By Ed Lightle
This is the first of two articles geared toward safety on big-way formation skydives. This article deals mostly with the freefall part of the skydive whereas the second article “Canopy Safety on Large Formation Skydives” deals mostly with safety under canopy. To get the most benefit, it is recommended that you read both articles.
In Formation Skydiving, hundreds of big-ways are completed every year without incident. This is a testament to both the skill level of today’s formation skydivers and the screening process utilized by big-way organizers. To qualify for most big-way events, a participant must obtain the recommendation of a big-way plane captain or organizer and must have recently participated in a big-way camp or big-way event.
Organizers take safety seriously. A safety violation on a big-way, whether at a training camp or on a big-way attempt, will get a jumper benched when an honest learning mistake might not.
Diving and tracking on big-ways are special areas of concern. With longer diving and tracking times and more jumpers in the air, big-ways naturally increase the risk of a freefall collision. But this risk can be eliminated if jumpers use good common sense and think safety on each and every jump. Here are some tips that can help.
Watch Jumpers Ahead of You While Diving
As soon as a diver leaves the plane and gets squared away, he must identify the base and the jumpers who will be docking ahead of him in the formation. He must keep them in sight while he dives, stops, sets up and moves in to dock. He should constantly scan the sky in front of him, starting from the base and extending all the way out to the person he will be docking on. He should keep an eye out for camera flyers as well.
Because several divers are heading to the same sector of the formation, each diver must follow a straight line from the plane to the area outside the formation where he wants to be stopped and ready to follow jumpers ahead of him into his slot.
A jumper should never dive directly behind another diver in case the leading diver comes out of his dive early. The trailing diver should always stay a few feet off to the side.
If a diver flares (comes out of his dive) early, he should not zigzag from side to side to bleed off altitude. If he does, he risks being hit by jumpers who are diving behind him. To bleed off altitude at this point, he should either get back into his dive (if he has a lot of distance to make up) or assume a fast fall position while keeping jumpers ahead of him in view.
Get to the Red Zone on Time
Another area of concern is getting down to the red zone in time. (The red zone is the area around and outside the formation where jumpers have stopped their dives and are lined up and moving straight ahead and down into their slots. From a camera flyer’s perspective, jumpers in the red zone look as if they are lined up in various seats in an imaginary football stadium as them move down to their slots on the field.)
A jumper who arrives late in the red zone more than likely has to maneuver around jumpers who are already closing on their slots. He also prevents later divers from getting to their slots. All of this increases the chance of a collision.
A more serious situation can occur when a jumper arrives so late that the first wave of jumpers is breaking off. This is not serious if he immediately turns and tracks away with this first wave. If he doesn’t, he risks a head-on collision.
Break Off with Your Group
To maximize horizontal separation and avoid congestion, jumpers on big-ways break off in “waves”. Imagine how congested it would be if everybody on a 100-way turned and tracked at the same time! On a 100-way, for example, the outer wave might break off around 7000 feet, the next wave around 6000 feet, the next wave at 5000 and so on until only the base group is left. Obviously, the outer wave tracks the furthest horizontal distance and the base tracks the shortest. Again, a jumper who doesn’t arrive in the red zone until break off should turn and track with the outer wave.
Track with Your Group
When their wave breaks off, jumpers should track away in groups. A group can consist of a few jumpers from one whacker and a few from an adjacent whacker with one jumper in the center of the group designated the tracking leader. At breakoff, jumpers from each whacker turn in the direction of the tracking leader, track side by side for a few seconds, then fan out away from the center.
A jumper who goes low should move off to the side, assume a slow fall rate, and try to get above the formation until the outer wave breaks off, at which time he should turn and track away with them.
Flat Track, Don’t “Dive” Track
A jumper should stay level with other trackers in his group, and everybody should “flat track” to conserve altitude and maximize horizontal separation. “Dive” tracking (very steep tracking) is not acceptable behavior on a big-way,” says Kate Cooper-Jensen, big-way organizer and multiple world record holder, adding, “A jumper can almost stop dive tracking simply by choosing to alter his body position during the turn away from the formation.”
To initiate a flat track, a jumper assumes a slow fall position while turning away from the formation, essentially de-arching as he turns. This prevents him from immediately dropping into a dive track below other jumpers in his group. Keeping his hips elevated as he finishes his turn, the jumper then locks his knees, points his toes, and points his head toward the horizon. His arms are initially extended 45 degrees away from his sides and his feet shoulder-width apart. As he picks up speed, he rolls his shoulders forward, and brings his arms closer to his sides and his feet closer together. He should feel the lift as he picks up speed.
Open at the Same Altitude as Your Group
As an additional safety measure, opening altitudes of the various waves are staggered to maximize separation and make it easier for jumpers to account for open canopies around them. According to one theory, groups in the middle wave open at the highest altitudes while the outside and base groups open at the lowest. The result is a curve of open canopies, starting lowest at the base, curving up in the middle then down again on the outsides.
A successful big-way is a team effort with the goal of building a completed formation the safest way possible. Diving and tracking on a big-way is like driving on the highway. A safe driver knows more than just how to push the accelerator and go fast. He maintains a safe distance from the driver in front, he doesn’t switch lanes without looking, and he doesn’t cut in front of other drivers just to beat them to the exit. He gets to where he needs to be in plenty of time without causing an accident. So does a safe big-way formation skydiver.