Teaching 4-Way Fundamentals to New Jumpers
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Teaching 4-Way Fundamentals to New Jumpers

Teaching 4-Way Fundamentals to New Jumpers

Safety & Training
Monday, April 22, 2024

Above: Jackie Ellis organizes a 4-way skydive for newer jumpers at Skydive Elsinore in California. Photo by Mark Kirschenbaum/Hypoxic.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell said, “The best games are easy to learn but difficult to master.” That may well explain why 4-way formation skydiving remains the most popular discipline in the sport. Four-way FS largely depends on correct angles and efficient moves. With repetition, jumpers gain muscle memory so their moves become more automatic, which allows them to relax and see more of the skydive. This frees up their minds to learn even more complex skills and moves.

Once a jumper earns an A license—meaning they can safely fly with and dock on another jumper, perform controlled turns, show awareness of altitude and safely break off, track away and deploy the canopy—their instructor or the drop zone operator should hook them up with experienced jumpers who can take them on 3- or 4-ways and teach them how to fly a slot, stop, stay level with the formation and take grips without reaching. Hopefully, this will pique their interest and keep them coming back for more. Newer jumpers should not be left to fend for themselves!

Once the newer jumper has demonstrated competency on these small-group jumps, they are ready to learn the basics of 4-way formation skydiving such as maintaining position, eye communication and turning in place. During this learning period, newer 4-way jumpers should focus only on the execution of the jump, not speed, which comes with time and repetition.

Helping Others Learn

Any skydiver with a passion for 4-way, a few hundred FS jumps and a working knowledge of the 4-way FS random formations and the simpler blocks (such as 7, 9, 14 and 15) found in the Skydiver’s Competition Manual can help newer jumpers learn basic 4-way skills. A few hours practicing body position and 4-way in a wind tunnel doesn’t hurt, either. A beginner 4-way coach doesn’t need to have a USPA Coach or Instructor rating (although those are helpful for learning basic instructional techniques), just a desire to help other jumpers improve their skills.

The optimum learning environment consists of the coach, two other jumpers with some experience in 4-way and the newer jumper. Other configurations can work, but you’ll want to have two experienced jumpers on the skydive. You can also work on basic 4-way skills on a 3-way by lopping off the point or tail slot on some of the simpler 4-way randoms. You’ll want to arrange for a camera flyer or wear a camera yourself, since video is an essential debriefing tool.

Before getting on the plane, be sure to go over some crucial safety items. During the dirt dive, discuss breakoff altitude. For smaller groups, 5,500 feet is common, but if someone wants to break off higher than that, be sure that all jumpers know that the higher breakoff applies to everyone on the skydive. Remind everyone to check their gear before they put it on and have your group perform gear checks on one another before boarding the aircraft. Then remind everyone to check their gear, including a pin check, before exiting the aircraft. Make sure everyone knows the correct landing pattern, and check the winds before boarding the plane.

Keep it Simple

When working with someone new to 4-way, it’s usually best not to plan a linked exit. Funneled exits can waste a lot of time, so design it so that the jumpers exit ungripped with the newer jumpers inside the plane and the experienced jumpers outside. (For a 3-way, you could make an exception if you want to exit AFF-style, with the newer jumper in the student position.)

Design the first skydives to be simple, with small turns and forward moves. An example is Star to Open Accordion to Zig Zag. (See Figure 1; the Zig Zag is the first point of Block 21, but you can use it as a single formation for teaching purposes.) During the dirt dive, the coach should introduce the names of the formations and provide diagrams. It is also a good idea to get everybody down on creepers so they can get a better idea of what the formations will look like in the air.

For the first jumps with the newer jumper, discuss the importance of communicating with the eyes. Emphasize looking for the key and ask them to maintain eye contact with their target (the person they will be gripping) as they make their turns. Also discuss cross referencing (looking at their clone on the other side of the formation, which is fairly easy to do in a perfectly symmetrical formation such as the Star but becomes more challenging with asymmetrical formations. Still, the concept is the same. Cross referencing helps jumpers stay level with the formation and see more of the skydive.



Debrief, Repeat and Take It Up a Notch

During the debrief, ask the newer jumper how they think they could correct their own mistakes. This can help them feel more engaged and more open to constructive criticism. Repeat the skydive as soon as possible to reinforce learning while the information is still fresh in everyone’s minds. If jumpers need additional practice, plan a skydive with different formations but similar moves.

When the jumpers are ready for a little more difficulty, add jumps that include the need to maintain position on 180-degree turns. An example is Star to Left-Hand Donut to No-Contact Star to Right-Hand Donut (see Figure 2). In this drill, maintaining eye contact and staying level becomes more of a challenge because jumpers are facing away from the center of the formation when they turn and when taking grips on the donuts. In addition, they get practice maintaining position flying the No-Contact Star.

Debrief the jump and repeat it at least once. To give jumpers additional practice maintaining position, you can organize “stop drills” (aka “no-contact flying”), where jumpers move to their slots but don’t take grips until the coach gives the key. Whatever you call them, these drills teach jumpers to demonstrate control before taking grips.

Ready for More

Obviously, it takes more than a few jumps for someone to build muscle memory and become an accomplished 4-way skydiver. But working with newer jumpers on simple 4-way gives them the proof in their logbooks that they have the skills necessary to participate in small, organized FS skydives, dig deeper into FS or begin to explore other orientations in the air.

About the Author

Ed Lightle, D-5966, is a long-time 4-way enthusiast and competitor with more than 4,300 jumps. He has written several articles on formation skydiving for Parachutist magazine and continues to share his passion for 4-way with jumpers of all ages and experience levels.

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