risk of tail plane strike.

Cypres on during descent.

This can result in a reserve opening and possible extraction from the aircraft at low altitude. This is catastrophic for the jumper, the aircraft and its remaining occupants. Student cypres’s are more likely to fire on descent due to their lower activation speed.

Switch off your cypres on descent and close the in-flight door.

Too close on exit.

Different groups or individual jumpers exiting the same aircraft on the same pass must leave sufficient time between exits to prevent collisions in freefall or on opening. The time between exits depends on the ground speed of the aircraft. The slower the ground speed the more time needed to ensure separation. The strength of the upper wind is the main variable affecting aircraft ground speed. Typically those opening highest, student, tandems and CRW, exit last. Freeflyers add an extra factor to the exit order as their shorter freefall time means they have less freefall drift than flat flyers. Freeflyers usually exit after flat flyers opening at the same height if there is significant freefall drift.

Aircraft Strike

Skydivers risk collision with any aircraft passing below the jump aircraft during the freefall or canopy descent. Prevention methods include radio contact between the jump aircraft and others in the area, radar monitoring of air space by air traffic control and visual checks of air space below by the jumper spotting the aircraft.

Do not exit until given permission by the pilot either verbally or by a signally system.

Aircraft Hookup

Skydivers exiting aircraft have been known to find themselves hooked up to the aircraft by things such as boosters, single point restraints, tandem drogues, static lines, part of the parachute harness or an accidentally deployed canopy. A sharp knife is normally kept in the aircraft to cut free someone in this situation. Additionally jumpers often carry hook knives. A main canopy hook up can be cutaway using normal emergency procedures.

Cutting part of the harness is not a feasible course of action. The only real option if hooked up by the harness is to try to get back inside the aircraft. This may not be easy. At least one jumper has remained attached and dangling below the aircraft during landing. He survived by skidding along on his rig, friction burning away most of it.

Landing Aircraft

Jump aircraft and parachutist sometimes land at the same time. To avoid collision do not land on the active runway. Avoid crossing the runway below 500 feet.

Catastrophic aircraft failure.

This is a situation requiring emergency exit from an aircraft that is going to crash. A disabled aircraft can generate centrifugal forces making exit extremely difficult. These forces can also slam shut certain types of in-flight doors.

Have a plan for your emergency exit. If exiting below 1500 feet it is advisable to deploy the reserve rather than the main.

Freefall

Freefall collisions.

Failure to judge a dive towards a formation or inattention to other jumpers while diving or tracking can result in collision. Cloud can reduce visibility on approach or break off. Freeflying presents extra risks of collision due to its 3 dimensional nature, high degree of difficulty, high freefall speed, and the phenomenon of “corking”; a sudden reversion to a flat position and loss of vertical speed. Freefall collisions can be severe enough to cause fatal injuries. Additionally a jumper may be knocked unconscious or be physically disabled and unable to deploy or operate a parachute.

Choose the type and size of loads that are suitable for your skill level. Move cautiously towards the formation staying in your quadrant. Look around for other jumpers on approach and break off.

Poor tracking.

Tracking is essential to ensure adequate separation between jumpers on opening. A poor track can result in collisions between canopies or between a canopy and a jumper still in freefall.

Don’t attempt larger formations until your tracking is proficient enough to deal with the situation.

Tracking into other groups.

Groups exiting on the same pass need to allow enough separation to prevent jumpers from different groups tracking into each other. Allow extra separation if break off is unusually high. Be aware of aircraft run in direction. Tracking along this direction increases the risk of conflict with other groups. Ninety degrees to run in is the safest direction to track.

Low on a formation.

A jumper who goes past a formation in freefall and then deploys below them risks a lethal collision with one or more of those still falling.

If you find yourself below a formation at break off track as hard and far as you can and deploy at the lowest legal altitude. Under no circumstance open high.

Deployment

No pull.

Believe it or not lots of skydivers have died without pulling the main or reserve handles. Reasons for this include loss of height awareness, using borrowed or unfamiliar equipment, sensory overload, hard pulls, drug or alcohol use or physical incapacity. Night jumps are especially prone to loss of height awareness due to lack of visual information from the ground.

The use of audible altimeters and AAD’s has greatly reduced the occurrence of no pull events.

Low Pull.

Low deployments have the same causes as no pulls. A low pull can be the start of a catastrophic sequence of events. Low main pull, main malfunction, indecision due to low altitude, low cutaway, insufficient height for reserve inflation, impact. A low opening of the main can also cause the cypres to fire risking a main/reserve entanglement or a down plane. In a belly to earth position the cypres will fire at 750 feet. In a feet to earth position induced by an opening canopy the cypres will fire higher, possibly above 1000 feet.

Unstable deployment.

A parachute has the best chance to open when deployed from a stable belly to earth position. An unstable deployment risks hard openings, line twists and various types of malfunctions including the horseshoe malfunction. A horseshoe may not clear on cutaway leading to the risk of a main reserve/entanglement or down plane.

Remember the skydivers’ mantra. In order of priority: Pull. Pull on time. Pull stable.

Shoulder Dislocation

The normal freefall position puts enough pressure on the shoulder to cause dislocation especially in individuals with a history of shoulder weakness. Dislocation makes deployment and operation of the canopy extremely difficult.

Seek medical advice if you have a history of shoulder injuries, particularly dislocation.

Malfunctions

Total malfunction.

This is surprisingly common. See the no pull item above. Familiarity with your gear and a careful, even folding of your pilot chute are the best ways to avoid a total.

Pilot chute in tow.

Incorrect routing of the bridle of a throwaway pilot chute can result in it towing from the unopened main container. An uncocked pilot chute can also fail to open the container or lift off the D bag. A tow has the potential to tangle with the reserve.

Check the bridle routing before every jump.

Baglock.

This is another high-speed malfunction that usually but not always clears on cutaway. Attention to your pilot chute and line stows is the best way to prevent a bag lock.

Horseshoe.

This involves some sort of hookup of the canopy preventing its normal opening and reducing the chance of full separation on cutaway. Causes include unstable deployment and lines hooking on closing loop tabs or helmet camera mounts. A horseshoe has the potential to cause a main/reserve entanglement.

Rotating Canopy

One of the most common symptoms of a malfunction is a rapid rotation or spin. This can be caused by a line over, broken line, line entanglement or canopy damage. Highly loaded or elliptical parachutes can also spin if they open with line twists. Any rotating canopy will have a very high descent rate. Emergency procedure can be complicated by the possibility of a hard cutaway.

Attention to line condition, tension and placement (all lines, especially steering lines, in the center) during packing can reduce the chance of a rotating canopy malfunction.

Induced Line Twists

It is possible to induce line twists in an open canopy by over steering. If the canopy is turned faster than its load can follow a twist will result. Very deep steering input or a sharp turn one way then the other can cause line twists.

This is extremely dangerous as the twist might result in an uncontrollable spin at a low altitude. The jumper is then presented with the choice of a low cutaway or trying to clear the twist before impact. There may not be enough height for either.

Canopy on Backwards

Inexperienced jumpers may inadvertently hook up a main canopy backwards. Do not try to land this as the risk of injury is extremely high.

If in any doubt have a rigger check your canopy before packing it.

Line over.

This involves an inversion of part of the canopy through the suspension line or more commonly the brake lines. It can result in a rapid rotation. Any rotating canopy can potentially cause a hard cutaway and/or unstable reserve deployment.

Keep arching through the spin to ensure a belly to earth position after cutaway. Use two hands to cutaway if one is not strong enough. Pay attention to your brake line during packing to keep them from slipping over the front of the canopy.

Line entanglement.

Also known as pressure knots, entanglements can cause a canopy to rotate with the same potential issues as a line over.

Severe line twists.

Highly loaded elliptical canopies are prone to line twists. These canopies can rotate rapidly in twists and hard cutaways are not unusual.

A stable body position with shoulders level right through the opening is the best way to prevent line twists.

Damage.

Hard openings can cause canopy damage, broken lines and even broken risers. A broken or prematurely released riser on the RSL side can cause a reserve deployment and possible main/reserve entanglement.

Steering Failure

A broken steering line or improperly attached toggle can prevent normal steering of an otherwise open canopy. Such a canopy can be steered and landed on rear risers if the jumper is confident to do so.

Be very careful flaring on rear risers. Only pull a little as it is very easy to stall using rear risers.

Reserve Malfunction

A small, highly loaded reserve can open with line twist and rotate. In this situation the only option is to kick out and gain control as soon as possible. In the event of a line over or line entanglement pump the brakes to try to clear it and endeavour to keep the canopy flying straight on landing.

Use a rig with a reserve big enough to fly straight in line twists and land you safely if you were unconscious and had an AAD fire.

Dual Canopies

Both the main and reserve can be open at the same time if the main is deployed around AAD firing height. Problems with the RSL, reserve loop, reserve pin or handle security or inadvertent manual reserve deployment can also result in dual canopies.

While large, docile and similar sized canopies (student canopies) may fly together safely, especially in a bi-plane, high performance canopies probably will not.

A cutaway from a bi-plane risks a main/reserve entanglement. If you elect to cutaway check that the reserve is fully open and functional. Make sure it is clear of the main. Two canopies in a bi-plane can be pulled apart into a side-by side before cutting away.

If the canopies fly apart into a down plane, cutaway immediately.

If the main opens first there may not be enough airspeed to inflate the reserve. It may twist or entangle with no possibility of inflation. Do not cutaway the main. Fly and land it as best you can.

Emergency Procedures

Cutaway Failure

This refers to the failure to complete emergency procedure by pulling the reserve handle following cutaway from a malfunction. Standard emergency procedures involve gripping the cutaway with the right hand and the reserve handle with the left before cutting away. This reduces the risk of failure to locate and pull the reserve handle after cutaway.

This one hand on each handle procedure carries the additional risk of inadvertently pulling the reserve handle first. In the event of a hard cutaway the reserve handle must be released to allow a two handed pull. Care must be taken not to pull or dislodge the reserve handle in the stress of a malfunction and hard cutaway. A floating reserve handle can be difficult to locate.

The widespread use of RSL’s and reserve AAD’s have reduced to incidence of fatal cutaway failure.

Hard Cutaway

This can be caused by a deformed or misaligned 3-ring release, friction of the cutaway cables through the bendex tube or even extremely secure velcro on the cutaway pad. Inspection and maintenance of the cutaway system should be performed monthly. A peeling action is the best way to take a pad off the velcro.

A rotating canopy, especially with line twists is probably the most common cause of a hard cutaway. In this situation the risers torque the 3-rings increasing the load on the loop that the cutaway cable passes through. This makes it hard to move the cable. Additionally line twists may extend down the risers to the point where the ends of the cutaway cables are caught in the twists and held securely. Some risers have hard housings fitted to reduce this risk.

The 3-ring release comes in two sizes, standard and mini. Mini rings have become the industry norm purely for reasons of fashion. Standard rings are far superior in preventing hard cutaways due to a much higher mechanical advantage. Student and tandem systems are fitted with standard rings. A handful of sensible sports jumpers order their new rigs with standard size rings. The rest are at higher risk of hard cutaways.

A rotating malfunction followed by an impossible cutaway is a disastrous situation. The jumper must try to pull the cutaway with two hands as long as height allows. If too low to cutaway the jumper’s best option is to try to clear the twists and control the canopy. Deploying the reserve without cutting away is an absolute last resort.

Floating Handles

Either the cutaway or the reserve handle could be dislodged and so be difficult to locate and grip when needed. The best way to locate a floating handle is to follow the bendex tube from the shoulder to the point where the cables emerge and then take a grip on the handle or the cables.

Floating handles can also cause premature reserve deployment or cutaway. If aware of a floating reserve handle in freefall the best option may to track away from other jumpers and deploy the reserve.

If aware of a floating cutaway be prepared for one or both risers to release on main deployment. Emergency procedures need to be completed.

If the main deploys normally ensure that the cutaway handle is secured and sufficient cable extends beyond the loop to prevent riser release.

Canopy

Canopy Collisions

Collision between two open canopies can cause direct physical injury to the jumpers involved. Additionally the canopies can entangle and collapse requiring cutaway and reserve deployment. Incapacity due to injury may prevent a successful cutaway. A low altitude may prevent a successful reserve deployment.

Extreme caution must be taken to avoid collisions. Try to locate every other canopy on the load. Look before turning. Follow the standard circuit pattern and landing direction. Do not spiral near others or make sudden erratic turns within the circuit.

Induced Malfunctions

Over steering or deliberately inducing a dynamic stall in a highly loaded or elliptical canopy can result in an induced malfunction. As this is likely to be below normal opening height it is more dangerous than other malfunctions as altitude may not be sufficient for emergency procedures and full reserve deployment.

Treat high performance canopies with respect when packing, deploying, flying and landing.

Landing

Low Turns

Low turns are the major cause of parachuting injuries. These include serious and fatal injuries. Deliberately turning close to the ground to increase airspeed for a swoop landing is a common practice among experienced jumpers. Misjudging such turns can be fatal. Less experienced jumpers sometimes attempt swoop landings without the knowledge or skill required.

If you want to swoop you should

  1. Wait until you have the necessary experience.
  2. Have a thorough course of instruction from an experienced swooper.
  3. Ease into it slowly with small turns and large canopies.
  4. Be prepared to risk your life and well being for a few seconds of thrill.

Long Spots

Returning from a long spot is a classic scenario for poor landings. Bad spots lead to indecision and this can lead to low turns, down wind landings or collision with hazards. Every jumper needs to have a set circuit plan in mind. If a bad spot does not allow this to be performed at the planned landing target then it should be done at an alternative landing area. Make a decision as soon as possible. Turn into wind at a planned height such as 200 feet not necessarily at a planned location over the ground.

Stall

A high flare can result in a stall and hard landing. Highly loaded and elliptical canopies stall more easily and radically than larger rectangular ones. Approaches in brakes that slow the airspeed of the canopy also increase the risk of stall.

Know your stall point and practice controlled stall recovery at height. Be prepared to roll on landing.

Down Wind Landings

Failure to check the windsock or formulate a flight plan before jumping can result in a down wind landing. Check the wind before boarding the aircraft and again after opening. Watch other canopies land. Have a plan for set up points at 2000 ft, 1000ft, 500ft and 200ft. Landing direction should be determined before boarding the aircraft not on finals to land.

Hazards

Collision with buildings, trees, power lines or any other hard object can cause serious injury. Indecision, bad spots, unfamiliar landing areas and strong winds can result in landings near hazards. Always plan a landing with plenty of open space in front of you and behind you as well. Avoid flying towards corners that box you in.

Turbulence

Mechanical turbulence on the downwind side of large ground feature can cause a parachute to collapse and cause serious injury. Willi-willis (also known as dust devils or whirlwinds) can have an even more catastrophic effect.

Think very carefully before deciding to jump on windy days or hot conditions conducive to willi-willis. Just because others are jumping does not mean you have to be reckless as well.

Collision With Spectators

An incoming parachutist has enough speed to kill a spectator or other jumper on the ground. For this reasons most drop zones have distinct boundaries between landing areas and spectator areas. Respect these boundaries. When walking back from a landing, look out for incoming canopies. If a collision looks immanent it is the parachutist who should turn and the person on the ground who remains still. Drop to the ground and lay flat if evasion has not been effective.

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