Photo above by Norman Kent.
Recently, there have been too many instances of jumpers relying on technology such as altimeters, automatic activation devices (AADs) or reserve static lines (RSLs) for safety on their skydives and letting their own awareness lapse. It seems that there may be a trend toward over-reliance on devices that are intended only as backups.
In one recent instance, a jumper with moderate experience waited for his audible altimeter to alert him to his pull altitude. He later discovered that he hadn’t turned it on. He never looked at his wrist-mounted altimeter. He eventually realized he was low and pulled, however his automatic activation device activated just after the main opened.
In another instance, a jumper with fairly low experience cut away. He did not look at his reserve handle and seemingly relied on the reserve static line to deploy his reserve. It was not hooked up, although he thought it was. (It was either missed during his gear check or came loose during the jump.) He finally deployed the reserve at a very low altitude.
It’s not uncommon to see social media posts about someone waiting for an RSL or main-assisted-reserve deployment device (MARD, a type of RSL) to save their life. It’s also not uncommon to see a jumper land under a reserve with the reserve handle still seated in the pouch. Sure, the RSL worked as intended, but what would have happened if the RSL hadn’t been hooked up? The common denominator in these cases is the jumper’s primary reliance on devices that are intended solely as backups.
Jumpers using only audible altimeters are not altitude aware until the altimeter signals. To maintain true altitude awareness, jumpers should check a visual altimeter every 5 seconds or 1,000 feet. They also need to evaluate this information when received: Does my altitude change by about as much as I expected? Does my peripheral view of the horizon match the reading on my altimeter? (Granted, this skill requires a certain amount of experience to acquire, but it can help avoid AAD activations from loss of altitude awareness when an altimeter malfunctions ... something that happens occasionally.) If any of the evaluations during a skydive cast doubt on the altimeter reading, check the altimeter more frequently and follow the protocol for loss of altitude awareness. It's important to use (not only wear) and process the data from a visible altimeter. Don’t rely only on an audible altimeter.
Relying on an RSL or MARD to deploy the reserve is also dangerous, since it may not work for a variety of reasons. To be sure the reserve pin extracts, the jumper must execute complete emergency procedures, which includes pulling the reserve handle. Even though most of the time the RSL beats the jumper to the pull, the one time the RSL isn’t working will get the jumper into big trouble ... trouble that they can avoid by simply pulling the reserve handle.
Gear manufacturers have made their backup safety systems very reliable, but the flip side is that this reliability can make jumpers see them—either consciously or subconsciously—as primary systems. People must remember this fundamental concept: Jumpers are the primary system to ensure altitude awareness and deployment of a parachute. All of us—instructors, coaches and experienced jumpers—should emphasize the importance of the basics such as altimeter checks and emergency procedures with younger jumpers and reinforce that backups are just that: backups.
Lutz Andersohn | D-19318, AFF Instructor and PRO