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Canopy Safety on Large Formation Skydives

By adminon - Read 6486 times
Image by Andrey Veselov

This article is a continuation of my previous article “Diving and Tracking Safety on Large Formation Skydives”. Some of that article is repeated here because maximum separation under canopy cannot be achieved without proper breakoff and tracking.

On any skydive, it is critical that jumpers keep their heads on a swivel at all times. Nowhere is this more important than large formation skydives where separation is paramount and there is no place for canopies weaving in and out of traffic or front-riser spiraling below other jumpers and cutting them off in the landing area.

A few years ago, Kate Cooper-Jensen and other big-way organizers compiled what they called “Rules of the Sky” for canopy piloting on big-way formation skydives. Cooper-Jensen makes sure that everybody knows about these rules at every big-way event she runs. This article reiterates those rules and provides a few additional rules a jumper must follow from the time he breaks off until he opens.

Let’s start with responsibilities during breakoff and tracking.

At breakoff, jumpers turn and track with their designated tracking groups. Breakoff turn directions should have already been established in the dirt dive to avoid collisions. But turn direction is one thing; how far to turn is another. Jumpers facing the center of the formation turn a full 180 degrees at breakoff. A jumper who is already facing, say, 45 degrees away from the center of the formation turns only about 135 degrees.

Jumpers track with their groups for at least five seconds, staying level with their tracking leaders then fanning out a few degrees from the center until the designated opening altitude for their group.

A “flat track” is required and absolutely no steep (or “dive”) tracking is allowed! If a jumper goes low, he moves off to the side, assumes a slow fall rate, and tries to get above the formation until the outer wave breaks off, at which time he turns and tracks as far as he can until 2500 feet.

Jumpers on the outside of the formation break off first, track the furthest, and open the lowest. Jumpers in the middle break off next and track as far as they can until time to open (at the highest altitude on the load). Jumpers in the base ring track the least distance and open at a low altitude like the outer groups. These staggered openings make it is easier for jumpers to see each other and fly their canopies. Imagine how congested the skies would be if everybody on a 100-way opened at the same altitude.

Image by Andrey Veselov

As a jumper tracks, he scans the sky in front, below, and on either side. It is his responsibility to watch out for jumpers below. It is also his responsibility to check the sky directly above before he waves off. If another jumper appears directly above or below as he waves off, the jumper can continue tracking to get out of the way.

Once a jumper is under a good canopy, the first thing he must do is grab his rear risers and be ready to yank down on a riser if another canopy is coming at him. The general rule is to yank down on the right rear riser if another canopy is approaching directly from the front. If a canopy is coming from another direction, however, say, from the right, it is obvious that the left rear riser should be used.

Once the jumper is absolutely sure he is clear of other jumpers, he can collapse his slider, flip up his visor (if applicable), and release his brakes. However, jumpers on large formation loads are normally not permitted to remove booties under canopy.

The jumper is now ready to navigate his canopy alongside other canopies in his group on their way to the landing area.

Here are the “Rules of the Sky” that big-way jumpers must follow under canopy:

Know the recommended canopy wing loading for the event. While not set in stone, a wing loading between 1.25 and 1.75 is typically recommended on large formation skydives so that all canopies will be flying at roughly the same speed. Weights increase a canopy’s wing loading and jumpers should already know if they can safely fly their canopies with the additional weight.

Inspect a map of the DZ and landing areas prior to jumping. Know the “outs” and alternate landing areas. This applies mostly to visiting jumpers unfamiliar with the DZ.

Know the designated landing direction and landing areas. At most DZs, jumpers follow a left-hand landing pattern unless the spot and wind direction make it impossible to do so. A mandatory landing direction is often assigned. If separate landing areas have been assigned to different sections of the formation, a jumper must follow the same pattern as his landing group.

Note: Downwind or crosswind landings may be required by the predetermined landing direction or because of a wind shift after the first canopy lands. Jumpers should already possess the skills necessary to land their canopies crosswind or downwind.

Do not cross over into the pattern of another group. If the spot is long, try to make it back to the designated landing area unless doing so would interfere with other jumpers trying to get to their landing areas. In this case, pick an alternate landing area before reaching 1000 feet.

Enter the group’s landing pattern around 1000 feet. Follow but stay off to the side of other jumpers entering the landing pattern. Never fly directly behind another canopy. The leading jumper can’t see you and the depressurized air behind the leading canopy can cause your canopy to collapse.

Make the final turn between 300 and 500 feet and make no more turns after that. On final approach, turn no more than 90 degrees and never perform S-turns, spiral or hook turns, or fly in deep brakes. This includes camera personnel, organizers, and DZ staff.

After landing, turn around while stowing breaks, etc. This allows you to get out of the way of jumpers landing behind you. If the landing area is congested, move off to the side as quickly as possible while watching out for other jumpers trying to land.

If landing off the DZ, gather in groups and walk together to the nearest road.

If required, check in with the group’s/plane’s designated person. This is especially important if jumpers have landed off the DZ.


Safety starts with the attitudes and the actions of each and every one of us. While it is perfectly acceptable to demonstrate confidence and experience, it is never acceptable to show off with a blatant disregard for the rules and the safety of others. On the other end of the spectrum, it is never acceptable for a jumper to put himself on a load or in a slot that he is not experienced enough to handle. At one extreme there is over-confidence, at the other, lack of experience. Either one can kill.

Reading fatality reports is a sad undertaking but it also makes us angry – angry that the poor judgment of a few puts the rest of us at risk and gives our sport bad press – angry that needless injuries and deaths still occur – and, finally, angry that dear friends had to make the ultimate sacrifice in order for the rest of us to learn.

Big-way organizers can only do so much. They can invite the most experienced skydivers in the world, but if just one skydiver doesn’t follow the rules, the results can be fatal. So let’s police ourselves and follow the rules, not just on big-ways, but each and every time we strap on a rig or get a student ready for his first skydive. This sport is a heckuva lot of fun when we do.



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