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Spaceland Houston Elevates Angle Flying Safety Standards to New Heights

Skydive Spaceland Houston’s high level of local angle flyers
Photo by Felix Wetterberg

During my initial years as a coach, traveling across the world, I observed a relatively uniform approach to angle flying, with occasional DZs either excelling in safety measures or notably lacking in them. However, my perspective shifted dramatically when I began leading camps and providing private coaching at Spaceland Houston. Since then, I’ve witnessed continuous advancements in the practices surrounding angle flying at Spaceland DZs, setting new benchmarks for safety and innovation in the sport. 

So, what distinguishes Spaceland Houston? The key lies in their unique management of angle flying. In this article, you’ll learn what makes this dropzone unique and you’ll hear from their DZM, Nick Lott, on how they came to implement such a system. 

Limiting number of movement groups 

Typically flying a Caravan and an Otter (they have multiple aircraft at this dropzone), and with a large amount of regular fun jumpers, on any given day of the week, there are at least 3 groups moving per day with more on busy days. Spaceland has made the decision to limit the amount of movement groups to 2 on one load. While many dropzones allow 4 tracking groups per load, and I’ve witnessed even 5 groups per load, this decision has been put in place to eliminate the risks associated with several groups on one load. As Spaceland Houston has a large section of swamp framing the landing area, that becomes an area you typically don’t want to send movement groups towards unless the winds are at favor.

By limiting the number of movement groups per load, they are helping to ensure each group has ample amount of air space to get off of jump run and open far away from the other moving group. The more moving groups you add per load, the less margin of error each group has for opening away from other groups. Add in challenging wind conditions and inexperienced leaders and the chances of error increase.

Alethia Austin leads a dynamic movement jump
Photo by Rhys Haggarty

Approved Leader List

At many dropzones, I have witnessed sub-100 skydive jumpers leading a tracking jump. I have witnessed a lot of out landings and near misses of canopies and bodies. Leading an angle jump is a lot more complex than just going in a direction off of jump run. Winds aloft, jump run, level of group, number of jumpers in group, jump plan and groups ahead of and before are just a few factors to take into consideration. When we have inexperienced leaders leading angle jumps, it becomes dangerous for all groups on the airplane.

Spaceland has removed this risk by creating an approved leader list. They have consulted high level, highly experienced leaders to create an approval process that ensures anyone on that list has the experience and understanding to safely lead at their dropzone. And anyone not on the list has a group of approved leaders to learn from. The comfort of knowing each person on that list taking a group up can safely do so is one that is priceless.

Spaceland’s innovative Flight Plan board required for every movement group

Boarding Area Angle Flight Plan

All angle groups are expected to manifest as such and be at the boarding area well ahead of the 5 minute call, geared up and declaring their flight path. Spaceland has made this easy by implementing two massive dry eraser aerial maps of the dropzone. Every movement group writes their name, group size and a detailed flight path + opening on the board every jump. This gives the entire load the comfort of knowing where to expect those canopies, gives the other angle groups an idea of where the other group will be and creates a necessary accountability for each leader to follow through on their plan – or be able to explain why they didn’t.

I sat down with Spaceland Houston’s dropzone manager and fellow skydiver, Nicholas Lott, to dig into how they became so forward-thinking. My hope is that other dropzones around the world will follow suit and we can finally see our procedures catching up to the popularity of angle flying to keep everyone on the dropzone as safe as possible…

How much of an increase in angle flying has Spaceland seen in the last few years? And why do you think that is?

Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen tracking go through at least three distinct phases. The first phase involved some of the most talented flyers beginning to explore this emerging discipline. The second phase began when many people without the proper skill set or knowledge base started to emulate the flyers they looked up to. Phase two created a number of close calls and a great deal of learning opportunities. We’ve now entered phase three, which has brought about a new generation of educated and conservative skydivers. Jumpers who can understand and even plan jump run. People who discuss the weather, strategically make a flight plan, consider the skill level, and who actually walk their jumps and still arrive in the loading area on time. These people put effort into knowing, understanding, and following the rules. They’re knowledgeable, respectful, and do better than any other group of skydivers I’ve seen regarding knowing when to say no.

Jumps are planned, walked and mapped out at Spaceland Houston – no matter the level
Photo by Felix Wetterberg

How and when did Spaceland realize that angle flying was something that might require attention and potential new protocols?

Skydive Spaceland is very fortunate to have such a large number of high-level flyers. Luckily, the people leading the way in the movement world (pun intended) introduced the need for more education and structure for the dropzone to safely accommodate these jumps. This guidance came from direct experience on their own jumps, as well as witnessing people with a poorly made plan or poor execution create less than desirable situations.

Were there any problems you were running into or you have witnessed in the growth of popularity of angle flying?

The biggest challenge with angle flying is that the popularity of the discipline has grown faster than the education of how these jumps are planned and executed safely. It’s difficult to equip new jumpers with all of the information all at once. This makes communicating the risks and responsibilities that one undertakes on a tracking jump challenging to say the least. Not to mention that telling someone that they can’t do a thing is a really great way to get them to do exactly that thing.

Thankfully, Spaceland is a dropzone with a great safety culture. Everyone here is working on something. We don’t really do many boogies, but we host a whole lot of camps. There’s a drive to learn and to grow which is shared among nearly all jumpers. That culture has encouraged and supported the new structure and standards that we’re doing our best to uphold. 

With high level locals comes bigger jump plans including dynamic skydives and multidimensional bigways
Photo Daniel Angulo

What are some of the ways in which you’ve made changes at Spaceland to accommodate the discipline and its potential risks?

We’ve gone through a few different methods of how we communicate the plan for a tracking group, and I think they were all necessary steps to arrive at our current solution. Currently, we have a “movement board” in our loading area which includes two giant dry-erase aerial maps of the dropzone. The maps show our landing area, as well as 2 miles in every direction (We capture these images by flying a pass on the way up at approximately 12,000’ AGL and have someone lying on the floor and taking pictures pointing straight down at the dropzone. You can also get a pretty decent image from Google Maps for most locations).  There is a large magnetic arrow on the map which represents the current jump run. 

The leader of any moving group must write their name, how many people are in their group, what type of movement jump they are doing, and note that they’ve checked the current winds (ground winds and winds aloft), and that they’ve communicated with other groups on the load. Having this movement board in a central location in our loading area and having all moving groups make their plan together has been a big key to success. The plan that people have to draw up is now visible to everyone in the loading area. This makes a bad plan easy to spot for someone with the knowledge to see it, and has inspired every person to put thought into making a good plan so they aren’t the one who is called out. The leaders must draw their expecting exit point, flight path, and opening point. They also must discuss where the canopies in their group should hold before joining other canopy traffic. 

Additionally, tracking/angle/movement groups must let manifest know that they are moving. We have started limiting tracking groups to two per load unless a qualified manager, S&TA, or Movement Jump Evaluator is there to make an exception to allow a third moving group. Situations where two tracking groups moving towards the same side of jump run should be reserved for very high level flyers only. 

A closer look at the board with two leaders going to same side
on a day not conducive to tracking over the swamp

What is a Movement Jump Evaluator and how do they qualify?

That is a great question. We’ve empowered a handful of our highest level flyers to evaluate the skill set and knowledge base of any person who is interested in being on our Approved Leader List. Any person who is leading a tracking/moving/angle flying group must be on the Approved Leader List, even if they’re doing a solo. Getting on the list begins with completing a questionnaire about movement jumps. The questionnaire consists of open-ended questions designed for long answers to truly find out what someone knows about this discipline.

If the answers don’t raise any red flags, the candidate moves forward to an in-person interview and evaluation jump with a Movement Jump Evaluator. They must complete the entire process beginning by properly manifesting and briefing the jump, drawing up the plan, executing the flying and navigation, and accounting for everyone in their group upon landing.

How have these changes impacted the community and or operations? 

There is, not surprisingly, some push back from the people who don’t know what they don’t know. Some people don’t agree with the need for this structure because they’ve “been doing solo tracking jumps for years now and nothing bad has happened.” These people have generally not received structured coaching, have not attended any camps or seminars, and have just not been properly introduced to the risks and responsibilities that come with these jumps. At our dropzone, this group is largely the minority.

This new process has been overwhelmingly supported by all of our jumpers who are doing these types of skydives regularly, and the group continues to help develop and refine the process. It’s created a smarter and more capable community, and a group of people I’m very genuinely proud to call Spaceland skydivers. 

The structure has also unburdened operations to an extent. Since we’ve heightened the barrier to entry, there are simply more informed and capable people around. These people do a great job with planning and policing these jumps so that they can continue growing at the dropzone.

Safety just feels good
Photo by Daniel Angulo

Not only has Spaceland Houston implemented a new way of educating jumpers about angle flying and safeguarded their dropzone from the potential risks, they have already seen the benefit of these changes.

Dropzones that are interested in making changes but aren’t sure how to do so can look into dropzone consulting by AirTex Performance, who has helped several US dropzones restructure how they incorporate movement jumps, including Spaceland Houston.

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Meet: Alethia Austin

Alethia is a passionate full time international angle and freefly coach. As the creator of LSD Bigway Camps and LSD Angle Camps, she's been running skills camps in skydiving for over 8 years around the world. Some of her coaching and LSD camps have taken her to Botswana, Egypt, Central America, North America, Europe and more. Alethia brings her years of yoga teaching, love of good health and healthy living into the way she coaches angle flying and vertical flying. Alethia was a regional captain for the Women's Vertical World Record and has two world records. Her sponsors include UPT, Tonfly, PD, Cypres and LB Altimeters.

You can find her on Instagram at Instagram.com/alethiaja

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