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How To Land Where No One Has Landed Before (The Star Trek Trick)

...Or Where Everyone Else Is Landing, But That’s Beside the Point

Skydiving Article Image1
Image by Wolfgang Lienbacher

You’ve seen Star Trek, you big nerd -- so you know the answer to this question: When everybody’s staring out the front of a spaceship as it slams into warp speed, what are they looking at?

Don’t make that face. This absolutely applies to skydiving.

The answer, of course, is that they’re staring dramatically out into a starfield. Within that starfield, the outside stars are streaked into blurs and the center stars are distinct, clear and individual. At any given moment, the spaceship is headed towards the clear stars in the center of the frame.

Gene Roddenberry and his glitter-stirring co-wizards didn’t come up with that out of nowhere. they used a classic model, called the Radial Optic Flow Pattern (or ROFP), to base their screensaver-worthy visuals upon. Originally defined by scientist James J. Gibson, Radial Optic Flow has greatly driven the development of an “ecological” approach to visual perception. This approach investigates human vision in the context of the natural environment (as opposed to a laboratory).

It may sound obscure, but that same model is the one you, as a skydiver, should consciously use if you’d rather land in the peas than the trees. Here’s how.

Velocity Fields and FOEs

As a human in motion, your field of view – your very own spaceship windshield – is called your “velocity field.” Within that velocity field, when you’re traveling along a straight path (with no eye, head or body rotation), your heading is nailed quite precisely by the unmoving focus of expansion (FOE) in the center of your vision. How precisely? Well, a 2008 Oxford University study found that humans can use the FOE in optic flow to estimate their heading within one degree of the visual angle, and that’s good – because the FOE is exactly where you’re going.

As opposed to a paraglider – which can go up just as handily as down, in the right conditions* – a skydiving canopy has one essential mode: forward/down. A ROFP for forward movement describes expansion – like the stars in the front windshield of the spaceship as it rushes towards the FOE described by the still stars in the middle. (As our skydiving canopies can’t really go backwards, we won’t worry about the “reverse thrusters” mode.)

Skydiving Article Image2
Image by Wolfgang Lienbacher

Where’s My FOE?

If you’re flying your skydiving canopy straight, your FOE is easy to pick off: it’s the place in your vision that isn’t dropping, rising, or side-sliding. As you approach the landing area, the FOE remains central while the rest of the field expands proportionally more quickly.

If you’re throwing a bunch of canopy inputs into the mix, however, it’s much more difficult to determine FOE. That’s because you’re introducing a “rotational component of lamellar flow,” which forces the retinal flow pattern not to be radial anymore, thereby making it difficult to recover the original heading.

How to “Energize” Your Accuracy:

When you set up your landing, choose objects on the ground and notice whether they’re moving up or down in your velocity field. Notice the still spot that indicates your FOE. Notice how accurate you can make your landings by fixing your FOE on your intended spot landing.

As you learn to determine your FOE close-up, start to work on spotting your FOE from higher and higher altitudes. By doing this, you’ll train yourself to know instantly if the spot is off and you’ll need to choose an alternate landing area.

Keep your FOE on the target, not an obstacle. When I was racing motorcycles, I used to refer to this trick as my “eye magnets.” That sounds just as silly as spending four hours in a makeup chair getting a rubber Klingon face glued on, but it’s not: your gaze truly is functionally magnetic. You'll head inexorably towards the one tree in the landing area you’re terrified of hitting (and thus staring at). Conversely, you'll kinda-magically turn away from that tree without any other conscious inputs if you “unstick” your gaze and attach it firmly to open turf. Improperly applied eye magnets are referred to less-cutely as “target fixation.”

Many skydivers refer to this phenomenon as “the accuracy trick,” which seems unfair – there are a lot of helpful tools for accuracy, of which this is only one. That said, consistently landing where you want to is a great way for a skydiver to live long and prosper.

(Shh. You know you giggled.)

** For this reason, “the accuracy trick” is a little trickier to use for paraglider pilots, because visual cues have a tendency to bounce around as the wing is affected by thermic “bubbles” near ground level.

About Annette O'Neil:

Annette O'Neil is a copywriter, travel journalist and commercial producer who sometimes pretends to live in Salt Lake City. When she's not messing around with her prodigious nylon collection, she's hurtling through the canyons on her Ninja, flopping around on a yoga mat or baking vegan cupcakes.

By Annette O'Neil on 2015-08-18 | Last Modified on 2017-07-19

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.  | Votes: 4 | Comments: 9 | Views: 9255


BMFin  2015-08-18

You forgot the wind component. Skydiving canopies can and will go backwards, sideways or straight down relative to the ground in different wind conditions.

The FOE is also constantly changing due to different winds at different altitudes.

highwinder  2015-08-18

Really surprised to see no mention of keeping your head on a swivel and constantly checking for other canopies, don't just blindly fixate on objects on the ground and lose aerial awareness.

pchapman  2015-08-19

She adds a bit of science by adding formal terminology for the phenomenon. But there's a little much extraneous stuff for my taste -- drifting off into paragliders in a way that doesn't enhance the skydiver's understanding of landing accuracy. And I don't like the uncritical evaluation of the 'target fixation' idea, which I think is sometimes true, but not always or universally. If one is trying to swoop one's wing past a pole, one can't focus on a point in space 15' away from the pole, but one focuses on the pole and estimates the distance one needs to fly off to the side. But that's another topic.

Her pieces seem to "try too hard" to sound 'well written', with condescending sounding jokiness, when it is the balance of informational content that needs to be focused on more. I'll grant that writing technical articles for skydivers is very tough, and there's always personal preference in writing style, but I saw the same in her How Density Affects Your Destiny and Stalling for Success. Too much fancy writing with not enough clearly presented balanced, factual content.

nettenette  2015-08-19

I totally appreciate your feedback, guys!

I'm working with a limited word count, so it's a challenge to mention absolutely everything -- and yes, there are a *lot* of important moving parts involved. Your notes are great, and I'm sure that other readers are getting a lot of value out of them. Thanks for taking the time.

As to my writing style: valid! I know that my unique voice isn't for everyone. Believe me, I thought long and hard about throwing myself into the Well of Vitriol. :D That said: I love sharing, and I love learning everything I can from other jumpers. At the end of the day, I'm happy to take the bitter with the sweet. I'm pretty sure there's no intentional malice here; just passionate opinions without the requisite humanizing effect of conversing around a DZ picnic table...

Blue skies, everybody, and thanks again.


EllaBella  2015-08-19

I quite enjoyed the fresh (and cheeky) approach to the trick formerly known as 'accuracy'. ;) It was concise and entertaining.

And you mentioned that this is one of many useful tools for accuracy. It would be impossible to go over every single element that may affect accuracy in such a short article. Plus, caveat after caveat would have made for a boring read...which this was not. =)

Jblanco66  2015-08-20

All good info. More to learn and talk about. Keep it coming.

WombBuster  2015-08-26
1 out of 5 stars

What are her credentials?

ChrisD  2015-09-28

Don't let them get to ya, it's a tough crowd, many, many varying personalities make skydiving the joy it is! :) Everyone means well and I appreciate your writing style,...and effort to contribute!

Personally there is a bit of ZEN for most to actually grasp this concept. Move your head around too much and you can quickly loose this visual field you speak of. Don't move your head around enough and you can crash into something or somebody.

And as always a real caution about doing accuracy with other jumpers in the air, never a good idea, IMO. So thanks again for taking the time to write, kind of a lost art around here...

(My message service here still doesn't work.)

Davo  2015-10-01

That's how i describe the "spot that doesn't move" while in gliding flight, it works for canopies and wingsuits, and the spot moves if any of the variables change (like winds at different altitudes, pilot input, thermals).

Highwinder, nobody said that this should take away from your responsibilities for situational awareness and safe flight. holy crap

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