A pilot chute in tow is the only malfunction for which the USPA Skydiver’s Information Manual has two possible suggested responses. Two? What does that tell you?
That you don’t want to have a pilot chute in tow!
You can easily avoid a pilot chute in tow if you:
1| Do a gear check every jump that includes checking the pilot-chute-bridle routing to be certain the pilot chute will pull the pin.
2| Cock the pilot chute yourself every jump, even if you’ve hired a packer.
3| Ensure that your pilot chute is in good condition. Replace it before it gets worn out. (Better an old canopy than an old pilot chute.)
If you do face a pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction, the two possible responses are:
4| Cut away and then pull your reserve.
5| Immediately pull your reserve.
There are arguments for both. Former USPA Director of Safety and Training Jim Crouch wrote a great article, “Decisions, Decisions—Responding to a Pilot Chute in Tow” for the March 2021 Parachutist that everyone should read. It’s available at parachutist.com under the Back Issues tab.
One of two circumstances usually cause a pilot chute in tow: Either the pilot chute isn’t producing enough drag to pull the pin or the closing sequence was not correct and the bridle is misrouted. In the second situation, the pilot chute isn’t pulling on the pin; it’s pulling on a flap, and the pin won’t come out.
Cutting Away First
Common reasons—alone or combined—for a pilot chute not having enough drag to pull the pin are: The pilot chute is worn out; the pilot chute is not properly cocked; or the closing loop is excessively tight. Under these circumstances, once you’ve cut away and the reserve deploys, the pressure on the main container and pin reduces, usually causing the main to deploy. Since the reserve has a head start, it generally opens before the main (often before the main is out of the bag), and the main falls to the side. But it is also possible that the main will begin to come out of the bag before the reserve is fully open. In this case, at some point during the main deployment process the 3-ring system will release the main. In the worst-case scenario, as the main releases, it wraps around the reserve and causes a main-reserve entanglement—a problem there is little, if anything, you can do to fix.
Camera flyer Mike McGowan had this malfunction and captured it on video. Fortunately, he landed in trees and was not severely injured. You can view the video on his Facebook page.
Immediately Pulling Your Reserve
If you’re in a pilot-chute-in tow situation and pull your reserve without cutting away first, the pressure still releases on the main pin. There’s a good chance your main will begin to deploy, and if it does, it is almost a guarantee that you’ll have two canopies out. It is essential that you have a good plan of how you will handle a two-out situation.
The March 2012 issue of Parachutist includes the article “Two Over One—Responding to Dual Deployments” by Kevin Gibson. It goes over all the possible scenarios and the best reactions to each; it is well worth a read by any jumper.
No matter which strategy you choose to respond to a pilot chute in tow, you must realize that it is a high-speed malfunction. You are still in freefall and need to act immediately. Which procedure you choose could depend on the type of jumping you’re doing, your deployment altitude, the canopies you have and personal experience. But you need to decide now which one you are going to do. Practice your procedure and be ready to do it when it happens.
Though many of us have done it, reaching around and grabbing the main pilot chute bridle and pulling the pin yourself is not a recommended procedure. If the pilot chute isn’t working well enough to pull the pin, what makes you think it will deploy the main properly after you pull the pin? It is just as likely that you’ll eat up a lot of altitude turning a pilot chute in tow into a bag lock.
Do your research, make your decision and practice your response so you are ready when it happens. Even better, don’t let your pilot chute get worn out, do a good gear check to be sure the bridle routing is correct and cock your pilot chute yourself. You can avoid a pilot chute in tow!
Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld | D-8424, AFF Instructor, Safety and Training Advisor and PRO
Author of “Above All Else”