Safety Check | Finding Out What You Don’t Know
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Safety Check | Finding Out What You Don’t Know

Safety Check | Finding Out What You Don’t Know

Safety Check
Thursday, May 23, 2024

One of the biggest safety issues for skydivers is not knowing what they don’t know. Students and newer jumpers exhibit this when they ask whether they can wear a camera during AFF, use booties on a first jump or use a cross-braced elliptical canopy at 50 jumps because it’s the same size as their current canopy. But it’s not just newer jumpers who fall prey to this mindset, and no one knows everything. One of the best ways to increase your safety in the sport—no matter how many jumps you have—is to figure out what you don’t know.

A recent incident illustrates the dangers of not knowing that you lack knowledge when it comes to your gear. This situation involved an experienced, current, D-licensed skydiver who arrived at the drop zone and realized his reserve was out of date. He elected to rent a rig that included a 190-square-foot canopy that was roughly the same size as his own (188 square feet). However, the jumper's canopy was a non-elliptical canopy with a flat glide and a conservative design, while the rental canopy was semi-elliptical and had different flying characteristics than he was used to, including a much steeper dive during aggressive toggle turns. The jumper was not aware of this difference in flying characteristics … he didn’t know what he didn’t know. In addition, he wasn’t aware that the rental rig’s automatic activation device was set to “student mode” (meaning that under certain circumstances it would activate at a higher altitude and a lower rate of descent than the expert AAD in the jumper’s own rig).

After an uneventful freefall and main canopy opening, the jumper flew to his holding area and performed some canopy exercises, which included some relatively aggressive toggle turns. At about 850 feet, he entered the downwind leg of his landing pattern using aggressive toggle input. This increased his descent rate to 44 mph, beyond the 29 mph threshold at which a student AAD in this particular scenario will fire and initiate reserve deployment below 1,000 feet. (The jumper’s expert AAD firing parameters were 78 mph below 750 feet). The reserve deployed at about 650 feet, and the two canopies went into a downplane. In such a rapid descent (due to the downplane) and at such a low altitude, the jumper was unable to control the canopies or cut away. His landing would likely have been fatal had he not landed in two feet of mud, which cushioned his fall. Although he suffered severe back injuries and broken bones, he is expected to recover.

The important point is that all the equipment operated exactly as designed. The canopy handled the way it  was meant to, and the AAD activated in the correct parameters. No rules were broken; the jumper didn’t violate any Basic Safety Requirements or Federal Aviation Regulations. The jumper simply used the gear incorrectly because he just didn’t know any better.

This was not an isolated incident. USPA receives reports of the incorrect use of AADs a couple times a year. In one case, a jumper bought and installed a used AAD that he didn’t realize was a student model, and it activated during an aggressive turn. Fortunately, he was able to cut away the main and land without further issues. 

Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know. When it comes to using new-to-you gear, ask questions, even if you think you probably know the answers. Gain an understanding of the gear you are jumping and operate it within its design limits. Perform a gear check, and think about how the equipment may operate differently than what you are used to. Educate yourself.

Southern Regional Director Paul Gholson | D-17101
Coach Examiner, AFF Instructor, PRO

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