Best Defense – NO BE THERE!

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As Mr Miyagi said in the Karate Kid, “The best defence is NO BE THERE”

Image by Brian Buckland

We can’t collide with aircraft if we avoid them. Here’s how…

Flying canopies puts us in a situation that requires each of us to take personal responsibility for safety – for ourselves, other jumpers on the load, people on the ground, and for this article’s focus – aircraft.

Worldwide, we have seen several jumpers strike aircraft on the ground over the years, with two notable incidents in 2020 at US skydiving centers. Landing on or striking an aircraft can have major medical and financial consequences to you, the pilot, and the airplane. If the props are turning it could be a hideous fatality.

Look Out for Aircraft

Why do we have to avoid aircraft, you might ask? They have engines, they can fly around us! True, as long as they are in flight. However, they are not at all nimble on the ground, so they have a much harder time avoiding skydivers when they are taxiing, landing, and taking off. Also, the pilot can’t see what’s descending at him/her through a solid cockpit ceiling. It’s much easier for a skydiver under canopy to avoid an aircraft on the ground than vice-versa.

It’s much easier for a skydiver under canopy to avoid an aircraft on the ground than vice-versa”

The good news is that aircraft are generally predictable – much more so than many skydivers!  We know where aircraft will be (taxiways, runways, and the airspace above the ends of runways) and where they are going. That makes it much easier to avoid them if we just consider a few bits of knowledge about aircraft operations.

Aircraft only operate in very specific areas on airport grounds, including runways, taxiways, and parking pads/fueling areas. These are a very small percentage of the land on an airport, so we should be able to stay away from them without too much trouble.

Look Out for Grass Runways

At some dropzones, the paved runway may not be the only one; often there is a grass runway right next to the paved one. Aircraft will generally land on grass if conditions are dry and suitable, since it reduces wear on the tires compared to landing on tarmac. Consider the runway area to avoid as the paved runway and at least its width to either side. That way you don’t even have to remember which side it’s on! 

Always clarify in the DZ brief about the location of all runways. Whenever you skydive be aware which is the active runway if there are multiple runway directions, and be aware can change through the day if the winds change direction. If you’re not sure which is active, assume the runway is in use.

Aircraft are generally predictable, learn where they will be – the above photo of Skydive Spaceland, Houston shows them circled. You can also see the grass runway to the left of the paved runway
Photo: Craig O’Brien, supplied by Skydive Spaceland Houston

Look Out for Active Runways

It’s important, to avoid flying over active runways below 1,000 feet – when the runway is in use or could be in use. This is a general rule of thumb at most dropzones. In addition to normal take-offs and landings, aircraft sometimes have to perform a “go around,” resulting in the aircraft potentially NOT being low to the ground/near the runway surface. Sometimes humid conditions can lead to the windshield fogging over just prior to landing. In this scenario, with the pilot losing forward visibility, he/she would then transition to flying on instruments. Then the pilot has no way of seeing a skydiver that has errantly flown into airspace. designated for the aircraft.

After opening, do not loiter near the ends of the runway, as aircraft will be using that airspace for departures and approaches. When crossing a runway on foot, be sure to check both directions, looking all the way to the end of the DZ and then upwards, checking for aircraft on final approach. Never cross the runway in front of an aircraft! You can cross behind it – but then check to be sure another airplane isn’t behind it also, especially if the DZ is running multiple aircraft). Even if it isn’t, general aviation aircraft could be following the jump plane in to land. STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN for aircraft before crossing any runway. If you see an aircraft on final approach, step back from the side of the runway and look at the pilot so he/she knows you are aware and not going to try to cross. It’s also good practice to take a knee (put a knee on the ground) to clearly show the pilot you are aware and won’t dart out in front of him/her. 

Don’t assume the pilot will avoid you, it’s your job to avoid him/her – Image by Rob Lloyd

Look Out for Traffic

By far the best way to avoid conflict with aircraft is to be aware of where they will go by using the above information. It’s even a good idea, once you have deployed your parachute, cleared your airspace, and done your control check, to take a quick look down at the airport to see if any other aircraft are loading jumpers or taxiing around. You’ll also want to check the arrow for the landing direction and wind sock to tell you what winds are doing, since winds can change after you take off. This will help you verify or adjust your landing pattern plan, and predict where the aircraft will go so you can go somewhere else. Back to Mr Miyagi…

The best defense – NO BE THERE”

Mr Myagi
Know the routes the aircraft will take to and from the fuel station, loading area and runway
Photo shows Skydive Spaceland aircraft maneuvering area, by DQ

The earlier you see an impending aircraft conflict, the less you have to do to avoid it because you have so much more time and altitude to work with. A small turn up high will change your pattern and landing location much more than waiting until you’re down to a few hundred feet off the ground on final.

However, newer jumpers in particular have so much going on mentally as they learn this sport that awareness is in shorter supply than with more experienced skydivers. If you do not become aware of a potential aircraft conflict early enough to avoid it easily, you may have to take evasive maneuvers lower to the ground. Remember to use gentle braked turns in order to change your heading with minimal loss of altitude. Your student training should have taught you to use front risers to steepen your glide when you need to land shorter; this best done up high to allow the canopy to recover speed for the landing flare. You have all the skills you need; you just need to apply them with calm judgement.

Look out for Turbulence

There’s one other item to consider and that’s the turbulence behind any running aircraft. Whether stopped, taxiing, taking off, or landing, an aircraft creates turbulence in a widening cone shape behind it. You feel this prop blast as you are boarding the aircraft. Logically, then, landing a canopy behind or even almost behind a running aircraft is a pretty bad idea because turbulence can radically affect your parachute’s flight or collapse it. Don’t go there.

Look Out for Target Fixation 

Sometimes, we get so fixated on an obstacle that we end up flying right at it (target fixation). This isn’t unique to skydiving; it happens with tasks such as driving as well. We tend to go where we look, and this is precisely how jumpers sometimes end up striking the lone windsock in an otherwise clear 130-acre field, for example; they’re so nervous about hitting it that they can’t take their eyes off of it!

If you are concerned about an obstacle, whether it is an aircraft, wind sock, or whatever, check its position and then focus on a reasonable area where you would rather land. Feel free to glance back at the obstacle from time to time to see if you need to adjust your flight further, but don’t stare at it. Keep checking your airspace for other jumpers and focus instead on where you want to go.

Pilots are generally happy to discuss safety, especially at the end of the day
Photo: Pilot Rabbitt Staib at Skydive Spaceland Houston, by Christy West

Pilots will always do their absolute best to avoid conflicts with jumpers, but jumpers can help pilots out a lot by doing their part. If you have any questions about how you can work better with pilots to increase safety, feel free to ask them! Most of them are always happy to talk about safety in their down time, especially if you arrive with beer! 

Adapted from article on Skydive Spaceland website.

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Meet: Christy West

Christy is Marketing Director for Skydive Spaceland and loves to write informative articles, especially for newer jumpers. She enjoys many aspects of the sport, especially 4-way and 8-way. Christy has been instrumental in developing Spaceland programs to nurture newcomers to the sport.

She is outside center for Aviatrixx, the US women's 4-way formation skydiving team for the 2021 World Meet.

Christy is proud to be sponsored by Sun Path, Cookie, Performance Designs, LB Altimeters, and Tony Suits

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