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Wings Level

Wings Level

I've been thinking for some time about a final bit of advice, some catchy canopy control phrase, to say to students when they are about to go up. This morning it finally came to me:

Wings Level

When you're close to the ground keep your wings level

This covers a lot of ground. Most of the injuries I can think of violated this principle.

You can survive a lot of horizontal embarrassment by pulling your breakables in and doing a PLF. The vertical stuff is what hurts, and that mostly comes when your canopy is not level.

There are three common situations: turbulence, SLAMMs and flaring.


One feeling of turbulence is the canopy suddenly rocking/tilting right or left. If it tilts to the right our untrained reaction is to raise our left hand to catch our balance, and lower our right hand to catch ourselves. This causes a hard right turn and slams us into the ground.

Under canopy we must retrain ourselves to think "Wings Level!" and counter the tilt with our toggles.

Tilt to the right:

  • Think "Wings Level!"
  • Left toggle down / Right toggle up
  • Canopy overhead
  • Back to neutral or continue flaring or ...

If we're flaring when this tilt to the right happens another part of our reaction is to raise our left leg up and reach for the ground with our right leg. This is an injury prone position to hit the ground in.

Our ground based habits are strong, and it takes some effort and practice to use only canopy control, our hands and toggles, while we're still in the air.

Active control is the idea, you fly the canopy, don't let it fly you.

SLAMMs - Stupid Last Minute Moves

SLAMs - Stupid Low Altitude Maneuvers

I got this term from Rick Horn. It refers to last minute panic turns.

These last minute turns happen when people

  • Get too low before facing into the wind (Get-home-itis)
  • Try to avoid last minute obstacles
  • Chase the windsock

Large scale canopy strategy - thinking ahead - is the approach to focus on here.

The idea is to get up wind of target, and then fly a landing pattern.

It starts before you even put your gear on.

Get a flight planner (an aerial photo of the drop zone).
Go outside and look at the ground winds.
Draw both left and right hand landing patterns for these winds.
Pick one or the other based on obstacles and other factors.
If the winds are still the same when you jump, this is the one you will try to use.

The actual jump often happens differently than the plan.

The point here is to learn a process, a way of thinking, an approach, that keeps you out of the awkward situations and last minute moves in the first place.

Now draw the jump run (what have previous loads been doing?). Mark where the first and last groups got out (watch the actual jump or ask people who have just landed where they got out). If the uppers are strong mark both exit and opening point.

Now put yourself in the shoes of someone who has just opened.

I'm here, the windsock is still the same, so my two possible landing patterns are there, what do I do between now and later to get from here to the onramp, the beginning, of the landing pattern I want to use?

Should I run? Should I hold? Should I crab?
If I keep facing the way I'm facing now, where will I land?
There's an obstacle, a lake, some trees, a power line between here and there. Can I fly over it? Should I fly over it?
What if the wind changes and I land on it? Is that a disaster, or just inconvenient?

If I can't make it back, where's a clear spot that I can land in?
Which way is the wind blowing and therefore what landing pattern should I fly?

Can I make it back but the wind has changed, the windsock is moving?
What's my new landing pattern and how do I get from here to the onramp?

Is the windsock going in circles? Are the jumpers ahead of me landing in all directions? Should I move my landing pattern over a bit and land outside the swarm of clueless sunday drivers?

Am I too long but the wind is at my back so I can pull a few inches on the toggles and come down slower and ride the wind back?

Am I down wind and don't want to blow away so I should face the wind and pull a few inches on the front risers and get down quicker?

Have I by some miracle of forethought made it to the onramp of my chosen landing pattern? How do I handle it now?

As a student they told me the 1,000 - 600 - 300 ft technique, but most experienced jumpers guage the pattern by angles and rates.

On a light wind day I fly the down wind part at a certain distance from the target so the target is at the correct angle down from me. I fly down wind until the target is maybe 45 degrees behind me and turn cross wind. Once again the target is at the correct angle down from me. At the magic moment I turn on final.

If I'm too low in the pattern I can cut across corners and shorten my flight path. If I'm too high I can go into brakes, come down slower but steeper, and bleed off unwanted altitude.

If I've misjudged the whole thing, I remember that it's better to land out and walk back than land in and get carried away on a stretcher, so I do my turns onto cross wind and final at a nice safe altitude, and congratulate myself on what good judgement I have.

It is hard to stress enough the value of persistently trying to fly your canopy on a predetermined course (get up wind of target, and then fly a landing pattern) rather than zooming aimlessly around and then landing.

The value is that trying to make your canopy go where you plan to go in all the different conditions teaches you how to make your canopy go where you *want* it to go in all the different conditions.

Canopy control is not simple and it's not easy. There are zillions of variables and circumstances, and on any given jump you don't even know what they all are.

If you put genuine effort into this for 200 - 300 jumps you will start to sort out the patterns and learn what you can and can't do.

Knowing what you can and can't do is especially helpful in staying out of the SLAMMs when you're landing out.

Sometimes, even when you're thinking ahead, you have to make a turn close to the ground. There is a way to do it and still keep your wings level and that is braked (flat) turns.

The idea is to first go into the right amount of brakes, half brakes, deep brakes, and then use one toggle slightly up or the other slightly down, or both, to turn.

This gives you a change of heading with only a slight bank.

If you were really at 50 or 75 ft when you did this, you just have to land that way (PLF).

Practice braked turns up high until they feel really comfortable so that when you need one close to the ground it will be easy to do.

Letting up from deep brakes near the ground is tricky because you drop quite a ways before your canopy resumes its normal glide path.

At some point it's worth spending maybe 10 or 20 jumps edging gradually into this to find out what you can do. It's different with each canopy.

Turn onto final in part brakes. At say 150 ft let up slowly and see what happens. Push gradually (that's *gradually*) into deeper brakes, lower altitudes, faster let ups. After while you will get a sense of what you can do.

If you keep pushing you will eventually scare yourself and then you will know where the boundary is.


Another place where you can get wings unlevel is flaring

  • flare too high and then let up
  • flare too high and stall
  • flare unevenly

There is an old accuracy technique called double clutching, where you let the toggles up 6 or 8 inches (not a foot!), let the canopy fly for a moment, then toggles back down maybe 4 or 6 inches.

If you flare too high and just hold it, you will land hard but probably get away with it by doing a PLF.

If you flare too high and then let up, you will land much harder and may not get away with it. Even big, slow student canopies can slam you in if you do it wrong enough.

If you've been practicing double clutching up high where it doesn't hurt, you can impress your friends and coaches with your great canopy control.

If you flare unevenly, one hand lower than the other, you get the canopy tilting one way or the other as in turbulence.

Tilt to the right:

  • Think "Wings Level!"
  • Left toggle down / Right toggle up
  • Canopy overhead
  • Back to neutral or continue flaring or ...

Some people look at their hands or bring their hands together at the bottom of the flare in order to flare evenly.

Those can be good short term techniques, but in the long run it is better to focus on what the canopy is doing.

If the canopy tilts or banks I want to counter with one toggle down and the other up regardless of whether it was turbulence or an uneven flare that caused it.

The flare works in two stages. The top quarter or top third stops your downward speed and levels you out (for a short while). The bottom part slows your forward speed.

This means that in high winds, where you're barely penetrating and your horizontal speed (relative to the ground) is already stopped, you just do the top part of the flare, and you do it much closer to the ground.

If you do a full flare in high winds you get picked up and thrown backwards pretty hard. This will impress your friends and coaches but not the way you want.

The hard part of flaring in no winds is guessing when to start.

You start the top part higher. This levels you out, changes your visual picture, and gives you immediate feedback on how good your guess was.

If your guess was good, then do the bottom part and land.

If you started too high, then pause for a moment, and then do the bottom part.

Part of the trick is where you look.

If you look at the horizon then you can't see the ground well enough in your peripheral vision and you can't tell when.

If you look straight down under your feet all you see is ground rushing by and you can't tell when that way either.

Up higher I'm looking more out ahead.

As I'm starting the flare I look ahead of where my feet are going to touch down just like you do on an uneven mountain trail.

As my feet are just about to touch down I look more downward just like you do at a rough spot on that mountain trail. What I'm looking for is any rock or uneven spot where I might twist an ankle.

If your flare motions are too slow you don't get the effect, but if you yank the toggles down you just distort the canopy and airflow and that doesn't work either.

If you back off a little from the yank to a definite, strong motion, it works pretty well.

The final bit of flaring technique is to practice PLFs until they are comfortable and natural, because in spite of all this great technique there is nothing like a PLF to save your body and your pride when you misjudge it.

A point of terminology is that panic turns are not hook turns.

Hook turns, canopy swooping, turf surfing, pond swooping are a form of canopy flying that you can learn about later if you want.

If you are interested, then go to some of the larger drop zones in Florida or California or some place and learn from the people who are already good at it.

Like any envelope pushing around high speed dirt, it's pretty easy to kill yourself if you fuck up, so it's smarter to build on the experience of others.

Meanwhile, in your day to day jumping, keep your wings level when you're close to the ground.

Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, our best training, our best intentions, we have a brain fart and do something stupid.

Here's one that ranks right up there with the best of them.

One year at Quincy it was hot, it was humid, it was late in the week, I was tired, I didn't want to land out and wait for the pickup, and I had to cross the loading area to get back.

The loading area is a pretty wide section of concrete filled with Otters and Casas picking up jumpers, getting fuel, spinning props, planes taxiing in and out, tents full of waiting jumpers.

I had seen it in freefall, I had been eyeing the situation from the time I opened.

Can I do it? I'm not sure. It's gonna be close.

I'll just face that way and decide when I get closer.

Can I do it? I'm not sure. Just barely. Maybe. No, I should turn around and land over here. I'm going for it.

Concrete. Staying aloft by sheer terror. The slightest gust and ... Shit.

Props. I could land on the tail. Massive social humiliation and broken bones but I'd miss the props. Shit.

The tent. I'm going to land on the tent. Shit.

I'm over. I land.

I gather up my chute and walk back thinking that was the stupidest thing I've ever done.

To this day I can still hardly believe that I did that.

It's not just students who show bad judgement under canopy.

Bryan Burke has said that minds are like parachutes, sometimes they just don't work.

That means that we must develop the best set of habits and background experience that we can, so that when our minds don't work we might still accidentally do the right thing.

Keep your wings level when you're close to the ground.


By Skratch Garrison on 2003-10-26 | Last Modified on 2017-02-02

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