Dear Dive Doctor,
I’ve got to grips with head-up and head-down doing 2-ways with a freefly coach… but I’m really struggling to make progress on larger formations as I find it hard to dock on formations without corking up.
What can I do?
Answered by Ally Milne
… a well-known VFS champion and FF coach
This is a great question that’s very commonly asked. The good news that it sounds like you are getting to the formation with no issues. Now let’s take a look at the grip-taking by splitting down our core abilities in three subsections: Skills, Discipline and Experience. Each one of these has its own effect on the result, and to successfully achieve any goal or aim in skydiving, we need to use all three simultaneously. These apply to all areas of our sport not just head down flying.
During your progression in head-down you will have learnt the basic skills for flying head down, such as forward/back, faster/slower, turns and independent hand movement. For independent hand movement some coaches will get the students to perform a hand clap, others will get them to pick up a grip to show they have the ability to fly without relying on the arms. It’s a good idea at this early stage, to jump in either 2 or 3 ways to consolidate the skills you have learned so far. Group jumping right after FF2 [basic UK freefly qualification in head-down] is a big step that increases people’s freefall anxiety, which means they won’t perform to their best. By jumping in 2- and 3 ways there is less stress and the other flyers can help you out a bit by increasing the fall rate if needed. When the group gets bigger this isn’t so practical, and inexperienced groups tend to fly a lot slower than a normal head down speed making it even harder to dock on. Once you are happy with these basics you can then add the next level of skills.
Next level skills include learning to fly daffy if you already fly shelf, or vice-versa, head down carving, and also getting tracking skills (TR3) polished off, as these will help massively when flying to the formation. When docking on the outside of a formation you will need to ensure you are aware of the formation burble. This is called stinging. It’s important you avoid flying with your legs in or near to the burble at this stage. If you hit the burble keep flying. The majority of burble-related issues are not the burble itself, but the reaction to it. Just like when you drive over a pothole in your car, rather than make a handbrake turn or roll the car, it’s more likely you will keep driving whilst making some small adjustments to keep on the road.
Each skill you learn is like a tool in your box, the more tools you have, the more versatile your flying will be. Some leg and arm positions that people fly will hamper their ability to pick up grips. If that is the case then it’s a good idea to learn a new position sooner rather than later, it should be noted that no single leg position works for all situations, and learning to fly a daffy both ways is gives the most versatility when grip taking. Flying in a shelf isn’t so versatile fall rate wise, and putting both legs behind you makes you more liable to someone burbling your entire leg stability. Having a good position ensures every other skill is easier to perform, like the good foundation of a house.
It’s at the post FF2 qualification point that many people can lose their way in progression, because rather than ask a coach they try and teach themselves, or worse get a friend to brief them in the bar! Getting taught skills poorly takes longer to fix and means more jumps not getting into the formation! Just because you have your FF2 doesn’t mean you can’t still get coaching to improve, and there is always something new to learn or to work on. It should however be noted that skills are not the sole ability required to be a competent skydiver.
This is the ability to follow a pre-described plan. We will have discipline and order in our everyday lives such as following the rules when driving or flying our canopies in a predictable pattern. When picking up grips the plan follows in 4 stages: Level, Slot, Dock and Fly. You only progress forward onto the next step when the previous has been completed and go back a step if something changes.
You should ensure the level you are on allows you to see the tops of the head and shoulders of the group. Looking across the formation is key for assessing this correctly.
You should fly forward slowly in a straight line, and stop directly in your slot whilst maintaining level. The formation may adjust during your approach, so keeping looking, assessing and deciding to make the appropriate required input to match.
When docking with the formation you need to have the air hitting the back of the hand. You should not need to move the hand to the formation if you are on the right level and slot. If your hand isn’t in the right place, think about moving your body rather than your arm to the grip. The grip should only be picked up gently. You should keep looking across the formation throughout, and remember you don’t need to look at the grip to pick it up, in the same way you don’t need to look at your pilot chute to throw it!
Once the grip is picked up you need to continue to fly your body to maintain the correct position relative to the formation. The formation may change fall rate slightly and you need to keep looking across the formation to assess this. The more inexperienced and or larger a formation the more likely it is to pulse, wave or rotate as people are docking. All the time looking across the formation, assessing what is any inputs are needed, deciding to make them when the time is right and acting quickly to maintain position. Celebrating picking up the dock in freefall can cause you to quickly lose the grip. Celebrating with the group after you’ve landed is probably best, and if it’s your biggest formation a round of teas in the debriefing is likely required!
This is a rough outline of the basic grip discipline. It doesn’t matter how much skill a flyer has if they don’t follow this plan as the formation will not build as smoothly and successfully.
If any of these skills described in the grip discipline are not sufficiently developed, then it’s best for your progression to work on them in 2 ways first. Nobody wants to get the nickname cannonball!
This ability is the glue that holds everything together, and there is no short cut for skydiving experience. Think of experience as XP points that are gaining for trying new things, using discipline successfully and building repetitions of skills. Experience is shown in how a flyer uses the skills and discipline together. It determines which skills, which body positions to use and at exactly what time. It ensures you will follow the discipline to the letter, and your experience of seeing and doing it wrong many times will have shown following the grip discipline is always the best way. When beginning early group jumps a flyer will have no experience and will try to shortcut the grip discipline with your brain playing the often-repeated trick of tempting you to just grab the grip, after all it’s just there! Experience will guide you to take the extra second or two to ensure you are on level before gently picking up the grip. When you start picking up grips on formations you will be the slowest person to dock, so there is no need to rush.
Experience in skydiving is developed by trying new skills, new exit slots, different aircraft. Load organising is one of the best ways to develop this in a structured environment. Every organiser will themselves bring their own personal experience which can in turn help increase yours.
Hopefully, this can help shine a light on the basics of grip-taking, by ensuring you have the correct skills, follow the grip discipline plan smoothly and be comforted by the fact it will take a few jumps to develop the necessary experience to complete the grip taking consistently. And finally remember no matter how your grip-taking abilities are, having a good break procedure is one of the primary safety priorities on head-down group skydives.
Article originally published on the Skydive Hibaldstow blog here
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