Ask a Rigger | Pull Your Reserve
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Saturday, July 20, 2024
Ask a Rigger | Pull Your Reserve

Ask a Rigger | Pull Your Reserve

Ask A Rigger
Thursday, January 20, 2022

It’s on the rise—deployed reserves coming into the loft with the ripcord still in place. The telltale curl in the ripcord cable testifies that the reserve static line (RSL) did its job. But too often, the rigger can also tell that the reserve ripcord handle never left its pocket. 

An RSL connects the risers of the main canopy to the reserve ripcord. If all goes right, the cutaway main canopy activates the reserve as you fall away. But it’s still absolutely necessary to pull the reserve immediately after cutting away and to train regularly until it’s habit. 

The backstory on a recent incident illustrates the mind bending that goes on during a malfunction and why you have to follow through: This AFF instructor experienced a pilot chute in tow. Using one of the two responses recommended in the Skydiver’s Information Manual, the jumper cut away, then wondered what was taking the RSL so long to activate the reserve. He eventually pulled the ripcord. In case it escaped the reader’s attention, an RSL provides zero help with a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction. The main is still stuck in the container. With only the pilot chute out and no deployment of the main canopy, there’s nothing to engage the RSL. 

Back in the loft, with no idea that things had gone so far, the jumper stared mortified at the telltale severed reserve closing loop and discharged cutter of his automatic activation device. The AAD had fired. (On this equipment, the series of events is easy to determine.) After what should have been a routine malfunction and response, the instructor had pulled the reserve ripcord no higher than six seconds from the dirt.

Even someone who demonstrates and trains students weekly to cut away and pull became confused in the heat of the moment and locked up for several seconds after pulling the cutaway handle—long enough to add almost $150 and two weeks of downtime for the replacement AAD cutter. Ouch!


An RSL/ripcord configuration. The RSL is the white line with the reserve closing pin attached to the end. The blue line goes to the reserve ripcord handle. Photos by Kevin Gibson.


A typical RSL where it attaches to a main riser. Pulling the square red tab disconnects the system.

Here’s another telling example: With no RSL at all and about 75 jumps, this jumper reported simply forgetting what to do after cutting away for the first time. In the seconds following the cutaway, he remembered what his first-jump instructor long ago told him to do if ever confused and clueless during an emergency procedure—pull the reserve. He said only as his hand swept the ripcord away did he realize that pulling it had been the next step.  

His former instructor, who had watched it all unfold from the ground, commented that the jumper sure had waited a long time after cutting away. To the jumper, it had seemed like only a second or two. 

This is what happens to us during a malfunction. Our brains—already in an overstimulated state from being in freefall—kind of blow a fuse when deployment of the main pilot chute doesn’t result in an open parachute right away. One must never think but only respond as trained. If the training has been poor or not suffciently reinforced with recent practice, all bets are off. 

Over the years, skydivers have sadly shaken their heads after a tragedy in wonder over how such an intelligent and experienced skydiver could have died from one boneheaded mistake or another. It proves that it can happen to any of us. That’s why we have nearly universally adopted RSLs on our rigs and, in doing so, left the cutaway/no-pull fatality mostly behind us. RSLs save lives. 

But the AFF instructor’s misplaced confidence in the RSL also provides a lesson. Lots of things can render an RSL useless. Since sometimes we want it disconnected—and fast—it features a quick release that can also catch on things and self-detach. Or one can forget to attach it in the first place. Some rigs still don’t have an RSL. And even an AFF instructor can get confused about which malfunctions RSLs work for and which ones they don’t.  

It takes more than knowing how to address a malfunction: You have to practice often and recently. And in every case, what needs to happen immediately after pulling the cutaway handle is to pull your reserve. 

Kevin Gibson | D-6943 and FAA-Designated Parachute Rigger Examiner
Rahlmo’s Rigging at Skydive Orange in Virginia

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