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There is little doubt of the impact of wind tunnels in raising the standard of skydiving all over the world. But technology does not (yet) allow us to train the exit and the sub-terminal moves ‘on the hill’. This refers to the start of the jump where the relative wind is provided initially by the forward movement of the aircraft in the same way that we experience wind by sticking our arm out of the window of a moving car. If we drop something out of a car window it will fall downwards with gravity but the initial force will be felt from the fact that the car, or aircraft in our case, is moving forward through the air.
In terms of a skydiver’s body or a formation we need to present the flying surfaces into this relative wind to be stable and start flying. Imagine that your hand out of the car window is your body leaving the aircraft and your palm is your chest and belly, you will need the palm facing the front of the car in order to efficiently catch the wind. 10-12 seconds later, you accelerate with gravity to our ‘terminal velocity’, the point at which you maintain a constant speed (unless you change the surface area or aerodynamics of your body). Terminal velocity is due to the drag created by your surface area as you fall through the air. As you approach this point the relative wind changes in its direction until you feel it from directly beneath you.
As working time is 35 seconds, the 12-second period on the hill is a third of the time you have to score points. It's obvious how important this part is. Competitions are often won or lost by a team’s performance during the exit and just out of the door. The world’s top teams use wind tunnels for training plus a high volume of real skydiving, perhaps 1,000 jumps a year. I’m no expert but I imagine that the engineering to create an exit-simulating tunnel would be extremely difficult. If you want to be a great skydiver you have to skydive a lot!
Good communication is even more vital during the exit and first moves, and it starts in the door. It’s common to see teams take their positions with a very narrow focus, looking at one grip or even staring into space. Pick up eye contact with the person opposite. This may not be possible depending on the formation but at least look towards that person so you see the bigger picture and timing through the whole team. Once you’re out of the door everyone should now already be heads-up and ready for the key. John McIver’s classic hill tip is, 'Have a good look at it!' – a simple but effective piece of advice, since we’re trying to stay relative to each other when the key comes. The only way to ensure this is by actually seeing where they are! This sounds obvious but it’s common for there to be little communication between opposites on the hill and way too much separation occurs as a result, especially block moves. John and I have done around 5,000 skydives together and we know if we keep staring at each other we have the best chance of staying close and making catches happen.
A very common thing to see is a team having a nice solid exit with good communication… then they key the first point and all drift away from each other. This breathing is often due to the fact that the individuals’ energy can be moving away from the centrepoint of the formation. To avoid this, we can squeeze the grips towards the centre slightly so that everyone’s energy is now directed towards each other rather than away. Now when the key comes we should all stay much closer for the next point.
So now we’re all looking at each other and have squeezed in to the centre, the key comes and we need to be ready to move to the next point. This all comes from our mental preparation. If the exit is the first point of a block, I don’t usually think about the first formation once we’ve had a good exit, I’m already thinking about the block move. This anticipation can save lots of time on the hill and ensure we don’t get caught out by a quick key out of the door and have a brainlock right away. As I said before, it’s very often what happens during the first few seconds that wins or loses a round so we need to be ready to go for the next point.
We need to maintain our presentation to the relative wind on the hill. Because most of our repetitions of block moves will have been made ‘on the flat’ in freefall or in the tunnel we need to remind ourselves not to cut in to the wind, ie, with the side or back of our bodies catching air as if we were already belly-to-earth. Remember the hand out of the window? Now, rather than palm into the wind, bend the wrist so your fingers are parallel to the ground. If you keep bending you’ll feel a point where the wind will want to flip your hand so that the back is into the wind – not so great if you’re trying to launch a 4-way! This can often happen during a block involving a vertical move so we need to work hard on catching the wind on our chests the whole time. Your peripheral vision will be picking up input from the horizon and the ground below so it’s important to shift your awareness into taking cues from the angle of your teammates. Avoid the temptation to try to be belly-down too soon.
Each sub-terminal move will offer its own challenges. With each repetition make a note of what happened due to factors such as the direction of energy of pieces and the effects of gravity on the move. A block move on the hill can be completely different to one on the flat in terms of how much power you use and how hard you need to stop. For example, if you are at the bottom of the hill after exit you will need to work extra hard to go uphill whilst a team member at the top will need to think more about stopping the move if heading downhill.
Targeting is extra important on the hill, being aware of the visual targets during the move and making sure we achieve them will definitely improve the chances of making a catch at the end. Being smooth and precise rather than aggressive and fast is the way to build consistency on the hill as most time is wasted by allowing too much separation to occur. Watching footage of top teams is a great way to visualise the dynamics of the moves and see the targets.
As with anything else, correct training is the key to improving. Skydiving is a subtle mix of science and art so we need to build a good balance of technical knowledge and personal experience to find what works best for us as individuals and teams. If I ever figure out how to build that exit simulator I’ll let you know. Until then – go jump!