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We have seen malfunctions take lives in the sport, especially at low altitude, with people cutting away lower than they can get a reserve out and open before impact. For this reason it's important everyone has their own personal hard deck. Flight-1 canopy school has produced this series of short videos discussing emergency procedures. The content is summarised below, or you can just watch the videos.
A hard deck is an altitude below which you would not cutaway. It’s a personal choice for every skydiver.
It’s easy to become complacent and think we are more prepared than we actually are
I’m not aiming to tell you what that hard deck should be or endorse any altitude but to endorse the principle that everyone should have a hard deck. A lot of us think we have a hard deck but we don’t actually define it for ourselves. That means in a malfunction situation we can easily be overwhelmed. If a lot of things are happening very quickly, we may have an idea of what we’d like that hard deck to be but maybe that’s not a good enough recipe.
It makes sense to be pre-prepared. Choose a hard deck that is a nice round number – so you’re not trying to assess small differences in altitude when there are a lot of things happening.
The actual altitude is obviously the main gauge for a hard deck, but you can correlate a certain place or position in the pattern with an altitude and link your hard deck to that. For example, you could say that, once you’ve entered your pattern you will no longer cutaway. Say if you’re on your downwind leg and you have a canopy collision, you become entangled and can’t see your alti, you’re trying to assess altitude and you’re left in a guessing situation. But if you already have established in your mind that you’ve passed through your hard deck it makes your decisions that much clearer and faster.
If you jump different canopies or containers, whatever canopy you’re jumping I recommend establishing the same hard deck for all of them.
Having a malfunction or a problem above the hard deck is the most common situation. It’s important that we all decide to improve altitude awareness in our day to day jumping. The more current and the more experienced we are, the easier it is to become complacent and think we are more prepared than we actually are.
The first thing that should come to mind if you have a problem is to check your altitude
Whatever is happening, whether you have an entanglement, line twists or some sort of obvious malfunction it’s important to be altitude aware. The first thing that should come to mind if you have a problem is to check your altitude. Then as you’re assessing and dealing with the problem, keep checking the altitude and aim to be aware of the speed at which you are descending.
If you have a malfunction above the hard deck and it looks like something you can deal with, maybe it’s line twists or something you believe you can get out of, then the altitude awareness will give time to deal with it. But on the other hand if it’s a malfunction you’re not going to be able to solve, then get rid of it immediately and give yourself a little extra time. The idea of a hard deck is not that you should keep trying to solve the problem all the way down to the hard deck. It’s important that we differentiate between malfunctions that may be solvable and those which aren't.
In the situation of a high speed malfunction, how does that affect your altitude awareness? We pass though altitude much quicker. If you have a high speed malfunction with no fabric out to slow you down, the next thousand feet are going to go by in the blink of an eye. You need to recognise that with a high speed malfunction you need to deal with this situation immediately. You don’t have time to assess altitude and the situation or volley back and forth.
This is the least attractive of the options and a scary situation. In my mind once I’ve passed through my hard deck, cutting away is no longer an option. My right hand is no longer involved in my emergency procedures. My only option is to add fabric to the situation.
Remember that a parachute is not fully steerable and safe until we have released the brakes and done a full control check. Sometimes more experienced jumpers choose to fly around with their brakes on and release them lower down, perhaps when they enter the pattern. The danger is that there have been many cases when skydivers find they have a problem when they release the brakes; one is stuck on or tangled, or any number of scenarios. So as soon as your canopy is open and flying straight then take the brakes off and fully determine the controllability of the canopy.
Have a hard deck, have a plan. If you’re unsure about any of your options then speak to more experienced jumpers and apply what they do to your plan. But – have a plan.
Article and safety videos by Flight-1
NB: Students should always refer to an instructor before changing any procedure