Almost 25 Years Later: Some Hazards of Resurrection
After almost a 25-year hiatus, I came back into the fold, enabled by the last child having gone off to college, and prompted by arthritic hips that were making it too painful to play tennis. I figured some things may have changed, but that I had been aware of them, having kept up my USPA membership and subscription to Parachutist. Well, it’s one thing to be aware of something, and quite another to learn to handle it in real time. In my first year back, I jumped at 5 different dropzones in three countries, so that I saw how the changes have been implemented in some different environments. Here is a list of the things that had changed that awaited my return, and had implications for my safety and the safety of others.
1. There are seatbelts in these jumpships—a good idea in the event of an unanticipated landing, but one has to learn where they are, remember to take them off, to stow them (especially in small aircraft), and be aware of where they are to avoid entanglement on exit.
2. Spotting is a thing of the past in many dropzones—just keep your eye on the colored lights! Still, it is a good idea to check where one is, in the event a pilot was tracking the wrong line.
3. Turbine aircraft now have doors! No more freezing on the way to altitude, or clinging to one’s neighbor to avoid falling out. However, one has to learn when they go up and down, how to secure them, how to close them gently.
4. Everyone wears their pilot chute above their butt—making deployment a little slower, if one manages to find it (remember the advert in the Parachutist: “Looking for something?”), but avoiding a few other problems. Be sure to practice deployment with the gear you will be using many times on the ground, in a prone position, to develop some muscle memory before going up. And check it constantly—my too-loose BOC pouch let out my pilot chute when I rose from the floor and caught it on something, much to the consternation of the planeload of jumpers whose lives I had just endangered.
5. Parachutes come in many flavors, and many sizes—gone are the days of one canopy fits all. Most of today’s canopies are very touchy, and downright skittish, react to the slightest input, and take far more concentration in the last few hundred feet of descent. Everybody swoops, to some degree, and some DZs have abandoned upkeep of their pea gravel because nobody uses it. I found it easier to land an original Sabre 170 than a Sabre II 190, and I am sure I will not be going for a fully elliptical canopy—at my age, I have to avoid the 1-in-500 jump mishaps that can maim one for life. Essentially, skydivers have invented a whole new way to die—turn low, and drive into the ground at 60mph.
6. There are many minor innovations in skydiving gear, too many to mention—just make sure you know how everything works on your rig, and why it is the way it is.
7. Everybody PRO-packs, or uses some variant—although I had had several people show me how to do it, and watched all the videos, etc., in my first dozen attempts, I packed one malfunction, and had to get more private instruction in a quiet place.
8. People fly landing patterns—e.g. left-hand, with turns at 1000, 600, 300 feet--in the old days, even with 20 jumpers in the air, we all did pretty much what we wanted and hoped for the best; now, even a 4-way requires paying attention to the landing pattern.
9. Breakoff for belly-flying is much higher—instead of separating an 8-way at 3500, now 4500 or even 5000 is the time to say goodbye. Coupled with the higher minimum opening altitude of 2500, this makes for a much more reasonable margin for error—and as humans, we are prone to error.
10. There are now many different skydiving disciplines, and you have to learn about them, and pay attention to exit order, as one jump run may let out belly flyers, freeflyers, angle flyers, trackers, wingsuiters, and tandems, as well as people who haven’t made up their mind before boarding exactly what they are planning to do.
11. AADs are now required most places—no longer shunned as devices that might blow up in your face. RSLs are also ubiquitous—both systems have saved many, many lives.
12. There are lots of old jumpers now—few old bold ones—and they have learned a lot about how to be safe over their last quarter century, while I’ve been taking kids to soccer practice. Pepper them with all sorts of questions, and do not rush to emulate the 22-year-olds out there. They likely have gone through a much more comprehensive training program than you have, including courses on canopy control and instruction on equipment safety.
My personal rule, which I have not seen enunciated elsewhere:
On any given jump, DO NOT INTRODUCE MORE THAN ONE NEW PIECE OF EQUIPMENT, or new way of using a piece of equipment. Of course, your first couple of recurrency jumps will necessitate breaking this rule—but don’t go out of your way to put a camera on, or add anything other than what is absolutely necessary. Example: If you get a new jumpsuit, don’t also try a new helmet on the same jump. Or, if you do, go out on a solo jump.
Addendum: Do your homework. I recently was caught in a dust devil at 100ft or so, which completely collapsed my canopy, and I credit my reactions and walk-away landing to a video and a book, both by Brian Germain, which I had studied in detail.
Larry Moulton, C-11371, EET #22, is a professor of international health and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University.
Great article. I came back last year after 20 years off, and I echo pretty much all of your comments. So many new disciplines, wind tunnels that don't require balloon suits, scary fast canopies, everybody has a camera on their head. Malfunctions are now relatively rare (I could count on chopping my old Strato Cloud every 200 jumps or so) but swooping has opened up a whole new way to injure oneself. I think on the whole, the equipment is better and operations are safer.
You don't get much in the way of spotting at the dropzones I've jumped at, as the pilots are usually pretty good at it (Except for that ONE time...) But we have more horizontal flyers now too. Do much of that and you'll have to know where the spot is that you're aiming for and be pretty good at hitting that mark. So you can still get some practice at it. And if you do anything off-dz, like hot air balloon jumps, you're going to have to find your own place to land. So you're right back to spotting again, there. It's still a useful skill to have and it's always a good idea to look before just jumping out like some sort of lemming.
Well written and very timely for so many older friends renewing their participation in our sport. Larry's key points of not seeing the handle, canopy flight and packing are the same comments I get from many others coming back. Hope you apply for your Skydiver Resurrection Award! Chris Deli-Schlipp and Tim Long have a great program there.
Great thoughts and commnts Larry. I am another living example of what you are talking about. I started jumping at Canton Airsports when I was 16 years old (something not permitted today). I gained enough experience that I maneuvered my way into a sport rig (Air Force pilot rig - Boy did I think I was living large) following my modified T10 jumps. Almost seems primitive by today's standards. I ended up joining the Army Airborne (7th SFGA) and jumped about everything that could fly. After leaving the Army, I lived the whole college, marriage, and raising kids story. I got back into the sport a few years ago and I still find each jump as thrilling as I did back in the 1980's. I have been reunited with several of the guys that taught me how to skydive as a youth and now jump again with those guys that I considered to be Kings of the Sky. Kind of funny how a lot of the maneuvers jumpers were doing back when I started are not permitted today. And probably just as well. I still find it pretty incredible that I can get out between 10K and 14K feet and think nothing of it when 7.5K feet was reaching the top of my game in 1980's. An amazing sport with a lot of amazing people!
Thanks to all for the comments. And yes, I joined SRA (hence the title of the piece), and just sent in my SOS dues (this piece was published the day after my 60th birthday). Safe, blue skies!
Excellent article. I returned to the sport in 2003, after a 22 year layoff. The ONLY thing I would add to Larry's list would be to get signed up for a canopy course as soon as possible. Canopies nowadays blow the doors off anything we had in the 1970's or '80s - even the student canopies. They're a lot of fun, but they demand respect and it only takes one mistake to put you in the hospital - or on your pals' next ash dive project. Learn how to fly today's canopies !
Thanks that was a great article and well written.
Makes a change from the stereotype of hearing older skydivers talk only about how dangerous and reckless skydiving has become, without ever taking into consideration the large increase in innovation training and risk reduction we enjoy today.
These same old dudes, after a few beers, often tell stories of absolute insanity, death defying near misses and utter carnage (mostly due to bad procedures). These make the old days seem loose as f***, which i imagine was the case.
I'm glad to be jumping in the modern era to be honest. The settlers get the land...and all that.
I like it. I LOL'd at the comment about plane loading order "as well as people who havenâ€™t made up their mind before boarding exactly what they are planning to do." -- heh. As someone who has recently started committing the "Unnatural Act" once again after a ten-year lapse, I appreciate your remarks and am seeing some valuable nuggets of useful information. Thanks for sharing.
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