It is often the little things in our skydiving day that change the way things go. Paying attention to the details can make all the difference when it comes to preventing malfunctions, and when we get lazy, tired or complacent, our attention gets fuzzy and unfocused. That is when we make mistakes that we regret. One area that often results in malfunctions is errors in stowing our toggles, and there are quite a few ways in which we can perform this seemingly simple act incorrectly, only some of which will be discussed in this article.
The most obvious aspect of this necessary part of packing that we can mess up is the depth of the toggle in the keeper. If we do not push the toggle sufficiently into its fabric keeper, the toggle will eventually unstow during deployment.
Premature brakes releases result in countless cutaways each year. Each time we chop, we risk losing our main canopy and our freebag; a very expensive mistake.
Another facet of stowing our toggles that can result in a premature “brake-fire” is insufficient tension on the portion of the brake line that leads to the canopy.
This slack can allow a sharp tug of the brake line near the toggle, causing it to pop out of the keeper, and even snap the line itself. A healthy practice when setting your brakes is to pull upward on the brake line above the toggle, ensuring that everything is loaded against the toggle properly.
Yet another common error when stowing the steering toggles is to pass the toggle through the brake line above the guide ring.
This will almost always result in a premature brake release. It will also usually result in damage to the fabric toggle keeper, as the load on the brake line will go directly to the keeper rather than to the guide ring. I see this one quite a lot, and the jumper is always blown away when I point it out while they are packing. Better a moment of embarrassment on the ground than a premature brake fire in the sky.
On that note, if you experience a premature brake release, or snap a brake line during deployment, your canopy will turn. On many parachutes, this turn can be quite fast, and it is likely to increase in both airspeed and rate of rotation. This means that time is of the essence when dealing with this kind of malfunction. This, however, does not mean that the correct response is to claw for the stowed toggle like a crazed monkey. Yes, you do need to unstow the remaining toggle, but having this singular goal in mind has resulted in many cutaways, AAD fires and even some fatalities. When you open up in a spin, your first job is to try to stop the spin, while remaining aware of your altitude. If you apply opposite harness input or simply pull the rear riser on the side of the canopy that has experienced the toggle release or broken line, you will slow the situation down. By holding a heading, you will be losing much less altitude, and will afford yourself the time and brain power to properly execute whatever procedure is next.
Also key to your safety is the condition of your equipment. For instance, if the toggle keeper has become loose due to wearing over time, even sufficiently stowed toggles will unstow prematurely. Since we stow the toggle in the same way every time, the toggle eventually becomes deformed, narrower at the load point, which can cause the toggle to jam when you try to release it.
Also contributing to this possibility is the inevitable shrinkage of the “cat’s-eye” hole in the brake line on spectra lined canopies. This is caused by heating of the line due to friction as you unstow your toggles. The melting point of spectra is 297 F and the material’s response to heat is shrinkage, unlike George Castanza. Most cat’s eyes begin at about 25 millimeters on new canopies, and by 3 or 400 jumps, it reduces to a 19 or 18 millimeter passage. When combined with a narrow point in the toggle, a brake-lock malfunction is quite likely. This problem can easily be avoided through regular replacement of the mid and lower brake lines, and pinching of the toggle with plyers to create a uniform width.
When the tip of the toggle fails to extract from the cat’s-eye, it is possible that the jumper unstowed the toggles in a gentle, slow motion, allowing the friction to hold the toggle in place inside the brake line. This phenomenon can often be avoided by making it a habit to always unstow the toggles with a sharp, snapping motion. This method has served me well for many years, and has totally eliminated the “stuck toggle” malfunction for me.
On the topic of toggles that do not want to release, we have another malfunction that shows up from time to time. There are many things you can do with your excess brake line, depending on your particular riser design and your personal preferences. Some skydivers choose to pass the excess line through keepers on the opposite side of the riser. This is perfectly acceptable. If, however, the free end of the brake line is passed down through the keepers and then around the bottom of the toggle, a complete failure to release is possible.
This occurs when the upward relative wind blows the brake line up over the toggle during opening.
The jumper then can grab the toggles below this loop of line and unstow, causing an irreparable knot around the keeper loop on the opposite side of the riser.
Another way that jumpers sometimes cause a toggle-lock is by passing the excess brake line through the soft links, and then securing the end of the loop through the tip of the toggle. Although this method has proven to be perfectly safe, and may make it easier to pull the slider down after opening, a serious danger exists. If the soft links are not sewn in place with tack-cord, the loop of brake line can get caught on the tab or ring on the soft link, causing a locked toggle malfunction.
It is true that a toggle-lock does not need to result in a cutaway. If the jumper cuts the brake line with a hook knife, the parachute will fly straight. Nevertheless, this fix requires the canopy pilot to land with a rear riser flare, something that many are not prepared to do. If you have never performed this maneuver in premeditated circumstances, you are not likely to perform the task well in an emergency. As I often say, there is no such thing as an emergency if you have practiced the solutions; it is just a change of plans.
The last toggle-related problem that I will discuss is failure to stow the excess brake line at all. It is true that many jumpers have been leaving “free range” brake line for many years without incident. In most cases, these are jumpers with small canopies who have very little excess brake line to deal with due to the size of their parachutes. Regardless, it is my experience that it is just a matter of time before this free line snags on something. It might be your GoPro. It might be someone else’s GoPro. It might be the door of the airplane or something even worse that I can’t even think of. The bottom line is, the procedure of stowing your excess line costs you only a few seconds, but it can save your life. Deal with it, please.
It is the smallest of details that usually result in the worst and best experiences on the dropzone. Skydiving is a sport of tiny issues that add up to big consequences, and if we continue to enjoy the process of paying attention to these little particulars, we can continue to enjoy the sport for a very long time. If we flippantly skip off the tops of the waves so-to-speak, and pretend that the danger does not exist, this sport will prove us wrong in the most painful and terrifying ways. We are always at risk when we skydive, but fear is not what keeps us safe. It is attention to the details, and the positive emotions that come as a result of knowing that we are doing everything we can think of to stay alive. If we are happy, we are more skillful, and skill definitely increases the chances of a happy landing.
About the Author: Brian Germain is a parachute designer, author, teacher, radio personality, keynote speaker with over 15,000 jumps, and has been an active skydiver for 30 years. He is the creator of the famed instructional video "No Sweat: Parachute Packing Made Easy", as well as the critically acclaimed book The Parachute and its Pilot. You can get more of Brian’s teaching at Adventure Wisdom, Big Air Sportz, Transcending Fear, and on his vast YouTube Channel