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Between February 26 and March 3, 2019, Skydive Arizona had TWO inadvertent reserve rides due to floating cutaway handles. In the first case, the jumper scraped and dislodged his cutaway handle while climbing out onto the camera step, an unfamiliar exit slot for him. He did not know his cutaway handle had been dislodged until he deployed his main pilot chute and found himself under his Skyhook-deployed reserve, his cutaway handle flapping in front of his face, held to his harness by a half-length of yellow cable. In the second case, two freeflying jumpers bounced off each other shortly after exit, dislodging one jumper’s cutaway handle. The floating handle was seen immediately in freefall but it had already pulled completely free of the 3-ring system. While he didn’t lose the handle, re-seating it was impossible and the reserve ride was inevitable.
About a month before, in mid-January, there was almost another surprise reserve ride, prevented by the sharp eyes of a fellow skydiver who noticed her jump-mate’s D-ring reserve handle hanging free of his harness as the group got ready to exit on the yellow light.
A viral video from the 2018 Pepe’s Island Panama Boogie shows fellow jumpers preventing a premature deployment by catching their camera flyer as he climbed out of the “hole”; his reserve pilot chute was hanging completely free of his container. The quick-reacting jumpers contained the pilot chute, shut the door, and shuttled the shocked camera flyer to the front of the aircraft, where he rode the plane down in safety. Watch Video
At the 2016 Nationals at SDAZ, visiting 4-way teams had a couple of surprise reserve deployments. One happened mid-jump, when jostling during a block transition caught one flyer’s D-ring reserve handle and pulled it free. Thankfully, no one was directly above him at the time. The other happened on climb-out; the Tail’s reserve pin came free as he shifted into a head-jam position in the door. The reserve pilot chute and freebag shot past the camera flyer, who reacted instantly by grabbing the deploying reserve lines and yanking both himself and the Tail off the aircraft. While the deploying parachute did strike the tail, and the Tail flyer got a bit bruised up by being unexpectedly extracted from the aircraft, the camera flyer’s quick reaction prevented any jumpers or equipment from getting hung up on the Otter – which could have taken out the plane and the rest of the jumpers still inside.
As AFF students, we are taught from Cat A: “With the instructor’s assistance, the student protects all operation handles while in and around the aircraft.” In Cat B, students are reminded: “Minimum, careful movement in the aircraft helps prevent premature activation.” We learn from our first skydive to check our pins before each jump to make sure they are properly seated. And as we learn more about our gear, we learn the importance of having BOC elastic in good condition, snug Velcro on main and reserve handles, main closing loops the correct length and with less than 10% wear, and reserve closing loops the correct length and with no wear. The problem comes as we grow more experienced and start getting complacent. Just about every example above could have been prevented by handles checks, careful movement in and around the aircraft, and proper gear maintenance. Read more to learn about preventing premature deployments and inadvertent reserve rides..... 1. Maintain your gear:
- worn out elastic on your BOC can allow your pilot chute to creep free
- loose, floppy hackey handles can draw your pilot chute free, particularly in combination with worn out elastic on the BOC. Floppy handles can also be more difficult to find at deployment time. Get the attachment tape on your hackey tightened by your rigger when your hackey starts to get floppy.
- a worn main closing loop can break, leading to a horseshoe malfunction
- with relatively little effort, main and reserve closing pins can slip free of closing loop that are too loose
- properly-sized reserve closing loops are under about 40 lbs of pressure; a worn reserve closing loop can break with jostling or flexing of the rig on the jumper’s back
- worn Velcro on your emergency handles (or in the pockets for these handles) makes it easier for your handles to be knocked free
2. Keep movement on the aircraft to a minimum:
- every time you shift around, you risk dislodging a handle
- protect your handles as others shift around you
- check your handles if you move around, especially when getting up and down off a bench or the floor
- get a pin-check if you scrape your rig against anything (getting a pin-check shortly before jump-run isn’t a bad idea in general) - check your handles one last time as you move toward the door in the exit queue
3. Take care on your climb-out…
- to not scrape the back of your rig against the bar
- to not scrape your pilot chute handle against the side of the plane
- to not scrape any of your handles against the door if you are climbing out onto the camera step
- that you aren’t scraping your handles against another jumper (and that they aren’t scraping against you) during multi-floater climb-outs (this is particularly important during bigways when there are 5 or more people climbing out)
4. Remember that unconventional exits such as horny gorillas, sit-trains, hot dogs, and tubes (not to mention flipping to hang from the under-tailgate bar on the Skyvan) have a higher chance of dislodging handles
- exits with harness grips (other than at the shoulders and leg straps) increase the risk of dislodged handles
- hybrids involving harness grips taken in freefall increase the risk of dislodged handles
If you discover your cutaway handle has been pulled in freefall…
Finish the cutaway. You’re not going to be able to re-thread the cables in freefall and you don’t want to have your main still attached to you by one riser when you deploy your reserve.
If you have a premature reserve (or main) deployment…
You are probably open higher than most people typically deploy and no one is expecting to see a canopy up there. FLY YOUR CANOPY OFF THE JUMP-RUN. At SDAZ, that means flying east or west to get off the line of flight, out of the path of other jumpers in freefall from your load or the load(s) after you. Remember that wingsuiters and trackers are also flying off the normal jump-run and that you may now be in their airspace. Make sure you are making some maneuvers so Ground knows you are conscious. Do not linger above 4000 feet!
Watch for other high-opening canopies, and get down to a normal deployment altitude as quickly as possible.