An Ounce of Prevention

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Daniel McLaurin, Flight-1 canopy coach, asks five simple questions about your final approach…

Marcelo Marapodi, Perris organizer and big-way enthusiast, fully focused on his landing
Photo by Dennis Sattler

I’ve put a ton of thought into recent, and recurring events, and how we can prevent these types of incidents in the future.

With that in mind, I have a few questions…

  • How high do you intend to turn onto final approach?
  • Do you have a planned altitude (or range of altitudes)?
  • If you have a planned altitude, how did you make that decision?
  • How do you know what altitude you’re at when you turn? Looking at your altimeter? An audible? Sight and experience? It’s probably some combination of the above, right? (Side note – I don’t advocate for looking at your altimeter after you turn onto final, there are significantly more important things to be focused on at that point!)
  • At what point is it no longer safe to initiate your intended approach?

Personally, if I plan to do a certain approach onto final, whether it is a big turn in the high-performance landing area, or a 90-degree turn into the main grass at Skydive Perris, I know that below a certain altitude, and in certain pattern conditions, it is NO LONGER SAFE for me to use that type of approach. What are my options? Doing a smaller turn? Rear-Risers? Flat (braked) turns? Land somewhere else? How do I know what option gives EVERYONE the best chance to walk away safely?

I posed these questions to a few people around the dropzone. A few had clear answers right away. The majority were either unsure or had to think about it for a decent amount of time before answering. A couple of people looked at me like I was crazy! How much time do you have to make that decision when it counts? Seconds? Less?

Something that keeps coming to mind while reviewing emergency procedures with AFF students, quick conversations in the landing area, or teaching advanced canopy flight, is Benjamin Franklin’s timeless quote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In other words, it is better and easier to stop a problem from happening, than to stop or correct it after it has started. Franklin was advising the citizens of Philadelphia to remain vigilant about fire awareness and prevention in 1736. I’m sure he never considered that these words would apply to people willfully and intentionally jumping out of flying machines nearly three centuries later, but here we are!

An ounce of prevention… is worth a pound of cure

Benjamin Franklin
Busy skies over Perris, the land of big-ways
Photo by Dennis Sattler

So, how does this apply to skydiving, and specifically low turns?

Good question. AFF students are often taught that the best way to deal with an Out-of-Sequence deployment (Horseshoe Malfunction) is to avoid creating one in the first place. Replace closing loops at the first signs of wear and tear. Be cautious when moving in and around the aircraft. Get pin checks. Be aware of your container, especially when exiting the plane.

This same principle applies to dealing with low turns, too. Simply put, don’t turn low! Prevent low turns by flying a predictable pattern that gives you options. Manage vertical and horizontal separation to ensure clear space that is free of traffic. Choose alternate landing areas early and often. Remember “A long walk is a lot better than a short ambulance ride.” Oftentimes the best option is aborting your plan/target and doing what you can to safely land, learn from your mistakes, and do better next time. There is a reason this is THE most important landing priority and taught to skydivers before their first jump. Yet somehow, we keep repeating the same mistakes. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Skydivers are a stubborn bunch. We tend to learn things the hard way.

Simply put, don’t turn low!

Unfortunately, fires weren’t 100% preventable in 1736. They still aren’t. If you jump long enough, you will probably see, or hear about, (if you haven’t already) an Out-of-Sequence deployment. Low turns… well, it doesn’t take a ton of time on the dropzone to realize they happen far too frequently. It is everyone’s responsibility to reduce the occurrence of low turns as close to zero as possible! The bottom line is we are human. We make mistakes. If I were to say that I have never turned low, I would be lying. Prevention is not and will never be 100% effective in any of these situations. We have got to know the cure!

Eyes up – you can learn lots by watching the landing pattern of your colleagues
Photo at Skydive Perris by Dennis Sattler

So, what do you do when you turn too low?

It WILL happen at some point.

  • How do you get the wing back above your head in time to recover? Do you know?
  • Is it something that you’ve planned for? Practiced? Visualized?

When posed these questions, the results were like before. Some had great answers. Most needed time to answer, a luxury not afforded to us when seconds determine the difference in outcomes. Others openly admitted they had never given much thought to it.

On any given day, I see tons of people plan freefall using creepers, practicing at mock-ups, and visualizing in the plane before they jump, which I think is fantastic. On the flip side, I almost NEVER see anyone planning or practicing canopy flight. Why is that the case?

  • Do you have a plan for canopy flight?
  • Goals? Objectives?
  • Drills/skills to improve on each jump?
  • Canopy flight flows?

Take a second to visualize deploying your canopy. Imagine the transition from freefall to becoming a canopy pilot. You start to feel weight in your leg straps, and your body sit upright. Focus on body position, symmetry, and expanding your awareness to deal with any immediate situations that might demand your attention. Canopy emergencies. Traffic.

Visualizing is not only for freefall… include your canopy flight plan too
Photo by Dennis Sattler

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where is everyone else?
  • Where am I?
  • Where do I want to be?
  • How do I safely get there?

Think through your housekeeping.

  • Slider
  • Chest strap
  • Harness adjustments
  • Breathe
  • Think of actively controlling your heading throughout this process
  • Take hold of your toggles and establish controllability
  • What are the winds doing?
  • Where is my holding area?
  • Pattern entry point?
  • Do I have enough altitude to make it back to my intended flight plan?
  • Am I correctly managing vertical and horizontal separation?
  • Should I change input modes to adjust descent rate or glide ratio?

Visualize a predictable entry into the pattern. Small adjustments as necessary to dial in your downwind leg. You are right where you want to be. Smoothly turn onto your base leg. It is nice and clear as you setup for your final turn. Suddenly, to your side, a canopy appears seemingly out of “nowhere.” You react quickly and immediately. You pull a toggle to avoid the other canopy…. you swing out to the side of your canopy…..you’re in a steep dive…the ground is rushing up… you’re too low…what now?!?

If your answers to the above questions were quick and decisive, good on you. Keep practicing. If you needed time, or were completely unsure how to answer, it is time to put more thought into it. Plan. Practice. Visualize. If you are unsure of where to start, just ask. Find an experienced and reputable canopy pilot/coach to help you answer these questions. I would encourage everyone, regardless of skill level and experience to start putting as much time and effort, if not more into planning canopy flight versus freefall.

The difference between an incident report and a close call can be fractions of a second

Landing in a crowded area needs 100% of your skills and focus
Photo by Dennis Sattler

The difference between ending up on an incident report and learning from a close call can literally be fractions of a second. Make sure that you are equipped with the knowledge and tools to handle these situations. Give yourself and your friends the best possible chance. Get coaching. Take canopy courses. Flight-1 101 and 102 cover these topics exhaustively. Use (but avoid relying on) devices to help you figure out proper turn heights and recovery times such as digital altimeters, audibles, and GPS systems like FlySight. Our goal is for EVERYONE to be able to safely walk away at the end of the day, and enjoy debriefing perfect jumps, zoo dives, and shit shows!

Please fly safe and look out for each other.

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Meet: Daniel McLaurin

Daniel started jumping in 2009 and now has over 6000 skydives, including 2500+ AFF jumps. He is now a Flight-1 Instructor, as well as the Chief AFF Instructor at Skydive Perris. When not teaching canopy courses or doing AFF/Coach jumps you can find him doing XRW, swooping, FreeTrying, hiking, and attempting to play guitar.

Daniel is proud to be sponsored by L&B Altimeters, Velocity Sports Equipment, CYPRES, Cookie, Fluid Wings, and FlySight

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