Rating Corner | Tips for New AFF Instructors
The Rating Corner | Apr 12, 2024
Rating Corner | Tips for New AFF Instructors

Julianne Grau

Becoming an AFF instructor may be one of the hardest things you ever do. Both the pre-course and course will be difficult—really, really difficult—but you’ll probably find that you become a better skydiver with every jump you make. You’ll learn to stop student spins, roll them off their backs and fly a rock-solid slot. The jumps leading up to your evaluation jumps will train you to be a better, more aggressive, more confident flyer than you ever thought you could be.

Still, no matter how much you prepare and how well you do in the course, you won’t feel ready. It’s kind of like having a kid: There is no right time, and no matter how much knowledge or related experience you have, you’re never really prepared. In fact, throughout your AFF career, students will come up with unique situations that will make you think fast and sometimes scratch your head.

Whether formal or informal, most drop zones have a transition program in which a senior instructor accompanies a newly minted AFF instructor on their first true student jumps. When you make a rookie mistake—lose your grip out the door, release a student who is not stable—you'll be glad to have them there. The support of a senior instructor will help you dial in your skill set, grow your knowledge base and help you avoid making the same mistakes twice. During this time, you can also learn by watching other instructors struggle with their first jumps.

Here are some other tips that will help you avoid learning lessons the hard way: 

 1|  Always look for red flags in the air! If your first-jump student forgets to perform a practice touch, they may forget everything. If they forget their dive flow, expect them not to pull. If they look at you and then away when it’s time to “lock on,” they’re not locked on and they probably won’t pull. Get ready to pull for them.

 2|  Raise up pull altitudes if you need to. If you’ve never jumped with a student or if you’re questioning what they’re going to do in the sky, give them (and yourself) a 500-foot buffer. Then, if they don’t pull, you’ll know early and can still get them (and yourself) a parachute at a reasonable altitude. You can also do this to give yourself some extra time to get home when you’re one of the last groups out on a crowded plane and may be opening farther away from the landing area than normal. Set yourselves up for success: It’s better to have the altitude and not need it than need it and not have it.

 3|  Also consider providing an extra 500 feet if its your student’s first time turning and tracking. This gives them extra time to get stable and really lock onto a heading before they fly away. The extra altitude takes the pressure off and allows them to breathe and enjoy a smoother bottom-end sequence. Say something like, “Turn and look at something way out on the horizon, then fly at it,” to ensure they don’t look down and track as if they were in a fishbowl.

 4|  Have a student watch tons of landings before they make their first jump or when they’re jumping in wind conditions that are different than they’re used to. Talk to them about what the jumpers are doing right and what they are doing wrong. Providing your student with pointers while watching 20 landings is the next best thing to giving them pointers on their own landings. It creates a frame of reference. You want to be confident that the student can land on their own if, for some reason, they aren’t able to get radio commands. Treat the radio as a back-up device for a solid plan that you’ve made with your student prior to takeoff.

 5|  Get a death grip on the harness for the linked exit. Physically block the door while you get your grip and only then make room for the student to climb out. Never trust their count, and when they do leave, do not launch off the plane so hard that you miss the other gripper (or yoke). Make sure you get your second grip right out the door. Then, if anything goes south out the door, you’ll have both grips and should be able to outfly your student.

 6|  Set a weight limit! Be realistic with yourself and your flying capabilities. There are tools such as weight belts and baggy or tight clothing which can help to expand your limits, but it’s important to be realistic.

 7|  Slowly loosen your death grip before release. Don’t just let go! Slowly loosening the grip eases the student into feeling freefall on their own. They should earn their release with stability and responsiveness to signals. Make sure they do one altitude check with the loose grip before you let go, and watch carefully in case they get unstable. Even super-stable students may go into a turn or spin on the first altitude check after release! 

 8|  Be close at pull time. Always. A student may perform the pull perfectly nine times, but make a mistake, panic or freeze on attempt 10. You want to be close in case this happens  so you have time to assist the student and get your own parachute out at a reasonable altitude.

 9|  What happens on the ground will happen in the sky. If your student rushes the count on the ground, they will rush it in the sky; if they have a weird cadence on the ground, they will have a weird cadence in the door; if they hold onto the pilot chute in the practice harness, they will do it in the sky. If anything is a little off on the ground, practice it more before you get in the plane.

10|  Don’t give students signals to make them think. Tell them what you want them to do. Be straightforward. If you want them to pull, tell them to pull, don’t tell them “altitude” and expect them to figure it out.

Being an AFF instructor is hard, and there are so many scenarios students can throw at you that it’s a difficult or impossible job to ever truly master. In the first year, you’ll learn a lot of lessons and still have plenty of growing to do. It may be the toughest thing you’ll ever do, but also one of the most rewarding.

Julianne Grau | D-40369, Coach and AFF Instructor
San Antonio, Texas

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