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Choices, Choices: Pilot-Chute-In-Tow Malfunctions and You

By nettenetteon - Read 13782 times
Curt Vogelsang captures some hot canopy-on-canopy action.

Y’know when you don't feel like getting out of bed in the morning? Your main parachute is likely a lot brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed than you are, but every once in a good long while it just doesn't feel like getting out and doing its job. Y’know? Relatable.

Kidding aside: When you throw your hand-deployed pilot chute but the container stays closed -- trapping the main deployment bag inside, helpless to deliver you a parachute -- you’ve gotchaself a pilot-chute-in-tow. In other words: you’ve got nothing out, which makes you the clenchy, concerned (and hopefully very temporary) owner of a high-speed mal.

You’d better get on that, buddy. Stat.

But how?

Deploy the reserve immediately or cut away first and then deploy the reserve?

One Handle or Two Handles: The Cagematch

If you’re not sure which you’d choose,* you’re certainly not the first. This particular point has been the subject of roaring contention since the invention of the BOC, my friends. (Guaranteed: the comments section below will corroborate my statement. I can sense people sharpening their claymores and dunking their arrows in poison even now.)

There’s a school that says -- well, duh -- get your damn reserve out, like right now what are you waiting for. There’s another school that calls that school a bunch of mouth-breathing pasteeaters. The latter group insists that you'd better go through the procedures you know lest you mess it up when it counts. They usually follow up by spitting on a photograph of the first group’s mother and wondering aloud why the first group is even allowed to skydive. Then they start punching each other.

Images by Joe Nesbitt

The USPA Skydiver’s Information Manual doesn’t make a move to break up the fight. It stands clear of the flying arms and legs and says, “Y’know -- they both kinda have a point.” Section 5-1 of the manual says this, verbatim:

“Procedure 1: Pull the reserve immediately. A pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction is associated with a high descent rate and requires immediate action. The chance of a main-reserve entanglement is slim, and valuable time and altitude could be lost by initiating a cutaway prior to deploying the reserve. Be prepared to cut away.

“Procedure 2: Cut away, then immediately deploy the reserve. Because there is a chance the main could deploy during or as a result of reserve activation, a cutaway might be the best response in some situations.”

Let’s look a little closer at the options, then, shall we?

Option One: Not Even Gonna Bother With That Cutaway Handle.

  • Pro: Immediately yanking out that reserve saves a step. When AGL counts (and golly, doesn’t it?), saving a step can save a life. Many skydivers are quick to point out specific incidents in which jumpers with PCiTs have gone in with sealed magical backpacks, having failed to pull both handles (or pull any handle at all) while the clock was ticking. Gulp.

  • Con: It takes the pressure off (in a potentially bad way). As the reserve leaves the container, there’s a chance that it can take the sealing pressure off the flaps that are keeping the main container closed. The main can then leap to freedom and deploy at the same time as the reserve. At this point, you might wind up with an entanglement, a side-by-side, biplane or downplane to figure out.**

Option Two: Get Off The Field, Main Parachute. Reserve, You’re In!

  • Pro: It’s the same stuff you’ve been taught to do for every other reserve-requisite malfunction. ...If you initiate the reserve deployment clearly, confidently, and as early as possible, of course. After all: making a one-off exception for a single kind of malfunction can be tricky. A jumper might well spend a little too much time thinking it over (‘Am I going for my reserve handle first right now? ‘Cause that’s weird. Is that okay?’) when they should just be yanking the stuffing out of their emergency handles. Going through the real-life motions of the little dance you do before you get on every load makes more sense to your body, for sure.

  • Con: You’re adding more complexity to the situation than you may realize. Especially if you don’t have secure riser covers, the (jealous?) cut-away main risers might sneak out of the container and grab for the reserve as it deploys. Another thing: the main is very likely to wiggle free, detach from the harness as soon as it catches air and do its best to entangle with your Option B. The latter kerfuffle is made much more likely when you add a single-sided reserve static line to the mix, turning the already-dismaying situation into something of a tug-of-war.

Neither of these choices sounds like the cherry on top of a lovely afternoon; I know. At some point, however, you may be forced to make one. If you do, you’d better have a plan in mind.

Not in the mood to make that choice? Me neither. Luckily, there are some steps you can take to better your chances of never seeing a PCiT -- and in next week’s article, I’ll tell you what they are.


*If you have a Racer (or any container with a cross-connected RSL), you do not have a choice. You must pull the reserve without cutting away. Do not pass ‘go,’ do not collect $200. In that particular configuration, the main will choke off the reserve if the cutaway has been pulled. If this unnerves you, get thee to a rigger to discuss it.

**Head over the PIA.com to check out a handy study they did in 1997 regarding the management of two-out situations. It’s called the “Dual Square Report.”


About The Author

Annette O'Neil is a copywriter, travel journalist and commercial producer who sometimes pretends to live in Salt Lake City. When she's not messing around with her prodigious nylon collection, she's hurtling through the canyons on her Ninja, flopping around on a yoga mat or baking vegan cupcakes.


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Love it! Another great article. Thanks for all you do for all of us!

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As I have been told by much more experienced skydivers than myself, it's not a question of "If" you will have a malfunction but to the more to the point of "When" will you have a malfunction. And subsequently will you be prepared? Great article, looking forward to next week's.

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This has always been a "pick your poison" situation. Pros and cons n both sides. I've flip flopped many times on how I will handle this, and I'm still a bit wishy washy. The only way to really solve this and determine the best course of action is through statistical data or test jumps. None of which, to my knowledge, have ever been collected or undertaken. Back in 1997, PIA, PD and US Army conducted tests to see how canopies interact with one another in the 3 various "dual out" scenarios. This yielded a lot of useful information on how to deal with these types of malfunctions. This study is often referenced in PCIT malfunction discussions and articles. However, the missing piece to the puzzle in figuring out the response to a PCIT is how simultaneous main and reserve deployments turn out. Statistically, are they more likely or less likely to entangle with one another if the main is attached during deployment or if the main is jettisoned(cutaway pulled) during deployment. Jump tests by a few cutting edge canopy manufacturers and daring test jumpers, similar to those that conducted the PIA test, could give us the answers we need to make the proper choice as to chop first or just go for silver. Any takers??

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"This particular point has been the subject of roaring contention since the invention of the BOC, my friends." - Far longer than that! Well before BOC's, when your two options were an ROL or bellyband throwout vs. a pullout this argument raged. Indeed the argument often devolved to what kind of malfunction you wanted - a lost pud total on a pullout or a PC in tow on a throwout.

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OK, I’ll bite.
The problem I have with method 1 (pull silver at once) is that it assumes a ‘situational awareness’ on the part of the skydiver that may- or may not be present.
After all you have thrown a pilot chute and are anticipating an opening shock in ‘onethousand, twothousand, threethousand...”
However the first thing you notice is that you don’t get an opening shock and you keep buzzing towards the planet at terminal velocity.
You misrouted your bridle in such a stupid way that it will break before pulling your curved pin OR You did a lazy throw and your pilot chute is in the burble on your back OR You forgot to collapse the pilot chute AND?OR your pin remains in the loop since you have a tight setup AND/OR your pin is out of the loop since you have a loose setup, however the collapsed pilot does not produce enough drag to lift your main bag out of the container OR Gremlins are messing with your system.
Now if you jump gutter gear that old farts like me used in the previous century there may be something to say for ‘keeping the 3 rings in place’ and pulling silver at once - what happens next you can sort out under your reserve, hopefully...
However, since you jump semi elliptical mains and small reserves at wingloads that I would not dare to contemplate back in the days, chances are that once you start figuring out what to do next with that extra canopy, both canopies may have already decided what they will do with you - which is to give you a spin for your money just as you start to grab for your reserve toggles.
Getting slightly behind the powercurve sucks in skydiving - and can be lethal
So better take a few seconds to analyse the situation then?
Priorities, priorities...
When you cut-away while that was not neccesary since your main is firmly locked in place AND you don’t jump Wonderhogs / Rapid Transit or any other form of ‘vintage’ gear your ‘state of the art’ riser covers will keep your risers away from the deploying reserve. That is what they are there for in all the gear produced in the last 20 years or so. Hey, even well maintained Velcro can handle the job of keeping your risers in place, not interfering with the deployment of your reserve. You might want to figure out where an RSL would end up but unless you jump with systems that deploy the reserve automaticly on one occasion and chocke the reserve when things go slightly different on another, your RSL is safely tucked away and even when your main starts to deploy right now it likely will not interfere with the airworthyness of your reserve.
This cut-away before you pull silver adds TWO WHOLE EXTRA SECONDS to your EP’s.
Figuring out what the Gremlins are up to might take the rest of your life or just the time it takes you to get to AAD firing altitude...

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The age old debate, Kudos for raising this. A couple of additions which I think maybe worth a mention. Firstly altitude, what is your hard deck if you are above your hard deck, you pack for yourself (are competent) and jumping a modern well maintained kit then I personally would attempt a 1 shot clear whilst still above my hard deck. Having had 2 PC in tows and cleared both; 1st Pc in two Teflon cables fitted instead of curved closing pin resulted in PC in tow on first jump after Modification. I reached around and physically pulled bridle and cleared it. Second instance PC in tow behind my Viper wingsuit, had not shut down leg wing as much as I could, I shut it down shook left then right and cleared it.
If I was below hard deck I would be doing full procedures cutway and pull reserve. However I always take an extra 1000ft altitude over personal hard deck, 5 secs extra freefall time vs time to deal with any issues is not a hard personal choice. I jump standard kit for all my jump whether freefly or wingsuit or any other discipline, however if your flying a very long bridle as some do then this could also be something to think about with avoiding main reserve entanglements. No time to think what you might do in these situations you need to have decided before and have that muscle memory drilled for each scenario you can think of.

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Classic situation where both paths can end up in bad or good outcomes, and it really depends on luck.
I personally am a fan of the one-handle approach for every case where the main risers are still tucked in: no tension on risers, no clean cutaway. But that's just me.
If the risers are still stowed, so is the bag, probably, which really only leaves us with only a PC in tow as a possibility, if we know we threw that PC.
Also, I'd rather deal with a two out of sort, than with an entanglement.
As for the students, or refreshers, I generally don't correct them as long as I see they have clear ideas on what to do, whichever procedure they describe correctly is OK with me (and with the USPA).
It's one of those situation where, as long as you properly do one of the two things, you'll *probably* be fine.

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Worth mentioning that a pcit does not necessarily require the use of any extra handles... A swift elbow to the container can dislodge a stubborn main. There is of course the option to reach back and manually extract as well. Neither of these will work in case of a misrouted bridal, only if the pin isn't being pulled with sufficient force. However remember altitude is your priority, don't waste it trying to play skygod, to avoid this make sure you practice whatever your plan is including altitude checks. It's something I see so often skipped when people are doing EPs, time gets funny with a spinner over you're head and people have sketchy low cutaways.

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The pictures don't look like a Pilot Chute in Tow. Or baglock (PC out OK, lines deployed to extent allowed by an overtight stow or locking stow, bag locked). These pictures look like a long snivel, possibly due to an uncocked PC. In which situation the only right EP for me at least is brisk cutaway at 2000ft hardeck followed by brisk reserve handle. Seeing the reserve PC snaking past the sniveling main suggests a low pull Cypres fire.
My point being these photos embedded in a safety article on PCIT are at best misleading, at worst lethal. A casual reader might glance the
headline, see the snivel photos, interpret her next long snivel as a PCiT and then have an inner debate on whether to cut away first or reserve first. When no debate is needed.

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