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Canopy collisions are a major cause of fatalities, accounting for 22% of US skydiving deaths last year. Prevention is better than cure: the best way to deal with a canopy collision is to avoid it. This starts before you get in the plane…
The two most likely times for collisions are towards the beginning and end of the canopy ride. On or around deployment is a potential high risk time. The approach to the landing area is the danger zone, when a collision is most likely and you do not have the luxury of time.
Curt Bartholomew once said the thing he likes least about this sport is that you have to trust people you don’t know not to kill you. Too true. The best defence against this is to get to know those people.
In this sport sometimes you have to trust people you don't know not to kill you
Being aware of the jumpers on your load is the best protection you can have against the risks they add. Suss the load out at the emplaning point. Frequently this is left to the jumpmaster but this is the first step you can take to protect yourself (and others).
These questions help you build up a picture of the intended sequence of events up to and including deployments.
It can be wise to have a short dialogue with the group/individual following you out, asking them to leave the appropriate gap (e.g. 8 seconds) for everyone’s safety. This small act could save your life.
Look around and figure out who's most likely to kill you (in your opinion). The nervous-looking guy on his post-AFF jumps? The belly 2-way that’s following your group? The last angle flyer to join the load? The mature lady with the frap hat and antiquated gear? The solo free flyer? Give this individual a red flag and pay him/her special attention, checking out their intended plan for the dive, and watching vigilantly for your problem child in the air. There is a great quote by Nicolas Lott, “Every time I hear people sorting out exit order in the loading area, I get the chills when I hear the words ‘solo freefly’. I’ve had multiple close calls from other skydivers drifting above or below me in freefall. I've had a jumper leave before me, backslide beneath me and past me, and open on the other side where the next group would have been. These circumstances have had fatal outcomes in the past and we need to do all we can to prevent them.“
Pick out the other people in your group when tracking; an alarming number of collisions happen between jumpers on the same skydive, even 4-way. On opening, eyeball the group before and after you, then the other flyers. Tick them off on your mental checklist of the load. If you can see everyone you won’t have any unpleasant surprises. If a group or individual is missing, keep your eyes peeled in the relevant direction till you spot them.
As you head to the landing area, maintain your awareness of the other people's positions. Accentuate your separation from others; for example, if you have a floaty canopy, stay high and work at being one of the last to land. Be aware of the traffic pattern, especially those on either side of you. Knowing where everyone is, is your condom [protection]. The majority of collisions happen between people on the same aeroplane so a simple checklist can be the most important safety precaution there is. If someone has disappeared out of the corner of your eye be aware they will reappear and anticipate the likely area.
Land alone. This simple piece of advice has saved many lives. Timing your approach so that you stage landings with vertical separation will avoid collision potential. Steering away from the other canopies on your load to a quieter landing place reduces the odds of a collision. Choosing an area well away from everyone makes a collision almost impossible. We’ve all heard the saying ‘better to walk further than not be able to walk at all’ – but how many of us follow it – or do we just talk the talk and then land on the grass in front of the clubhouse, with everyone else?
I’m a big fan of the ‘Land alone’ club, especially at unfamiliar dropzones
It takes two people to have a collision, it only takes one to avoid it.
Have fun. Be safe. Know your load.
This article intentionally focuses on one simple safety premise of knowing who is sharing the sky with you. There is more detailed advice about collision avoidance from Pete Allum here.