Unusual Canopy Emergencies: Collisions and Entanglements

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The second article in Jim Cowan’s series – a compilation of techniques and options to address some of the most challenging and life-threatening situations that a ram-air parachutist may encounter.

Image from JoinTheTeem video

These are moments when pulling the cutaway handle is not the first thing to do, and in fact, may be a fatal mistake.

Jim’s first article covered Dual Deployments, this time he looks at collisions and entanglements. 


The techniques and options proposed in this article are subjective and should be treated as guidelines only. No two situations or canopy types and loadings are exactly alike. Therefore, no-one can foresee what the very best option will be for an infinite number of variables. Sometimes these situations can be so serious that no clear option may prevent serious injury or death.

  • These subjects are often avoided or minimally addressed because they are rare with an infinite number of variables.
  • The options and correct actions can be complicated and difficult to identify or discuss or visualize.
  • Too much information syndrome (TMI) can paralyze a jumper with indecision from confusion with what the correct response is or fear of taking the wrong action.
  • Very few instructors and jumpers have personal experience to share with others.

Collision Video

This video shows how quickly things can go wrong…

Canopy Collision
Video: Friday Freakout by JoinTheTeem

Collisions and Entanglements – with another ram-air canopy pilot


  • Witness to over 50 years of ram air canopy accidents including 23 fatalities.
  • Over a dozen began with canopy entanglements at various altitudes:-
    • In four the top jumper cutaway below 600 feet taking the bottom jumper with him
    • Four incidents where the lower jumper cutaway below 600 feet with the top jumper ok
    • one impact under entangled mains too low to even pull reserves, with one survivor
    • One CF entanglement cutaway leaving upper jumper entangled in the lines of the lower jumper’s canopy, resulting in a fatal landing of a main reserve entanglement, 
    • Two from canopy collision impact just after opening.
  • 45 years of canopy formation experience including world championship level.
  • Personally disengaged from over 300 entanglements.
  • Been in 140 entanglements where at least 1 jumper cutaway.
  • Have personally cutaway 15 times from entanglements.
  • All of my entanglement experience involved dacron lines and occurred above 2000ft.
  • The thinner the lines, the more danger they pose to flesh up to a breaking point.
  • For this article, I will use 1,000 feet as an approximate minimum altitude to cutaway from an entanglement.
  • Once below 1,000 feet, there may not be time to complete the cutaway, deploy the reserve, gain control and find a safe landing spot.
  • Reserve Static Lines save lives especially during minimum altitude cutaways.
  • The “Skyhook” enhanced reserve static line system does not allow for a lower cutaway altitude. This is a misconception.
  • The red lanyard is a frangible link designed to fail at 300 lbs of extraction force.
  • A spinning malfunction or entanglement can easily exceed the 300 lbs of force needed to break the frangible link and release the skyhook.
  • It is a normal RSL deployment at this point as the reserve bridle is released from the cutaway main.
An entanglement at a Canopy Formation event
Photo by Chico Michael Tomaselli

Collision Avoidance

  • Avoid collision by steering with rear risers immediately upon slider inflation.
  • Hands grip the rear risers as soon as they’re available during deployment.
  • Be careful not to accidentally release a brake while gripping around the toggles.
  • Eyes forward looking for other jumpers deploying or already flying toward you.
  • Immediately pull a rear riser to turn away and avoid collision.
  • Front risers are ineffective.
  • Turn right if directly head on.
  • Turn away left or right which ever makes sense, if not directly head on.
  • Use toggles if already in hand, sometimes deep brakes can avoid collision vertically.
  • Avoid body to body contact at all costs. This can be fatal.
  • Be prepared to turn toward the other jumper if turning away will swing your body in the opposite direction and cause body to body contact.
  • This distance is difficult to estimate but approximately inside of 10 meters, 30 feet or 2 seconds is close enough to pendulum in the opposite direction.
  • Turn the canopies toward each other to spread the bodies away from each other.

Imminent collision

  • Prevent subsequent entanglement with a modified spreadeagle body position.
  • Spread legs and right arm as wide as possible to contact as many lines as possible, to prevent passing through the suspension lines of the other canopy.
  • Protect the reserve ripcord and cutaway handle with the left arm bones.
  • Use them to deflect any suspension lines away from the emergency handles.

Prepare for violent impact

  • Even if contact is only made with the canopy or suspension lines, closing speeds up to 60mph can cause fabric to become firm and today’s strong, thin synthetic suspension lines become ‘cheese slicers’ – cutting through risers, lines, helmets, clothes, muscles, etc.
  • Don’t be surprised by how violent it can be, it is nothing like bouncing off round canopy lines which is common with mass military static line drops.
Image from JoinTheTeem video

Attempt to free yourself

  • Usually there is one upper jumper entangled with the canopy or lines of the other (lower) jumper, suspended below the entanglement.
  • Upper / lower jumper is relative to each other’s canopy, not necessarily the horizon.
  • Follow your risers out of the entanglement. The entangled jumper must act.
  • The risers are the only way out, not necessarily where you see daylight.
  • Protect your handles while climbing out of the lines and fabric of the other canopy.
  • Any lines and fabric over your head will have to come back from the way it got there.
  • However you went into the other canopy, is how you must come out to disengage.

Communicate the altitude

  • The most important information to communicate is the current altitude.
  • Start yelling the altitude immediately upon entanglement and continue to update.
  • Full-face helmets (or oxygen masks for military) make communication more difficult.
  • This information has a direct impact on the options available.
  • The other jumper may not be able to see their altimeter and may panic as time awareness is diminished by the intensity of the situation.
  • Altitude equals time. You are not in freefall. Do not panic and start pulling handles. 
  • Breathe, assess, communicate, execute.

Altitude equals time. You are not in freefall. Do not panic and start pulling handles. 

Image from JoinTheTeem video

Positive commands only

  • Tell the other jumper what you want them to do or what you intend to do.
  • Work together quickly but calmly to find a common solution to the situation.
  • Never use the word “Don’t” as a preface to any other command as the jumper will only hear what follows and do exactly what you are instructing not to do. [eg, “Don’t cutaway” can be heard as ‘Cutaway’!]
  • Yell the word “Stop” if you want the other jumper to pause and reconsider the action being contemplated.


  • Only use the word “Cutaway” as a command for the other jumper to execute.
  • If you intend to cutaway first, use everything but the word “cutaway”.
  • Say “bye bye”, “see you later”, “I’m outta here” or “I’m leaving now”.
  • It is extremely important that the decision who is first to cutaway is clearly communicated since it can be detrimental to the other jumper if the wrong jumper goes first.

Three Basic Configurations

An entanglement has three possible variants:

  1. In the Fabric – upper jumper is engulfed in the fabric of lower jumper’s canopy.
  2. In the Lines – upper jumper is entangled in lower jumper’s suspension lines, underneath the bottom skin of the lower jumper’s canopy.
  3. Neither in Fabric or Lines – canopies are entangled and both jumpers are clear of fabric and lines.
Image from JoinTheTeem video

1. In the Fabric

The upper jumper is engulfed in the fabric of the lower jumper’s canopy.

  • The good news is this usually results in the upper jumper having a good, controllable canopy because the lower canopy is below the controls and suspension lines of the engulfed jumper’s canopy.
  • It would be detrimental for the upper jumper to cutaway from the only possibly good canopy as the wrapped canopy may prevent that jumper’s reserve from deploying.

Above 1,000 feet

  • Attempt to clear the entanglement by following the risers out of the fabric of the other canopy.
  • Protect handles while attempting to free yourself.
  • If disengagement is achieved, both jumpers must check handles and components for dislocation or damage.
  • Both jumpers must perform a thorough canopy control check to ensure the canopy is safe to land.
  • Damage could be on the top skin or the internal ribs.

Unable to disengage

  • Upper jumper tells lower jumper to “cutaway, cutaway, cutaway”.
  • Lower jumper says “bye bye” and performs cutaway procedures.
  • Upper jumper may stop responding due to pressure on the neck. If so, lower jumper should cutaway to restore consciousness to the upper jumper.
  • Once lower jumper has cutaway, upper jumper should attempt to clear their face and controls of the cutaway canopy fabric.
  • Take control of your canopy and fly slowly in brakes to reduce drag and potential interference or control problems.
  • Gather the fabric of the cutaway canopy to reduce drag and land with it.
  • It is safer to keep the fabric on you and the lines behind you, rather than attempt to clear the canopy.
  • Lines snagged that don’t clear the jumper can cause the canopy to inflate and downplane or spin into the main.

Below 1,000 feet – upper canopy is controllable

  • Cutaway is usually fatal.
  • Upper jumper hold onto to lower jumper’s canopy and land both jumpers on the inflated and controllable upper canopy. Both jumpers prepare for hard landings.
  • If upper jumper can use toggles, go to 2/3 brakes and prepare to plf.
  • If upper jumper cannot see, lower jumper shout directions to the upper jumper.

Below 1,000 feet – upper canopy is uncontrollable

  • Cutaway is usually fatal.
  • Upper jumper attempt to control their canopy by stopping / countering any turns.
  • Attempt to contain the lower jumper’s canopy if applicable.
  • Lower jumper deploy reserve first, in clean air below the entanglement.
  • If that reserve inflates, it may be able to support both jumpers to a hard landing.
  • If upper jumper deploys reserve as well, both jumpers control their reserve canopies.
  • Steer reserve canopies toward each other on a parallel flight path to prevent the entanglement from causing a downplane.
  • If downplane occurs and both jumpers have an inflated reserve canopy, lower jumper release the entanglement and do a “canopy transfer” onto the already inflated reserve canopy.
  • It is imperative that jumpers ensure the other jumper has a good canopy to land and you do not have the only inflated canopy, prior to releasing the entanglement.
  • This is called a “canopy transfer” and is very different from performing a “cutaway”.
  • A transfer has the reserve canopy open and inflated, then releasing the main with the cutaway handle. This may be successful down to a couple of hundred feet. 
  • A “cutaway” has the jumper releasing the main parachute, then freefalling for up to 1,000 feet before deploying the reserve canopy.
Canopy formation entanglement
Photo by Chico Michael Tomaselli

2. In the Lines

The upper jumper is entangled in the suspension lines of lower jumper’s canopy usually underneath the bottom skin of that canopy.

  • Typically the bottom skin will be collapsing down onto the head and shoulders of the jumper in the lines.
  • Sometimes the upper jumper may pass through the lines completely with the body clear of the lower jumper’s canopy fabric.
  • The modified spreadeagle (wide) body position may stop the jumper from passing through the suspension lines thus preventing entanglement.
  • The bad news is that usually neither jumper has a good canopy as the lower jumper’s canopy is interfering with the upper jumper’s canopy and/or controls.

Above 1,000 feet

  • Upper jumper in the lines, attempt to clear the entanglement by following your risers and lines out of the lines and fabric of the other canopy.
  • Peel away fabric and lines while protecting emergency handles.
  • Get busy but don’t panic. Move with authority but look at what you’re grabbing.
  • If disengagement is achieved, both jumpers check handles and components for dislocation or damage.
  • Both jumpers perform a thorough visual and control check of the canopy to be sure it is safe to land.
  • Damage can be internal or on the top skin where it may not be visible.

Get busy but don’t panic. Move with authority but look at what you’re grabbing.

Unable to disengage

  • Lower jumper yells to upper jumper to “cutaway, cutaway, cutaway”.
  • Upper jumper must clear their body and equipment of all lines and fabric they can see from the other canopy. Clear a path below.
  • Ensure 3-rings are clear of fabric or lines pressing against them, possibly preventing them from flipping and releasing.
  • Make a path through the lines to slip out of the lines vertically.
  • Release RSL if time and altitude permit, and it can be located reasonably quickly.
  • This is the only scenario that I recommend releasing the rsl prior to cutaway from an entanglement, due to the possibility of not clearing all of the lines immediately.
  • Upper jumper yell “See ya, I’m outta here”, then feet and knees together, get skinny.
  • Cutaway and put arms straight up to slip out of the lines vertically.
  • Once clear of the entanglement, immediately pull the reserve.
  • Don’t wait to get stable, as it can take at least a thousand feet to gain enough airspeed to stop the tumble that always follows a cutaway from a canopy entanglement.
  • If the other lines or canopy do not immediately clear the jumper after cutaway, make two attempts to clear them, then immediately pull the reserve.
  • It is imperative that the reserve is pulled immediately if unable to clear, so that you have time and altitude to deal with the other canopy after the reserve inflates.

Second jumper unable to disengage

  • Once the jumper in the lines performs cutaway procedures, the entanglement usually clears because the jumper in the lines is what was holding the canopies together.
  • If the entanglement does not clear upon cutaway of the jumper in the lines, the lower jumper must wait at least 5 seconds before performing a cutaway as well.
  • After 5 seconds, the first jumper should be clear from below the entanglement due to movement of the canopies and wind drift.
  • Upon inflation of the reserve canopies, both jumpers should steer clear of each other and the cutaway main canopies that will be descending vertically.

Why Upper Jumper First?

  • Upper jumper in the lines needs lower jumper to remain attached to their canopy providing tension on the suspension lines, allowing upper jumper to slip between them vertically out of the entanglement. “I just need your dead weight down there keeping the lines straight and tight for my escape”.
  • If lower jumper were to cutaway first, upper jumper can become hopelessly entangled as the released risers and suspension lines recoil, slack, release the cutaway canopy momentarily, then make coils that tend to loop over things.
  • The cutaway canopy then re-inflates behind you, pulling the once slack suspension lines taught, hog-tying the jumper to the canopy that may downplane or spin or stall into the other canopy.
  • Every time we have seen the lower jumper perform a cutaway with the upper jumper in the lines, a teammate or I was placed in a really dangerous situation. 
  • Once our canopy formation teams began implementing this procedure of having the jumper in the lines cutaway first (regardless of the state of that jumper’s canopy), the jumper in the lines has cleared the entanglement cleanly, without any snags, every single time. This does not mean that everyone will have this same result.
  • This usually allows for the lower jumper to remain on their main canopy.
  • If the lower jumper were to cutaway first, the upper jumper will almost certainly have to cutaway as well, placing both jumpers on their reserves instead of just the one.

Below 1,000 feet – upper canopy is controllable

  • Cutaway is usually fatal.
  • Land both jumpers on one canopy.
  • Lower jumper yell to upper jumper “hold me, hold me”.
  • Upper jumper control the canopy so to fly straight and level. Stop any turns.
  • Hold onto lower jumper if required and steer with the harness if possible.
  • If toggles are available, use 2/3 brakes to slow descent and land both jumpers on one canopy.
  • Do not try to flare for the bottom jumper as this is impossible to gauge.
  • Just slow to the lowest rate of descent and prepare for hard landings.

Below 1,000 feet – upper canopy is uncontrollable

  • Cutaway is usually fatal.
  • Lower jumper, deploy reserve immediately into clean air below the entanglement, where it will begin to inflate immediately.
  • Once the lower jumper’s reserve inflates, that jumper may become the upper jumper with the only good canopy.
  • Both jumpers land on the one good reserve canopy.
  • If both jumpers deploy their reserves and they both inflate, it’s possible the canopies could downplane with the entangled main canopies tying the jumpers together.
  • Should the jumpers downplane on their reserves, lower jumper ensure that both jumpers have an inflated reserve to safely land with, then release the entanglement by pulling the cutaway handle to complete a “canopy transfer”.
  • This should allow both jumpers to land their reserve canopies separately.
Image from JoinTheTeem video

3. Neither Jumper in Fabric or Lines 

The canopies are entangled as a jumper has passed through the lines of the other jumper’s canopy with both jumpers clear of lines and fabric.

Above 1,000 feet

  • Attempt to clear the other canopy by steering through the lines of the other canopy.
  • This is highly unlikely but I have seen a jumper pass completely through and clear.
  • If disengagement is achieved, both jumpers check handles and components for dislocation or damage as well as a thorough inspection and canopy control check.

Unable to disengage

  • Jumper who has passed through the lines of the other canopy, should cutaway first.
  • There’s a small chance the cutaway risers will exit the other canopy the way they entered and clear the entanglement.
  • Either jumper can cutaway without endangering the other.
  • If the second jumper is unable to clear the remaining entanglement after the first cutaway, that jumper needs to wait at least 5 seconds to clear the airspace below.
  • If both jumpers cutaway and deploy reserves, steer clear of each other and the cutaway canopies.

Below 1,000 feet and canopy or canopies are controllable

  • Cutaway is usually fatal.
  • This is highly unlikely to be controllable.
  • Both jumpers communicate and work together to fly horizontally if possible.
  • Prepare for hard landings with plf.

Below 1,000 feet and canopies are uncontrollable

  • Cutaway is usually fatal.
  • Neither jumper has a good canopy.
  • Either or both jumpers deploy reserves. Add fabric.
  • If only one reserve inflates, both jumpers may land under that reserve.
  • It only takes one open reserve to potentially save both jumper’s lives.
  • If either or both reserves inflate, steer parallel to each other to prevent downplane.
  • If the reserves begin to downplane, one or both jumpers can release the entanglement with the cutaway handle to complete a “canopy transfer”.
  • Do not release the entanglement if you have the only inflated reserve.

Either or both jumpers deploy reserves. Add fabric.

Hook knives

This is a precision instrument, use it with precision.

  • Never “slash” with a hook knife.
  • “Pluck” instead. Look at what you are cutting and be precise.
  • Most jumpers will cut too much or too many.
  • A single line tying the jumpers together would be an appropriate use.
  • Anything under tension will cut easily.
  • Anything not under tension will need to be placed under tension to cut.
  • Be very careful near reserve lines and risers.

Reserve Static Lines – RSL

The rsl should not pose any negative impact in an entanglement situation.

  • I recommend disconnecting the rsl if the jumper in the lines is going to cutaway first, with enough altitude to deploy and control the reserve afterward.
  • This is the only situation I would consider disconnecting the rsl prior to cutaway, in case the jumper does not immediately clear the lines of the other jumper’s canopy.

You have the rest of your life to fix the problem

Never give up

You have the rest of your life to fix the problem. Keep working the problem all the way to landing. These situations are unusual and may require unique, creative solutions to survive. Fortunately, they are also extremely rare.

Prevention is better than cure

Most collisions occur on opening and on base leg to final approach. To prevent them;

  • Hands on rear risers upon deployment with eyes forward ready to turn.
  • Long base leg in the landing pattern under canopy to provide better traffic awareness.

Unusual Canopy Emergencies

Dual Deployments

Why not check out Jim Cowan’s other article, on a 2-canopy-out situation:

Dual Deployments

His Youtube channel, Gravity Powered Flight, has video presentations of Jim’s unusual canopy emergencies, where he explains everything as well as showing some video breakdowns of each situation.

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Meet: Jim Cowan

Who is Jim Cowan and what makes him an authority on these subjects?
I’m definitely not an authority on them, but I have put a lot of time and effort into studying these subjects with some practical exams that I ultimately passed by surviving just over 24,000 jumps over 45 years!

• Raised by a family of skydivers in St.Louis, Missouri. 2nd generation.
• Parents and uncles were competitors, instructor examiners, riggers, pilots.
• Uncle Bob Cowan was a freefall photographer pioneer in the late 60s and early 70s, with several cover shots on parachutist magazine and the winning photo in a national contest that made the cover of every Sunday newspaper in the country. The shot was a 4th of July theme featuring my dad and two other jumpers in freefall wearing a red, a white and a blue jumpsuit each with smoke blazing.

• Started packing round parachutes at parents; DZ at age 10. $2 a rig for 5 seasons.
• Learned to hang-glide at my uncle’s hang-gliding school at age 15.
• Began skydiving at my parents DZ in 1978 at age 16.
• Worked at a flight school and soloed an aircraft at age 17.
• Partnered with a jump club and bought a Cessna 182 jump plane together.
• Became a jump master and started instructing at age 18.
• First night demonstration jump into a Cardinals’ baseball game at age 18.
• First night fixed object jump from a tower in 1980.
• Researched, opened, owned and operated a twin turbine, multi aircraft DZ for 13 years.
• Personally trained over 25,000 students in canopy control of all levels and types.
• Developed, implemented and supervised a wide variety of training curricula including; sport and military tandem, mttb, aff, ram air s/l programs, comp cf teams, search and rescue orgs, smoke jumpers, multiple gov’t agencies and military freefall groups in the US and around the world.

• USPA Safety and Training Advisor
• Tandem Instructor (examiner for over a decade)
• Accelerated Freefall Instructor
• S/L Instructor (examiner for over a decade)
• USHPA P3 Paragliding Rated
• FAA Parachute Rigger Technician
• Founding Member of the Quantum Leap Canopy Formation Team for over 2 decades.
• US Team at 8 World Championship Competitions (every other year) and 1 World Cup
• Brought home 4 gold, 4 silver and a bronze at those championships.
• Took the gold 25 times at the US National Skydiving Championships over 9 competitions.
• Successfully disengaged from over 300 canopy entanglements.
• Been in 140 canopy entanglements where at least 1 jumper had to cutaway.
• Have personally cutaway from entanglements 15 times.
• Have personally performed over 50 cutaways while making malfunction videos.

• Naval Freefall Parachutist Course Instructor and Rigger for 2 years.
• Navy Parachute Team “Leap Frogs” Safety Officer and Rigger for 1 year.
• US Marie Corps Multi Mission Parachutist Course Co-Developer, Instructor and rigger, contractor in charge of operations for Complete Parachute Solutions the manufacturer of the equipment and commercial business holder of the contract.
• General Manager and Developer of the Tactical Training Facility in AZ for a decade.
• Flight-1 Military and Sport Canopy Flight Instructor for dozens of US military, agencies and other countries for nearly a decade currently.

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