Smart mountaineers have a saying that when you get to the summit you’re only halfway. You still need to get down safely – that can be the most challenging part.
Getting down safely
The same philosophy can be applied to big-ways – there you are flying your slot in an amazing record formation, you think it’s complete, your buddies are squeezing your wrists and there’s magic in the air – job done, you’re on the summit, woo hoo! Well you’re only halfway, now let’s get back down safely…
Safety begins on the ground by checking your pin is all the way in, and a snug fit, that you have no exposed bridle, and your pilot chute is nicely tucked away. Don’t be the one who causes a go-around at 18 grand because your bag drops on the floor of the aircraft! Make sure your choice of canopy is acceptable for big-ways. If yours snivels, opens off heading, or is very highly loaded then it’s not suitable for big-ways. Find one that is, and make some familiarisation jumps in smaller groups.
Load the aircraft in the correct order, to avoid having to climb over people, which can dislodge pins and safely stowed pilot chutes. Buddy up and make a plan to check each other’s pins before jumping. If oxygen is being used then check the hose routing while on the ground, and lightly stow your hose in your chest strap or wherever is convenient. Be quiet on run-in to conserve oxygen and to make any commands clearly audible (2-Minutes, Open Door, Exit, etc). Keep your oxygen on as long as possible without disrupting the exit (late divers can still be breathing oxygen as the floaters are climbing out). On exit, especially in the trail aircraft, go with the flow and don’t push, run over people, or otherwise turn into an exit monster!
You must know what altitude you should leave and what the break-off signal is (often leg kicking or a deployment in the centre). Make sure you know what your hard deck is if the break signal is not given.
If you go low, the standard brief is to move from beneath the formation (so you don’t cause a funnel) and keep working to get back up until the first wave breaks off, then you become part of that wave. In this case make sure you track long and hard, all the way down to that wave’s opening altitude.
Track all the way to your assigned altitude regardless of where you are over the ground. Even if you realise it’s a bad spot and you’re tracking away from the airfield, keep going. The priority is separation. Use your audible and/or check your alti/eyes to ensure you deploy at your assigned height. It’s always safer to follow the plan.
You need to open within 300ft of your assigned altitude – so know how long it takes you to wave off and deploy. Keep looking around as you wave. If at this stage and you wind up alongside somebody, you need to use your wits to ensure you don’t both deploy simultaneously – in this scenario separation is more important than your exact deployment altitude. As you deploy keep your hips and shoulders level, control your opening with your hips, keep your eyes peeled and be prepared to use your rear risers to take avoiding action if needed. Keep your canopy flying away from the centre for ten seconds to continue extending the separation.
Under canopy, leave your booties on and fly conservatively. Save your spirals, or swoops for smaller loads. Keep your head on a swivel the whole way down. Decide promptly if you are going to make it back to your designated landing area. If not then make an early decision on an alternate landing area and spend the rest of the time scouring it for signs of hazards. Be aware that others may also be homing in on the same area so try to join or set a pattern.
You should aim to extend the stack of canopies. If you’re open higher than most of the pack, then sit on brakes and stay up longer to free up some airspace. If open lower than most, then use 45° front riser turns to motor on down and clear the air for those above. In a busier sky than you may be used to, be aware of the burble behind other canopies – especially close tto the ground.
Know the landing direction in relation to the sun or some other large distant object (eg, coastline or mountain range) before take-off. Formation loads occasionally mistime exits and dump everyone off the airfield. Know your assigned landing area and the pattern for landing and stick to it. Don’t make the most basic mistake of trying to land closest to the packing area. The mission is separation so find a quieter part of your assigned landing area.
Often in light winds a landing direction will be set before the jump, or indicated by a ground arrow. If this is the case, stick to this religiously even if it’s downwind. It is better to land a bit faster than usual than meet a canopy going in the opposite direction. Land straight-in if possible. If you must turn, do no more than a predictable 90° having checked for traffic beforehand. Someone may be approaching faster than you from behind.
After landing, immediately turn around and look up to check others coming in to land. When clear, collect your canopy swiftly, and vacate the landing area for the people above you. Keep your wits about you walking back to the packing area. If the DZ hasn’t got a post-jump check-in procedure then buddy up with someone on your aircraft and look out for each other after every jump.
Now you made it back safely, mine’s a pint of Guinness!
Big-way Bites Series