Most of us agree that canopy control is the most important, and most difficult aspect of skydiving instruction. Within this broad objective is the ability to fly a safe and consistent landing pattern. This is crucial for everyone, from the highest level of experience down to the beginner. The clear necessity for improvement in this area has been demonstrated time and again with the unacceptable frequency of canopy collisions and low turn accidents that have plagued our sport for far too long.
General aviation has implemented many new technologies to assist pilots in navigation. These tools have enhanced aviation safety, and such devices are not considered crutches, but a necessary part of safe flying. Similar advances are now commercially available for skydivers as well, but many do not include these instruments in their safety toolkit; least of all for primary instruction methodologies. It is time for this to change.
Altitude awareness is not something that ends once the canopy opens. Knowing precisely how high we are throughout the approach and landing is vital for consistency, and many of the traditional analogue devices are unable to provide truly trustworthy data. The digital altimeters that are now widely available are accurate within ten feet or so, but they have one tragic flaw: the pilot must look away from the ground, and away from the traffic, in order to access the information.
Having water available does not guarantee that the thirsty will drink, and as altitude diminishes and stress level increases, visual altimeters are used less and less. As many high performance pilots have come to realize, audible altimeters are an incredibly powerful aid for heads-up access to the information that saves their lives. The time has come to utilize these tools for students and intermediate skydivers as well.
A pattern is a simply a series of invisible points in space, what some have come to refer to as "altitude-location check-points". With three or four ALC's, a canopy pilot can follow a preplanned path through space to a predictable landing point. When these ALC's are programmed into an audible device such as the Optima, with its impressive tolerance of + or - only ten feet, the distracting glances at a visual altimeter become mostly unnecessary. More importantly, I have found that my canopy piloting students who use such audible cues are more aware of their surroundings, and are far less likely to run into other canopies on the way to the target. Even more importantly, by having their eyes focused "outside the cockpit" so to speak, the canopy pilot learns exactly what the ground looks like at the various altitudes. Therefore, I have discovered, if there is an instrument failure in the future, they have "calibrated their eyeballs", and are aware when they are too low to execute a hard, descending turn.
Many instructors have grown accustomed to preaching the party line that relying on instruments for canopy flight is inadvisable. Although there is some merit to training our eyes to recognize key altitudes, simply trusting our inborn instincts is not an effective way to accomplish this goal. When a “flat-line” beep goes off in your helmet that marks 300 feet AGL, and you happen to be looking at the ground at the time, you immediately become a better canopy pilot. Furthermore, when you are focused on your surroundings, rather than a dial on your wrist, you are more likely to make the necessary course corrections that lead to the target. The primary reason for missing the target is, and always will be, failure to maneuver when a course correction is necessary. When you always know how high you are, and are observing your location in relation the target, you are far more likely to make the change that puts you in the peas.
The safety concerns regarding the use of audible devices for flying a pattern can be addressed with a few simple rules. The first rule is, if you don’t get the first beep, assume that the instrument has run out of battery life, or is improperly programmed. When the initial pattern beep comes, verify that this is in fact the altitude that you expected it to be by looking at your visual altimeter. If it is not, or you hear nothing at all, use your visual altimeter for the remainder of the jump, and sort it out on the ground. Above all else, your eyes are your default, and you can veto what the audible is telling you, or not telling you. If it doesn’t look right, put your parachute over your head and prepare to flare for landing.
There have been many technological leaps that have changed the sport forever, and audible information for canopy flight is proving to be one of the most profound. By knowing exactly how high we are at all times, we can act appropriately. We can relax more as we fly our approach, and enjoy the simplicity and joy of landing our parachutes without worry. Above all else, the reduction of the stress within each canopy pilot, both student and expert, has proven itself to allow for the full expression of skill that training has made possible. When we embrace such advances, we can more easily expand into the pilots we were meant to become.
Brian Germain is a parachute designer and test pilot, and runs canopy flight skills and safety courses all over the world. Brian has made over 14,000 jumps in his 25 years in the sport. He is also the host of the “Safety First” segment on SkydiveRadio.com, and the creator of many educational You Tube videos. Brian is the author of the widely popular canopy flight text The Parachute and its Pilot, as well as Transcending Fear, Greenlight Your Life, and Vertical Journey. His upcoming book entitled “Vibe Matters, emotion is everything” will be coming out later this year, along with the long awaited educational packing video “No Sweat”. His websites are www.BIGAIRSportZ.com and www.Transcendingfear.com and his YouTube channel is: www.youtube.com/bsgermain