It was a beautiful spring morning at my beloved DZ, Skydive the Ranch in Gardiner, New York. The air was cool and crisp, and the sky was cloudless. I was doing wingsuit hop-and-pops from 10,000 feet with the hope of generating interest in this new-at-the-time discipline.
After my flight, the entire landing area was mine, and I set up perfectly for the peas. About 30 feet up, an air pocket surged my 170-square-foot canopy forward, and the landing carried more forward speed than usual. My feet instinctively went to work to run out my landing. I almost made it, but as my old legs could not keep up with the speed and distance required, they protested. Well, not really protested but simply stopped due to the physiological limits they had to honor. As the physics continued to move my torso forward, my legs buckled and I hit the ground with my chest at a relatively slow speed. My brain instinctively commanded my elbows to stick out to soften the mild impact. My peripheral vision noted the unnatural angle my left arm assumed for a very brief moment, the only indication that something was not right.
My second misadventure happened few years later. It was mid-summer and a perfectly jumpable day with mild turbulence. As I flared, the canopy surged a few feet to the right. My brain directed my foot to reach out and compensate for the adjusted angle of the landing. Again, this very low-energy impact was too much for my limb. As my foot rolled out of alignment, my tibia and fibula both quit in protest.
Both incidents happened at very low-impact energy levels and were completely preventable if one was properly trained in one of the oldest and basic precepts of skydiving: the landing fall. Yes, we all know the technique. We practiced it; we explained it to others. PLF is part of our DNA as skydivers.
But is it? Because these happenstances are relatively rare, the PLF is not incorporated well enough into our instinctive intelligence in many cases … and certainly not for novice jumpers. We learn to never touch the ground without a full flare. We are competent at it because we do it on every landing and pay the price if we do not. The relative rarity of needing to PLF prevents jumpers from instinctively carrying it out. Often the price we pay for these failures is high, if not tragic.
The concept is simple enough. You practice the technique to manage dissipation of energy that impacts your body. As our long bones are most vulnerable, the idea is to tuck our arms in and keep our legs together to protect them from impact, as even the smallest energies applied at the wrong angle can be unforgiving. The sideways rolling impact dissipates the energy through the rest of the body, minimizing the chance of injury to any one part. In reality, one needs to simply tuck in the limbs and present the rounded body sideways to the path of landing. The landing momentum will take care of the rest in most circumstances. The difficult part is to do so instinctively and without hesitation.
Our primal brain has built in protections that happen automatically. We close our eyes when we hear a loud bang. We stick an arm out to soften the fall. These are necessary and useful in many circumstances, but fall short and become counterproductive in our sport. We need to train our brains to incorporate the PLF as the natural and automatic response to the inevitable landing mishaps.
In aviation, young pilots are trained to be surprised if a takeoff goes well. The idea is to train the brain to be ready to respond to any emergency in this perilous part of flight. As skydivers, we need to train to be surprised when our landings go according to plan. Any deviation should be considered not just possible but likely. The PLF response should not be a matter of remembering and then implementing the protocol of some distant training; it should be immediate and instinctual in its execution. There is no room for weighing potential ridicule for an embarrassing roll in the mud or the horrors of a brand-new suit being sullied. Be ready to implement a PLF on every landing, and be pleasantly surprised when you don’t need to use it.
Yan Wolfson | D-30182
New York, New York