Landing your canopy in a specific place is a skill that we all must master. If you cannot land where you want to, eventually you will land someplace you don’t want to. Honing this skill is something that we all must pursue, and how we approach this will determine whether or not we survive the learning process.
We must first learn how to land on a runway before striving to land on a specific point. When pilots try to skip this step, they often run into significant stumbling blocks, some of them requiring surgery. Once you are proficient at hitting the centerline of a runway with consistency, then you can move on to more specific targets such as entry gates and landing points.
One of the most important aspects of any approach is the “entry angle”. Although we can often repair a flawed approach, there are limits to our course corrections. The parachute can only do so much. If you set up too close to the target or entry gate of the swoop course, you may be in for a painful lesson. Too tight is a very dangerous place to be.
Even if you are flying a conservative approach, making gentle turns to final, this can still bite you. When a pilot strives to land on a target that is mostly underneath them, they are on what I call “the path of crazy shit”. You can almost hear the banjo music starting like in a chase scene in an old western. There is no graceful way to land on a target that is directly below you. The parachute wants to glide, and turning or diving to get there will always put your life at risk.
If you are a swooper, the consequences of being too close to your entry gate are dire. You may have the potential to extend the dive of your canopy to make the entry gate, but all you will do is make a divot between the flags that mark the location of your final act of egoistic stupidity. Let it go, and live to swoop another day.
If we are too far away from our entry gate, real or imaginary, our solutions are simple, and generally quite safe. “Shallowing” of the approach can easily be accomplished by letting off the dive early and/or holding a bit of brakes or rear risers. We do not often read incident reports about canopy pilots who died a horrible death as a result of holding two inches of rears to stretch their glide back to the target. Set up deep, and tighten up over several jumps.
The hard part comes when you have set yourself up, started your dive, and are not sure if you can make the gate or not. You are tight and steep, and you think that if you make it you are going to be a hero. Hero or zero that is; only time will tell. If you hold your swoop in your hand like a butterfly, hoping it will not fly off, you will live far longer than if you squeeze it tightly and try to force a square peg into a round hole. Either it is there or it is not.
You need to train yourself to know when you are too tight by knowing what it looks like when it is just right. Visualize the perfect entry, not too shallow, not too tight, with the target or entry gate out in front of you. Walk through the sequence, setting up tiny gates on the ground, and practice making aborts by lifting your eyes from the entry gate and landing long. If you are looking down at it, just let her fly, land safely, and go up and do it again. There is always the next jump.
They key to a good abort procedure is training. Without physical rehearsal for physical activities, our cognitive understanding is useless. We have to practice arresting the dive over and over, and find new ways of putting our parachutes into level flight quickly.
The first concept is: “Pitch Before Roll”. This means that the turn itself is less important than the pitch attitude of the canopy. When you are striving to pull up from a diving turn, increase the canopy’s pitch angle before striving to recover the roll. Bank angle does not kill people, descent rate does that. If you nose your parachute up, you will increase the angle of attack of the wing, which will give you the added lift that will reduce the decent rate. This will afford you the time to reduce your roll angle prior to touchdown. You literally create time.
The second concept that supports healthy recovery technique is: “Sharp Inputs Create Sharp Results”. Slowly applying the brakes, regardless of the depth of the input, will never create the high rate of pitch change that shorter, sharp inputs can. This is the same reason why slow flares, when started at a very high altitude, will not cause an adequate change of direction of flight so as to create a level-off for a soft landing. Practice giving sharp stabs on the brakes while in a turn, and see what it does for you. If your weight increases dramatically, you know you are creating a change of direction, since inertia is resisting your change of motion.
Another relevant concept with regards to saving yourself from a low turn is: “Give Up Some Heading”. If you strive to arrest your dive and stop the yaw too quickly, you are likely to wobble on the roll axis. This is because the increased lift on the low wing is bringing that wing up, beginning an oscillation about the roll axis. This can easily be prevented by allowing the turn to continue a bit following the increase in the angle of attack. Look into the turn, and let the wing follow through with its natural over-steer tendency, perhaps as much as 90 degrees when recovering from a fast turn. This overshoot can be as little as 20 degrees in a slower, carving turn. When you strike the toggles, do it with a short, strong burst-and-hold of 12-18 inches, but do it in an asymmetric manner that continues the current momentum of the turn. This will allow you to smoothly and slowly exit the turn and enter your final landing procedures gracefully.
The last idea that seems to make a difference in how quickly you are able to pull up from a low turn is where you are looking: “Look Where You Want To Go”. If you are like most people, you will stare at your impending impact point on the ground, right until landing. By focusing your attention on what you don’t want, you inevitably make it happen. Somehow we are drawn toward whatever is in the center of our focus, so it is a far better plan to look toward where you intend to go, rather than where you are currently going. If you have turned too low, your current destination point is somewhere below you, while your intended flight path is in the general direction of the horizon. Lift your eyes, and make your parachute fly toward where you want to go. Focus is more than the object of attention, it is the shape of things to come.
Aborting is a part of life. Humans are not perfect, and sometimes we are incapable of fixing our errors. Targets and entry gates are fun to shoot for, but not at the expense of our bodies. Aim to fly a clean approach every time, and let your gut tell you what to do. If it feels bad, it usually is. Do not let your desire to make the swoop course or the peas keep you from seeing what is right in front of you. Ego distorts our vision, as does passionate desire.
The only way to see clearly is to remain calm, breathing slowly and completely throughout the approach, and maintain a positive mood as you set yourself up. If you start to feel scared, it is your cue to breathe more and try less. The perfect approach always feels easy. It flows like water. It is the result of good planning combined with good execution, made possible by positive emotion. Joy is thrust, fear is drag, ego is weight, and knowledge is lift. Maximize lift and thrust, and you will go far.
Brian Germain is the author or several popular skydiving books including: The Parachute and its Pilot, Transcending Fear, Vertical Journey and Greenlight Your Life. He also has a spot on Skydive Radio called “Safety First with Brian Germain. Brian runs canopy flight courses throughout the world, and does motivational keynote speaking on the topic of transcending fear. His website is: www.BrianGermain.com