Airmanship for Canopy Pilots

The aviation-safety website Skybrary.aero defines airmanship as "the consistent use of good judgment and well-developed skills to accomplish flight objectives. This consistency is founded on a cornerstone of uncompromising flight discipline and is developed through systematic skill acquisition and proficiency. A high state of situational awareness completes the airmanship picture and is obtained through knowledge of one's self, aircraft, environment, team and risk."

Airmanship is a trait to which skydivers should also aspire to obtain mastery, especially with relation to canopy flight. As an aircraft pilot should be aware of his aircraft, the environment in which the aircraft operates and his own capabilities, skydivers must possess awareness and discipline when flying canopies. A pilot has many tools to help with flying safely, including the co-pilot, radio contact with air traffic control and others, radar and the ability to go around or power down and up to avoid airspace conflicts. Canopy pilots do not have the luxury of powered flight: Takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory. We need to rely on our own skill and the awareness and skill of others to avoid airspace conflicts.

So how can you be a better canopy pilot and safer airspace user? By developing an intimate understanding of your environment and striving to obtain a professional mastery of knowledge and skills. Being better at airmanship takes effort. Make the effort to improve and learn on every jump.

Knowledge

Jumpers need to have a sound knowledge base in various areas of parachuting to be safe and effective canopy pilots. You should have a deep understanding of your parachute system and its emergency procedures, canopy flight characteristics and operating limitations. Do you really know how meteorological conditions (wind strength, turbulence, convection, updraft and downdraft, just to name a few) affect your parachute? How do they affect your flight and that of fellow jumpers? Do you understand the drop zone environment, your freedoms and limitations (regulatory restrictions, local rules, exit order, landing areas, hazards, etc.) and the challenges they pose to your airmanship? Most rules are not there to limit you but to ensure that everyone has a safe environment to work and play in.

Knowledge of Risk

Having sound airmanship mitigates risk and sets the conditions for a safe airspace in which you can enjoy your canopy flight. You need to identify the risks to define your limits (they may not be the same as other people’s) and increase your personal safety. These risks may include but are not limited to:

1. Your or others’ lack of self-discipline (flying unsafely and rapidly downsizing are prime examples)

2. Lack of skill and proficiency (being uncurrent or under-skilled)

3. Insufficient knowledge (of what you could know, should know and must know) 4. Lowered situational awareness (clouds, tinted eyewear and lack of attention to the immediate environment affect your situational awareness)

5. Physical harm caused by your actions or the actions of others

Once you identify the threats, you can create contingency plans for the unexpected or expected, just as you do with your emergency procedures. One example: Prior to takeoff, ask who is doing what on the jump and look at the size containers they have.

This will give you an idea of what to expect under canopy. While under canopy, constantly scan around yourself and identify all the other canopies in the sky with you by color, size, speed and position to you (high, low, left, right). You will know some by sight; others you will only be able to observe in flight. You are now actively and consciously assessing your airspace.

Scenario: You are flying your canopy. You have opened safely, stowed your slider, moved to the holding area and are now at 1,200 feet looking to enter the pattern. You spot a canopy below you in a spiral and flying no discernable pattern.

Quickly ask yourself the following questions:

1) Who is the person? (Do you know the person; do you recognize the canopy?)

“That’s Bill, a known culprit for using poor landing patterns.”

2) What is the person flying?

“Sabre 190” (or look at the size, speed and shape of the canopy)

3) What is the person’s most dangerous course of action or path of flight?

“Continuing the erratic flight through the pattern and cutting me off.”

Once you answer these simple questions, you have mentally prepared for and will be able to create a safety buffer from Bill, fly a safe pattern and land in a place of your choosing. You are using good airmanship to combat poor airmanship.

We all know a Bill. Bill is the person who flies like he is the only one in the sky. Bill is unaware of his surroundings during flight and after touchdown. (He never checks back on the line of flight after landing.) Bill is a danger to all of us.

Don’t be a Bill. Be vigilant. Fly a predictable pattern. Give way to other canopies as required. Avoid target fixation when landing. S-turns are dangerous to canopies following you when you’re on final approach; if you miss your landing point, there is always next time!

Skills

You must possess several types of basic skillsets to be a safe and effective canopy pilot.

Physical

The physical skills you need are:

1. Ability to handle the canopy and assess whether it’s square, steerable and capable of safe flight.

2. Familiarity with recovery drills (to handle an incorrect flare height or low turn)

3. Knowledge of emergency procedures (both in freefall and under canopy)

4. Landing skills (flying a safe pattern, flaring correctly)

5. Emergency landing procedures (landings in trees, power lines, water, on buildings, in turbulence or if you’re cut off by another jumper)

These are some of the skills that you use to fly and land safely. What jumpers don’t think as much about are the other skills that make them better canopy pilots.Communication Skills

It’s important to vigilantly monitor communications (jump lights, wind indicators and signals from pilots, instructors or other jumpers) during your jump. Try to use appropriate communication (use correct terminology, be clear and concise) when briefing or discussing an upcoming jump with another jumper or when discussing an issue. Always try to use active listening (asking questions while communicating). Make sure to clarify any ambiguous points that will add to confusion during the jump.

Cognitive Skills

How aware of your surroundings are you? Most people conduct daily tasks, such as driving their cars, without conscious thought. This breeds complacency and reduces their ability to understand, develop and maintain situational awareness. Being aware of your immediate surroundings enables you to be cognizant of threats to your safety.

Self-assessment (asking, “How good am I, really?”) is a vital tool for improving your skills as a canopy pilot. Critiquing your flight path, pattern and landings every time you jump will help you improve. Self-assessment works only if you are honest with yourself about your level of skill. A good way to improve is to ask someone (preferably someone with ratings or extensive knowledge of canopy flight) to video and debrief your landings. Mutual back-slapping or having someone without adequate knowledge give you a debrief is not going to help.

Team Skills

Whether you believe it or not, even when you conduct a solo jump you are actually making a team jump. You should always be cognizant of the fact that you are not the only person in the sky, and you should fly your canopy as if you are part of a team. You should monitor your performance before, during and after your canopy flight. (Would my pattern have been good if a 4-, 8- or 20-person team was following me in?

Did I land in a suitable area for a team to land with me?) Ask yourself if you exercised initiative when airspace conflict was present or a possibility. For example, did you take the out or adjust your pattern to counter the conflict?

How are your interpersonal skills with other jumpers, drop zone management, pilots and visitors? Do you work as part of a team, or are you the individual who creates airspace issues? Think about some of the following:

Interpersonal communication and situational awareness (In the boarding area, note the types of canopies you will be sharing the sky with.)

The level of your coordination and decision making (If the weather looks marginal, should you sit the load out or adjust your plan? For example, if it’s cloudy, you might decide not to perform a tracking jump.)

Did you take the time to talk to others on your load to ensure that everyone is aware of what others on the load are doing and that there is not airspace conflict before you even take off?

Did you declare your intentions for non-standard use of the airspace (e.g., a high pull or downwind landing)?

Attitudes

Hazardous Attitudes

Safety is paramount when ensuring that you and your fellow skydivers are able to fly and land safely during a day of jumping. This means making sound decisions. The hardest thing to teach a skydiver or canopy pilot is how to say no … no in poor weather conditions, no to a swoop, no to performing something above a certain skill level or understanding. Being able to say no is part of having a robust decision-making process which will increase your safety margin and, hopefully, keep you jumping for a long time. Flying a predictable pattern that is in accordance with USPA recommendations, drop zone policies and common sense will increase the safety of everyone. If you fly what you consider to be the perfect circuit and you cut off five other people, you have not displayed sound airmanship and have not flown the perfect circuit you think you have. Maybe it is time to re-evaluate your skills and increase your knowledge base. You should seek out canopy courses and possibly individual coaching for improving your canopy skills, the same way you would increase your freefall skills in a wind tunnel with a reputable coach.

You need to be able to identify a hazardous attitude within yourself and assess the effect it has on your canopy flight and the flight of other canopies in the sky with you. Some examples are:

Professionalism

Professionalism is simply understanding the values and principles embodied by USPA and your drop zone and practicing solid airmanship. Be professional by sharing the sky well with others. This may simply mean that if your canopy is not compatible landing with the faster canopies on your load, you may be a hazard and should land in a different area. (Get out of the fast lane!) By the same token, someone flying a high-performance canopy among larger, slower-moving canopies may have to abort a swoop or land farther away from the pack in a designated high-performance landing area. (In accordance with the USPA Group Member Pledge, DZs must separate high-performance landings from areas where others are landing with less-than-90-degree turns.) Whether you’re swooping or flying a straight-in approach, being professional and taking the initiative to use an alternate landing area when necessary sets a good example to other jumpers and creates a culture of respect and safety.

Self-Improvement

Every skydiver needs to understand the theory of ram-air flight (how your canopy actually works). Ignorance or an unwillingness to learn new techniques or procedures or to affect change (moving with the times) limits you as a canopy pilot. This in turn makes you a less competent skydiver and canopy pilot. As Christy West wrote in her article “Canopy Traffic: Find Your Place in the Sky” (at houston.skydivespaceland.com), you need to identify the different types of canopies in the sky with you and know where you fit into the pattern. Acknowledge your and your canopy’s strengths and weaknesses when deciding on your place.

You should cultivate:

  • The motivation needed for life-long learning
  • An understanding of the requirement for self-assessment in flight (used hand in hand with external validation)
  • The will to achieve performance excellence
  • You also need self-discipline in terms of:
  • Preparing for your jump, which includes planning your canopy-flight pattern every time
  • Flight discipline (e.g. exhibiting vigilance in adhering to the pattern and the restrictions of the DZ)
  • Post-flight evaluation (being honest about your performance)

Competence and Precision

Competence

Competent skydivers can be uncurrent. A current skydiver is not always competent. The same can be said for canopy pilots. Your level of knowledge may increase quickly by taking courses, reading and receiving coaching. However, it takes time, patience and enough jumps for that to transform into competency. Being a competent canopy pilot does not mean that you cannot further increase your skills and knowledge. Knowledge is empowerment, so continue to learn. Take basic and advanced canopy courses and ask for critiques on your pattern and landings from staff, instructors and canopy coaches. Get coaching and use online resources (such as West’s article) to stay abreast of newer teachings and technologies.

Precision

Precision does not mean being perfect, rather it means being as meticulous as possible in your actions and flying. The more precise you are, the more predictable you are. This makes you safer in the sky because others can predict your flight path and adjust as opposed to one of you having to take evasive action.

Airmanship is every bit as important as the skills required during the freefall portion of a skydive. By striving to achieve a high level of airmanship, you will become a safer and more competent skydiver. Use the resources available to you and help be part of the solution to airspace conflict rather than part of the problem. Remember, you may not be an expert canopy pilot but that does not mean you cannot learn to become one. We all had a beginning; the pattern you choose to fly is up to you.

About the Author
Ken Stone, D-34385, completed 26 years of service with the Australian Army and holds Australian Army, Australian Parachute Federation and USPA instructional ratings. Ken co-owns Voyair LLC, a company specializing in development, conduct, assessment and review of parachute training for clients. He also conducts individual training, coaching and photographic and videography support.

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