Locate, Peel, Pull, Arch

in Dropzone Diaries | 8 minutes read

I will let you in on a little secret. Speaking from experience, your life does not flash before your eyes when in a life or death situation.

As a skydiver you always wonder when it will happen to you. Will you be ready for it? Will you perform your emergency procedures (EPs) that you have practiced thousands of times on the ground? Will you panic or lock up? Will you be able to save your own life when you have to perform a cutaway and deploy your reserve from your malfunctioning main canopy?

From day one in your ground course you are constantly drilled in EPs that will save your life when the moment arrives. For all the whuffos out there the EPs basically consist of the following.

Locate your cutaway handle.
Grab your cutaway handle.
Locate your reserve handle.
Grab your reserve handle.
Peel and pull your cutaway handle.
Peel and pull your reserve handle.

I will let you in on a little secret. Speaking from experience, your life does not flash before your eyes when in a life or death situation. Your adrenaline is pumping so fast that most often you tend to react by muscle memory and then think about it second.

On May 11th, 2013 for my thirteenth jump I had to perform my EPs and deploy my reserve canopy. It was during one of my coach jumps. A coach jump simply means that I am jumping with another skydiver that has a coaching license. They coach me through specific skills during my jump in order to advance myself for my license requirements.

My coach and I were the first group to exit the caravan. I was excited because we were doing some new things I have not tried yet in free fall. I was told to do a superman exit or what some people call a bomb out exit. Your coach is hanging out the door on the camera step, and you are looking at him towards the rear of the plane. He leaps and you chase after him with a dive out.

This is a video still of me exiting for this jump. Photo by Lucas Alderette.

This is a video still of me exiting for this jump. Photo by Lucas Alderette.

As I swooped down to him I began to slow down to match his fall rate, and dock on him without plowing into him. We un-docked, he slowed his fall rate and I matched it, and I docked again on him. We un-docked again, I made a right 180 degree turn, and started a 10 second track. At this point I was supposed to turn around, track back to him, and dock on him one more time. However, I checked my altimeter and it read 5,500 feet after my track away. This meant I had no time to track back and it was time to break off for deployment. I tried to break away, but I actually ended up tracking in a circle. I was still learning to track and wasn’t very good at it. I ended up in the middle of a small cloud; I waved off to let anybody in the area know that I was getting ready to deploy. Reached back for my pilot chute, and threw it as hard as I could into clean air.

Deployment went great except for the fact that I opened 180 degrees off heading causing line twists.

 Example of what line twists look like.Image taken from http://www.dropzone.com/photos/Malfunctions/Whats_a_little_line_twist_119521.html

Example of line twists.
Image from dropzone.com/photos/Malfunctions/Whats_a_little_line_twist_119521.html

I’m 95% certain I had good body positioning when opening, and I firmly believe this malfunction was caused by whoever packed my canopy not me. I thought, well this really sucks as I looked up with multiple line twists. This was my first encounter with line twists so I pulled my rear risers apart and began to bicycle kick out of them like my instructors taught me in the ground course. I was able to get out of two line twists. As soon as I kicked for my third twist I had a brake fire. This means one of my toggles had become dislodged. When you pack your canopy you stow your toggles at half brakes, and it appears during my third kick out one of the toggles unstowed itself. This put my canopy into a dive and spin. As I began spinning right I thought to myself well here it goes… my first cutaway. Surprisingly I was not nervous, I did not freak out, I did not think of anything else except I’m not comfortable with the current canopy over my head and it is time to get my reserve out. It was like clockwork; I grabbed both of my handles pulled my cut away.

KACHINK – That was the loud sound my 3-rings made as they disconnected. I pulled my reserve handle, but I was already starting to stand up from my reserve canopy. It appears I was already at line stretch when I had pulled out my reserve handle. My rig had what is called a reserve static line (RSL) which deploys my reserve when I pull my cutaway handle. My RSL had done its job. I was under an opening reserve canopy as I was pulling my reserve handle.

The RSL is a lanyard connecting one or both of the main parachute risers to the reserve ripcord. The primary advantage of using an RSL is a faster reserve parachute deployment compared with using emergency handles alone; after a cutaway, the RSL will usually activate before the reserve deployment ripcord is pulled.

My reserve inflated and everything looked great. I was under my reserve canopy by roughly 2,500 feet. Looked up and grabbed my toggles, and with all the adrenaline going I forgot that I had my cutaway and reserve handles still in my hands. As I reached up to grab my reserve toggles I dropped my cutaway and reserve handles. This really sucks because they are not cheap to replace, but the important thing was that I was alive. As I located the drop zone I began to fly my landing pattern as I normally would. I stood up the landing and was very pleased to be on the ground safe. It was then that the adrenaline started to wear off and my hands started to shake a little. I was beginning to realize what I just went through, and it was a little scary to think about.

We ended up locating the main canopy about a mile away, but I had lost my reserve and cutaway handles, and I also lost the free bag that reserve is in before it comes out. This ended up being a very expensive jump. You can watch the video of my cutaway jump below. However, the actual cutaway part is not on camera just the free fall. My coach was not aware that I cut away until he landed.

I know some skydivers that have thousands of jumps and no reserve rides (yet). I was lucky or unlucky (depends on how you look at it) to have my first reserve ride early on in my skydiving career.

The odd thing about this jump is that I had a weird feeling about it unlike other jumps. One of those gut feelings that makes you feel uneasy; not the nervousness or butterfly feeling. Another oddity is the entire week before this jump I was discussing a recent incident about a video that was going viral in the skydiving community showing a skydiver with line twists. He then had a brake fire during the line twists causing him to go to a high-speed-spinning-malfunction. The skydiver then cutaway at a low altitude, and could not locate his reserve handle. He had loosened his chest strap (before performing his canopy control check) which moved his reserve handle off to the side even more so than its default position in the harness when the chest strap is tight. His automatic activation device (AAD) deployed his reserve at a very low altitude saving him from going in, but he was still injured very badly.

I watched his video over and over, and I began to envision myself in his situation and how I would react. I reviewed my hard deck (decision altitude for cutting away), and I reviewed my EPs numerous times while sitting in my room. I review them all the time anyways, but that week because of that video I was doing them more so than normal. Even before this very jump as my coach and I were dirt diving the jump. I asked my coach what his hard deck was to reassure me about my hard deck. Which by the way is 2,500 feet; I deploy my main at 4,000 feet.

I came back the next day with my obligatory case of beer for my first cutaway and bottle of liquor for my rigger in hand to thank him for a beautiful and life-saving reserve ride. I did a hop and pop from 5,500 feet and got an accuracy check off for my license requirements. I was not going to let this scare me away from a new hobby that brings me so much joy.

The moral of this story:

  1. I learned that you can never review your EPs to much, that things can go wrong no matter how safe you try to be, but if you train yourself to react in those types of situations you will react like it is second nature without much thought.
  2. I also learned how I need to be more altitude aware during a malfunction. I remember not checking my altimeter during the cutaway when I should have. In my mind I knew I was high enough, but I should have also checked to make sure that I knew the exact altitude.
  3. The training I received from all of my instructors and coaches paid off big time. The Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) Course works very well if you pay attention and take everything in that they tell you. The course re-emphasizes and internalizes safety (procedures) all the time.

Blue skies, and safe landings.

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