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Canopy Emergencies: Breakaway

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Jettisoning The Main Canopy

Before we talk about the series of problems you may encounter with your main canopy, it is important to discuss the types of cutaway (main canopy disconnection systems) that are in common use and their procedures. The breakaway or cutaway is an emergency procedure that involves jettisoning the main canopy prior to deploying the reserve. Originally, the cutaway was performed with a knife and the lines were cut to separate the canopy from the harness. Today, we use canopy releases to breakaway. The breakaway procedure should be executed immediately under rapidly spinning malfunctions because ever-increasing centrifugal forces will make arm movement difficult, and may cause you to lose consciousness (red-out) due to the blood flow to your eyes.

The decision altitude for the breakaway is 1,800 feet. This is your safety margin, above this it is safe to try to clear the malfunction but at this point, all clearing work must stop. Watch your altitude. The breakaway must be commenced above 1,600 feet to assure you plenty of time to get the reserve out. Under high-speed malfunctions, you may be just seven seconds off the deck at this point, and it may be necessary to forget the breakaway and just pull the reserve.

To breakaway, spread your legs (for lateral stability and push them back as far as possible while bending your knees about 45 degrees (only). Arch your back and pull your head back but keep your chin resting on your chest and your eyes on the handle(s). On release you will fall into a stable, face- to-earth position.

Body position during the breakaway is very important. If you are not falling away correctly, you may become entangled in the canopy and/or lines of your deploying reserve. Even with good body position, breaking away from a violently spinning malfunction may throw you tumbling across the sky.

The breakaway procedure is as follows:

Two Action System(TAS)

The TAS has two handles: Pull the first one (usually a Velcro-attached pillow handle located on the right-hand main lift web), to release both risers (a single point release). Then activate the reserve by pulling the other handle (usually located on the left-hand main lift web).

A. Total malfunction (nothing out)

Do not waste precious time breaking away; just pull the reserve.

  1. LOOK at the reserve ripcord handle and arch.
  2. REACH for the reserve ripcord handle with both hands.
  3. PULL the reserve ripcord handle with both hands.

B. Partial malfunction (canopy out but not working properly)

There are two schools of thought on how to perform the breakaway action using this system. The first one presented is in the USPA’s Skydivers Information Manual, “Section 8-3.16.” While it states “Look at the reserve ripcord handle...” (step 3), it says nothing about the choice of one hand or both on the breakaway handle. It is as follows:

  1. LOOK at the breakaway handle and arch. The arch should keep you from making a backloop when you jettison the main.
  2. REACH for the breakaway handle (presumably with both hands).
  3. LOOK at the reserve ripcord handle before breaking away.
  4. PULL the breakaway handle and throw it away while continuing to keep your eyes on the reserve handle.
  5. REACH for the reserve handle with both hands.
  6. PULL the reserve ripcord.
  7. CHECK over your shoulder for a pilot chute hesitation.
  8. CHECK your reserve canopy, look around and prepare to land.

Note: For student equipment, and something that is becoming more popular on experienced jumper equipment, there is a device known as a reserve static line lanyard RSL (sometimes called a Stevens lanyard). This is a piece of webbing attached from the right side riser (or both risers on some systems) to the reserve ripcord cable. It is designed to pull the reserve ripcord out of its locking loop(s) as you fall away from the main parachute after that main canopy is cut away, thus allowing the reserve to deploy. When installed and operating properly, it will usually beat you to the manual deployment of the reserve. However, it should not be relied upon, for after all, along with an automatic activation device (AAD — described in Chapter 7), it is merely a back-up device to your proper execution of emergency procedures. This system can be disconnected (if necessary) by personnel who know what they are doing.

It is a possibility that when you perform a breakaway using both hands on the breakaway handle, there is a fraction of a second of disorienting instability as the maneuver is executed. Although you are supposed to be looking at the reserve ripcord handle, you still need to move one or both hands to it from whatever position you are in at the conclusion of the breakaway-handle pull. The ripcord handle may move from where it was (on the harness) under the tension of the partial malfunction to a different position during this moment. It is a possibility that there may be an additional second or more of elapsed time as you reach for the reserve ripcord handle.

Therefore, there is a second school of thought about performing the breakaway, which is, if you are about to execute a breakaway and you put your right hand on the breakaway handle and your left hand and thumb through the reserve ripcord handle, there will be no lost time reaching for the reserve ripcord after the breakaway is executed. Here is a typical scenario:

  1. LOOK at the breakaway handle and arch. The arch should keep you from making a backloop when you jettison the main.
  2. REACH for the breakaway handle with your right hand.
  3. REACH for the reserve ripcord handle with your left hand, placing your thumb through the handle to ensure that you have a firm grip on it.
  4. PEEL and PULL the breakaway handle to full right arm extension. Throwing it away is optional.
  5. Immediately after you’ve pulled the breakaway handle with your right hand, PULL the reserve handle out to full extension with your left hand.
  6. CHECK over your shoulder for a pilot chute hesitation.
  7. CHECK your reserve canopy, look around and prepare to land.

In this scenario, there is no hesitation in looking for a reserve ripcord that may have moved, thus it may save a second or two of precious time.

The Single Operation System (S.O.S)

The Single Operation System is a one-handle/one-motion system. The S.O.S. has a combined handle, usually on the left main lift web, to release both risers and activate the reserve. The S.O.S. has a reserve static line lanyard (Stevens lanyard) from one riser to the reserve ripcord. The purpose of the S.O.S. is to eliminate one the motions in the breakaway sequence; that of separately pulling the cutaway handle. By pulling the reserve ripcord all the way, you accomplish both the breakaway and the reserve-ripcord pull in one complete action. With a two-action system, half a breakaway is worse than no breakaway at all unless you have an RSL.

The S.O.S. usually produces full deployment of the reserve canopy in less than 100 feet. If you find an RSL on your piggyback harness/container assembly, you should leave it on. When you and your instructor develop enough confidence that you will pull the reserve after a breakaway, you can do away with the line if you wish.

Total or Partial malfunction

In the event of a total or partial malfunction:

  1. LOOK at the combination release/ripcord handle and arch.
  2. REACH for the combination handle with both hands.
  3. PULL the combination handle with both hands to full arm extension.
  4. REACH back with one hand, grasp the cables where they come out of the housing.
  5. PULL AGAIN to clear the cables and
  6. CHECK over shoulder for a pilot chute hesitation.
  7. CHECK the reserve canopy, look around and prepare to land.

Never depend on the reserve static line device (Stevens lanyard). Always pull your reserve ripcord cable all the way out of the housing immediately after breaking away.

Canopy Transfer

Canopy transfer is a third type of breakaway procedure sometimes used in Canopy Relative Work by those who believe something is better than nothing. If your main canopy becomes damaged or tangled on a jump and it is still flying forward, you may pull your round reserve and drag it behind you, full of air. Once the reserve canopy is inflated, jettison the main. This maneuver is extremely risky with a square reserve canopy as two squares may fly around and into each other. This type of problem is discussed later on in detail.

Harness shift

When you jettison the main canopy, your harness will shift downward taking the reserve ripcord location with it. Therefore, it is essential that you keep your eyes on the reserve ripcord handle, if your hand is not already grasping it, when jettisoning the main canopy.

Now that we have covered cutaways (breakaways), let’s discuss when and where they are used.



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