by Espen, the Flying Norwegian
Here are some basic tips for both keeping safe and getting better when learning how to fly headdown. These aren't advanced techniques, but tips to help someone out during the first couple of headdown jumps. For more advanced techniques, ask someone who's very good at freeflying. If you have the money, I recommend doing a couple of coached jumps with a freefly coach. It's amazing how much easier it is to find mistakes when you can debrief the jump accompanied by video. This is something to play with until you take that step however. If you are going to try this with other people, check out the sitfly page first. When doing solos you can play with basically whatever you want, but if you wish to fly with others you must have the vRW stable sit position nailed. Do not fly with others (with the exception of coaches or very experienced freeflyers) until you can get into that position quickly and keep it stable the whole way down.
If you haven't yet, see the gear safety page in skyXtreme's archive first. You should have gear that is compatible with vertical flying before attempting any of this.
For the first few headdown jumps you should wear something baggy "down low" and something tight "up top". A baggy pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt is good enough. Do not wear anything baggy on your torso, as you are trying to fly with your legs when flying headdown. The amount of "bagginess" on parts of your body decides how much that part will affect your flying. More fabric on your legs means your legs will control a lot of the body. That is what you're looking for in the headdown position.
Headdown is all about flying with a positive leg attitude. That is, keep your legs firm and use those to fly with. A lazy foot position will make you fly a bit on the fast side and your movements will be less controlled. To make sure your legs are the only things doing the flying you may want to take your arms out of the equation in the beginning. Do this by placing them out of the relative wind. This can either be on your stomach, down your sides, or under your BOC pouch on your back (my preferred position). This will make you fly somewhat faster, but you will be able to control your movements better with your legs. There are two basic leg positions when flying headdown, the straddle and the daffy. I prefer the straddle, while others prefer the daffy. It's a personal preference. When doing the straddle your legs are placed similarly to the position someone riding a horse has. Thighs out to the side and lower legs mostly vertical. A good beginning position is to stand up straight with your feet about 2 1/2 ft apart (75-80cm) and find a distance around that range that feels comfortable. Make sure you're standing up straight and that your hip is in a "neutral" position. You should neither be arching nor de-arching. Relax your hip and that should do the trick. Keep your feet positioned straight forward as this will give you a better range in movement.
Jumping out facing the tail of the plane is usually the easiest. Jump out in the straddle position and lean back so your head is facing the front of the plane. Get your body horizontal as quickly as possible. If the plane had been on the ground you would have landed straight on your back had you done the same thing. That's only meant as an example to give you the visual impression of what it looks like, but if you want to try it make sure you're wearing a helmet and some kind of back protection. The tarmac is usually very hard! When exiting the plane this way you can use your hands to figure out when you get the right position. Hold your arms down your side with your palms facing backwards. When you do not feel any wind on the back of your hands or your palms you should be going straight down (or straight into the relative wind depending on how early after exit this is). When you feel this and your head is pointing towards the ground, look at the horizon and enjoy the view of it upside down. It's stunning the first couple of times.
After you've taken in this view for a second or so you should follow the things described under "Safety" below. You will fall out of this position at one time or another, trust me. But, don't despair just because you do. It's a difficult thing to learn, but it will suddenly fall in place. So, when you do fall out of the position you have to find a way to get back into it. The most common mistake is to start arching as soon as you feel unstable (it's a reflex after spending most of your skydiving career on your belly), so chances are you will find your self in the regular boxman position. Going from this to a headdown position can be done several ways. The easiest is probably to start tracking and change that into a dive that goes steeper and steeper (bend your hips). This will give you a sensation of sliding off a big ball. When you hit the side of the ball your head will be vertical, which is where you want it. The problem is, you are currently de-arching and will probably go too far onto your back. Expect this and you won't be too surprised when it happens.
Be ready to start arching when this happens. That should bring you back to a vertical post ion and then probably a bit too far onto your belly. Again, expect this and be ready to counteract this by de-arching again. By concentrating on going back and forth between an arch and de-arch you should be able to make the oscillations get smaller and smaller, just make sure your current arch (or de-arch) is a bit "lighter" than the previous one. If you keep doing this you should eventually find a place which puts you in a neutral position, that's the one you're looking for. Keep this, feel the speed increase and smile! If you have looked at the parts under "Safety" you should be safe to hold this for a while. Focus on the horizon and make sure it doesn't rotate or is tilted. For more advanced positions, like forward and backward movements I recommend you talk to a coach. It's a lot easier to learn from someone in the air with you than from reading it on a webpage.
When starting out freeflying, whether it be sitfly or headdown, everyone zooms around in the sky. It is very hard to fall straight down, and even though it may feel like it, chances are there is some movement there. To avoid moving into the airspace of the group before or after you it is important to choose a heading which will lessen the risk of this. The most common movement is either forward or backward. So, to avoid moving into the groups around you look down and make sure your shoulders are parallel to jumprun (you did check which way jumprun was before you jumped, didn't you?). If you move now, you will move perpendicular to jumprun and stay away from the other groups. While you are looking down to figure out which way you are facing, also note where you are in relation to the ground. This can help you figure out which way you are moving, and you can try to correct that by leaning a bit forward (if you are moving forward) or backward (if you are moving backwards).
Keep an eye on your altimeter often! The faster speeds in freeflying will be unusual for your internal clock, which is set at Formation Skydiving speeds. A freefall that used to last 65 seconds can now last only 50. So, by the time you think it's time to get on your belly and slow down, it might already be time to pull, or even time to consider the reserve. An audible altimeter is nice to have as a backup, but don't let it lull you into complacency. Electronic devices fail, so you should never trust them. Trust your eyes, then your altimeter and then your audible. Either way, always remember altitude. Do not be afraid to go on your belly a few times if you become unstable when checking your altimeter or the ground. Very few can move about as they please the first times freeflying. Going on your belly can also be a nice "relaxer" if you feel like everything is going to crap. Go into a position you are comfortable in and relax. That's usually all it takes to get nice and stable again.
During the first freefly jumps, plan on going on your belly higher than you would normally track away from a formation. Today's canopies may not be too forgiving when deployed at 150-160mph so you will need some time to slow down before deployment. This will also give you some time to get your head together, so to speak, as freeflying can give people sort of a mental overload. There are a lot of new aspects involved and the body needs to get back into the "regular" mode again. Look diligently around you before deploying. Even though you exited a long time after the group in front of you, that delay may have disappeared now. So, expect to see people around you or below you. Suddenly seeing a big canopy right below you isn't the nicest view imaginable. Pay attention and deploy at an altitude you're comfortable with.
After deployment it is important to keep your cool. Do not just head for the landing area and prepare to spiral down to land. If the group ahead of you was belly fliers, they may still be in freefall when you pull. If you start flying down the line of flight you can end up right below them when it's their turn to pull. So fly perpendicular to the line of flight until you see the group ahead of you are under canopies. The best option is to wait until all experienced skydivers (excluding students and tandems) have opened, to better plan your flight pattern. This may not always be feasible though (i.e.. a long spot and you really need to get going towards the landing area), but at least make sure the group that went ahead of you has canopies out. Now, fly your canopy like normal, land and take off your gear. It's time to contemplate what you did. Do not think "Man I really sucked at this and that". Rather remember things that went well and things you can improve on. Then set goals for the next jump and go for it. Enjoy!
More safety issues on pages