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Another great article by Skydive Spaceland on Safety …
Ah, the sunset tracking dive. What could be more fun than flying along with your skydiving friends in a flock with a beautiful sunset? After all, all the cool kids are doing it!
If the dive goes wrong, a whole lot of things could be more fun than that tracking dive…
Tracking and angle flying dives are very fun and cool, but they can also be very dangerous, both within the group and to others. They seriously require solid planning and skill from each flyer to execute safely. Some drop zones are considering requiring at least 100 jumps before allowing individuals on group tracking dives, and 500 to lead such a dive.
Angle flying dives are very fun and cool, but can also be very dangerous
Think about it… if a tracking dive is doing up to 50-60mph horizontal speed and the flight path angles incorrectly up or down line of flight, how long will it take you to cover the distance between your exit point and the next group on the load? How long will it take you to pass them? Not very long at all, and now you are opening in the “wrong” airspace where at the very least you’re not expected by others on the load – and at worst you are in the same airspace as other groups and opening collisions are a major risk.
There is a significant additional risk from freefall collisions with other jumpers on your dive, particularly if any of those jumpers are inexperienced in general or with tracking dives. What it all boils down to is this: Tracking/angle flying dives have the potential to be much more dangerous than “regular” falling-straight-down jumps.
So, here are some things to keep in mind to help keep your tracking dive a safe, awesome experience…
Should you be doing the tracking dive at all? The size of the tracking dive should be commensurate with your experience. If you wouldn’t do a belly fly or freefly jump with the number of people on the tracking dive, you shouldn’t track with them either. Lower-experienced jumpers have a greater chance of not being able to stay with a big group and tracking away from that group early, potentially into another group.
The dive leader needs to get approval from operations staff (pilot, DZ manager, etc.) for every single tracking dive. This is especially critical if the DZ is running multiple aircraft simultaneously.
The person leading the dive should be familiar with the drop zone, the direction of jump run, the day’s winds, and the experience and capabilities of each person on the jump. This person should also have the confidence to let people know if they should not be on that skydive, and perhaps start with a smaller tracking dive first. The leader also needs to brief everyone on safe flight techniques.
What is the planned flight path? All tracking groups should maintain a flight plan 45-90° off of line of flight, depending on the current winds aloft and jump run. Above is an example from Skydive Spaceland. It's a great idea to share a visual flight plan with the group to clarify communications.
The leader must know what other groups are on that load and what they’re doing. Also, everyone on the plane must know what you’re doing so they can keep an eye out for you. When you do a tracking dive, you are intentionally going far and fast away from the spot of air your group would occupy if you weren’t tracking. Given the (usually) slower fall rate of a tracking group, it is very easy for a fast group to cover a mile or more across the ground. If you aren’t careful to take your group away from jump run, you can easily end up above or below other groups and put quite a few people in harm’s way.
Skydive Spaceland is now using a flight plan sheet for each load to fill out with all horizontal groups' flight plans drawn on a single DZ aerial. This requires all groups to be aware of each other's planned movement and communicate to resolve any potential conflicts. Once all movement groups are comfortable with the plan for the load, the sheet is turned in to the pilot so he/she can also be aware of horizontal dive plans and adjust the aircraft's flight/descent if needed.
A good spot is critical for the last load of the day, since recovering people from off landings in the dark is no one’s idea of fun.
Recovering people from off landings in the dark is no one’s idea of fun
During the track, leaders must maintain awareness of the group’s location and flight skill, and be able to adjust their flight angle/speed to keep the group together and moving in a safe direction.
Particularly if the leader is tracking on his/her back, their visuals of ground references may be compromised. Highly experienced jumpers in the group can and should give course corrections if needed to maintain safety of the group (distance from jump run and spot).
Sometimes people may think to open higher if the spot is very long. But as you fly back to the drop zone at a higher than expected altitude, you run the risk of sneaking up on other canopy traffic from unexpected directions, plus you put yourself at a higher risk of being close to aircraft that may not expect a parachute to be open high and far from the drop zone. You don’t show up on Air Traffic Control radar!
Your chances of landing off are much higher on a tracking dive. In fact, one of the toughest things to manage on a tracking dive is maintaining a safe distance from other groups on the jump run while also keeping a good chance of landing at the DZ. When in doubt, though, stay further from jump run! Landing off is something most of us have done successfully, while a freefall or canopy collision is much less likely to end well. Remember to look at any wind indicators you can find, pick a large, clear area early, and be prepared to do a PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) if necessary. It makes sense for at least one of the group to take their phone, particularly if the DZ is on Burble, as then they can see your location.
The sky is big, but it’s only so big when we are all taking off from and trying to land at the same place. Keep these points in mind to help ensure that we all get to play safely!
Article originally on Skydive Spaceland Houston's website here, reprinted with permission, thanks guys!