|Negotiating Turns: Death by Degrees|
by Kim Emerson, S&AT - email@example.com
There will never be a time when you or I will have learned everything there is to learn about our sport. Never. No one. Not ever.
The frightening facts show that more of our friends are getting hurt - getting completely dead sometimes - while flying a successfully open, fully functioning, safely loaded parachute in favorable weather conditions and with no obstacles - other than the ground - forcing the human sacrifice. Wouldn't it be nice to understand why and therefore to learn how not to become such a statistic? All while not having to forfeit one's perspective on personal pleasure and the pursuit of fun?
A lot of the blame for the carnage is on turns. Sadly, we spend far too much emphasis on the freefall portion of our skydiving and far too little on canopy flight, as though the parachute ride was nothing more than a necessary evil, a mere conveyance to transport us back to Mother Earth.
As a result of this misplaced emphasis, the breadth and width of canopy capabilities is frequently neither understood nor explored. The vast majority of canopy pilots tend to cling desperately to the conservative approach as commander of the aircraft they control. Unfortunately the conservative bent will never serve us well when we need to insist that the parachute and our skills at the moment pull out all the stops and begin saving ass. Tight spots, unfamiliar landing zones, turbulence, strong winds, traffic, obstacles, idiots. These are just some of the factors to take in consideration when it comes to controlling our parachutes.
This isn't just about those who are attempting to learn radical maneuvers of canopy flight. Or those actively pursuing a broader knowledge through intentional rather than accidental education. Observing. Asking. Practicing. Studying. Not by a long shot.
This is for those who insist on an upwind landing at all costs, insist on getting to the airport while a safer landing area is available. This is about those who apply the big canopy knowledge directly to the downsized canopy, falsely believing it's all the same, that size affects only speed and wind penetration. This is for those who are nervous about modifying behavior in order to improve and learn. This is for those who believe aches, pains, rolls, falls, butt slides, confusion and bursts of criticism are the norm and to be expected and anticipated. Those who bite off more than they can chew, who attempt without investigating circumstances, conditions or talent. It's also for the hook turners in hot pursuit of steeper, lower, longer and speedier hedonism. Hubris and complacency is a volatile mixture just the way it is. Add to that a known killer combo - speed and ignorance - and you've got a lit stick of dynamite running out of fuse.
Turning your parachute is probably the only actual maneuver there is other than letting it fly or flaring it. Letting it fly, the rough equivalent of doing nothing, takes no great talent anyone's been able to document. Unconscious skydivers have done it exceptionally well to a point. It takes some restraint in many instances, but no real skill. As for flaring, since the advent of ram-air canopies over rounds and then the evolution of modern ram-airs giving us a greater glide ratio and therefore greater horizontal flight capability, it can be said that the best landing really has a minimal flare, a graduation in increments more than a full hands-up-to-hands-down single gesture. But turning the canopy effectively and safely, with thought, knowledge and intent - consistently - is a skill which must be activated every time we fly. Because every time we fly there are new and different situations to consider. Already mentioned were tight spots, unfamiliar landing zones, turbulence, strong winds, traffic, obstacles and idiots. What more could you want? Imagine them all on one jump.
There are certain safety considerations we have to grasp early on in our discovery of canopy flight. Aerodynamics is great to learn and understand but some straightforward information comes first.
Keep in mind that for the most part when we are asking what went wrong when we smack in, when asking what we could have been done, the answer is almost invariably to be found earlier than at the actual accident scene. Preparation well ahead of time is required and too often there is evidence that little or no preparation was made soon enough. Last second decisions allow for no time to consider all angles and possibilities.
Without being able to fully instruct here in this column, it is difficult to satisfactorily pass along the knowledge it takes to survive. But here's one bit of advice: Try learning how to fly in half brakes, in very slow flight. It doesn't matter what you're flying. If you fly at 50% brakes, you allow yourself 50% more time to plot & plan your course. If more of us flew more slowly during our set up and our time spent among the general population directly over the landing area, we might see fewer panicky, no-thought maneuvers. Well, maybe.
Three recent injuries illustrate what can go wrong when not fully prepared or while trying something new.
The first injury was the result of trying to learn how to handle a down wind landing - an excellent idea, by the way. (I wish more people knew how to handle downwind landings without being paralyzed by the very thought.) [Mistake #1]. Aside from not planning before boarding and taking the preparation stage back to the earliest possible moment, the major error on this one was in the set up. [Mistake #2]. Even though this was an attempt at a downwind landing, the set up was made in the customary upwind position. [Mistake #3]. The turn was made outward, toward the landing area's edge which is bordered by a fence, rather than inward, toward the larger, more open and unbound designated landing area. The turn, intended to be no more than about 45° to the left, was forced into a 180° left because the fence owned all the available real estate at 45° and 90°. And not only was 180° more than the canopy pilot had ever attempted before [Mistake #4] it was also just plainly too damn low for anyone with any canopy to do safely. Which was Mistake #5 [or, "BIG" Mistake #1].
There was maybe six to eight inches of packed snow on the field at the time but the hit was hard enough to gouge straight through to the ground. Quite a crater! But what if the snow hadn't broken the slam? Lucky bastard, really. No breaks but a little shaken and embarrassed and full of questions, our friend was able to walk away because adrenaline kicked in early and disguised the full extent of the harm. Therapy continues.
The second incident, which resulted in some serious bone breaks and a sudden halt to the season, was largely due to the unfamiliarity of dealing with an altered depth perception due to snow. The sameness of the snow covered ground makes it difficult to accurately judge vertical distances, which is tough for all of us even under normal conditions. What's missing is anything to provide comparison such as the variations in the ground's contours, dips and rises. And the color is all the same. So perceiving one's relation to the ground can be impaired and a low turn might just be too low as a result. Added to this is the fact that doing hook turns of any degree was relatively new to this jumper, as was the size and make of the canopy. Not that the learning curve wasn't doing quite nicely all along - it was. But when you add it up; poor depth perception, relatively new, smaller size canopy, relatively newer canopy style and only recently attempting sharper turns, it didn't have to mean injury but it sure did.
The third incident was in winds from a direction many of us don't like and even more can't handle. The Ranch's usable landing area is a narrow rectangle and sometimes we have to land along the shorter distance. So our intrepid adventurer, smart lad, really, got a bit behind the wind line and was now over the parking lot and not getting along fast enough to clear the parking lot. The full parking lot. The congested parking lot. The one with cars, vans, trucks and a fence between it and the landing area. All this and wind. So a sashay here and a turn there, all too low and full of panic decision making, this skydiver landed in the parking lot having successfully missed every obstacle but still in need of several more feet of the planet to not be just where it was.
None one of these people is stupid. None a careless, dangerous, unthinking self destructive moron. But all got hurt because all made mistakes because all lacked some knowledge which would have prevented them from doing what was basically self inflicted - as in voluntary.
Judgment and knowledge. We need them both. In each of these three cases a simple plan ahead of time might have helped. A plan to practice and a plan to bail if need be. Before stretching the boundaries of our skills it would be wise to get advice and maybe some training so that a plan can be made for every jump we make. It's not enough to play the dual roles of instructor and student. That isn't what's meant by one-on-one coaching. Know before you board how you intend to fly your canopy back home safely. If you're trying anything new, best to have understood that earlier and not on your final to landing.
Kim Emerson is S&TA at the Ranch Parachute Club in Gardiner, NY.