Flight-1 canopy instructor and big-way enthusiast Phil Webley advises on flying our canopies safely in crowded skies…
I love big-way skydiving! In particular I enjoy freefly big-way. I’m proud to have been a part of the UK’s head-up record and I love taking part in head-down big-ways too.
Last year I took part in several head-down big-way camps, the first time since I became a Flight-1 instructor. This got me thinking about the particular requirements of the canopy part of a big-way jump. By coincidence Brian Cumming was running a belly big-way camp in Klatovy and he invited me to run a canopy course specific to big-way jumping, which was a great opportunity to lay my thoughts down. The course was well attended and the students wasted no time in applying the skills covered once the formation jumps began.
Needless to say, if you take part in big-way skydives of any discipline you will find yourself in very crowded skies with a lot of traffic. The jump isn’t over once you’ve built that awesome formation; far from it, you all have to work together to all get down safely so you can celebrate.
Some preparation before you even board an aircraft is wise. Ask yourself a few questions:
- Is the canopy you plan to jump on the event suitable?
- Are you current on it?
- Do you feel comfortable landing it in all wind conditions or tight areas?
- Or, have you recently downsized and you’re not yet completely comfortable on your main?
- If so, would upsizing be more sensible?
- Do you consistently get off-heading openings?
- If so, does your canopy need a fresh line set?
These are some of the questions that will hopefully get you thinking about the choices we can make long before the event. For example, I prefer to pack for myself on big-way camps and my pack jobs always take longer to ensure an on-heading opening.
Fast-forward now, we’ve just completed an immense formation and we’re tracking away, this is the time to start building up a mental picture of who is in your vicinity and where? Not to over-use the long-standing joke of ‘body-position’ as the culprit for bad openings, but ensure you have stopped your track and give the canopy the best platform for deployment. During your opening, keep your eyes out for other people, check your canopy at the end of your count, rather than staring at it for inspiration during the deployment. In crowded skies you need to know as soon as possible if you’re headed for a collision so you can avoid it in time. Once you get familiar with your canopy and pack job you will know if you are having a malfunction without having to look up. We should aim to find our rear risers without looking so we can keep an eye on the action. How soon into the deployment you can make an input with your rear risers will depend on your canopy, and you should find this out in a less hectic environment!
Flying with Others
Once you have full control of your canopy, keep flying away from the centre of the formation while you get your bearings. Turn to fly back to the DZ when you are sure you are turning into nothing but clear airspace. All turns should be flat turns and a maximum of 90º. Despite ‘flat-turns’ being considered a basic technique – after all it is taught in AFF at some DZs and it features in our first course of our series (the Flight 101) – I’ve found a lot of people struggle with really keeping their wing over their heads. I see far too many full depression turns around the DZ and all the aggressiveness that comes with that manoeuvre, when the finesse of a flat turn would have been more suitable.
How comfortable are you flying in brakes? Especially in a big-way scenario, it’s not a race to get down and we should all aim to spread ourselves out vertically. The best way to do that is to fly in brakes. It slows our descent rate down and our forward speed and we have more time to think.
- Do you know the stall point on your canopy so you don’t accidentally stall it?
- If you do cause an unexpected stall, do you know how to safely recover from it?
- Has the stall point changed due to your lines going out of trim?
Allow the faster canopies to get down and, if you know you’re on a slower canopy within the formation, hold on brakes. A conventional signal if you’re not sure if someone has seen you, kick your legs and they kick their legs as a response if they see you. Another useful but less well-known signal is, if you find yourself on level with someone, you can fly in half brakes but holding your arms out, this will make your flight mode and your intention to give them the right of way clear to someone else and invites them to descend below you.
Each big-way camp will have established rules on landing patterns to keep everyone safe so respect them. It’s common for large formations to have designated landing areas for different sections of the formation. Ensure you are familiar with these and follow any rules laid out. When it’s time to turn onto finals and land, keep flying predictably. Pick a clear lane away from the burble of other canopies in from and below you. It’s less important to shoot for the peas on these jumps than it is to land in a safe open area.
Are you familiar with how far your system travels over the ground in different wind conditions or will you be caught out and not clear the obstacle underneath you or overshoot into one? In order to land so many people safely, DZs tend to select long stretches to land along, however with restrictions to what’s available, this may mean it’s a cross-wind landing. Have you ever practiced this and can you perform these landings safely without interfering with other jumpers?
Maybe you’ve had to perform a late turn (which should be a flat turn) and now you don’t have time to go to full flight like your canopy coach told you on that course last year, have you ever trained how to land if you are in brakes? Don’t forget to flare symmetrically, both for your best landing, and to avoid your canopy swinging to one side in front of another jumper as they are landing!
Big-way Bites Series
Check out other articles in this series covering the essentials of large formation skydiving.
- Big-way Bites 1 – Exit
- Big-way Bites 2 – Getting to your slot
- Big-way Bites 3 – Fall Rate
- Big-way Bites 4 – Red Zone and Docking
- Big-way Bites 5 – Break-off and Tracking
- Big-way Bites 7 – How to Get on the Big-way
- Big-way Bites 8 – How to Stay on the Big Way
- Big-way Bites 9 – Bigway safety
- Big-way Bites 10 – How to Run a Safe Event
- Big-way Bites 11 – Breathing O2
- Get the Most out of Your Canopy Course - 11th August 2023
- Big-Way Bites 12 – Canopy Safety - 23rd May 2023
- Wind Tunnel Coach Course - 9th February 2023
- 5 Tips to Stay Alive Under Canopy - 7th June 2022