Canopy Collision Decisions

by Steve Smith with contributions from Greg Jack and Jules McConnel

The original version of this article appeared in the July/August/September 2017  issue of Australian SkydiveR Magazine. 

All skydivers—no matter what discipline they pursue—learn how to avoid canopy collisions. Yet collisions remain one of the most likely ways to die in the sport. Part of the problem is that not everybody knows how to correctly perform emergency procedures after a collision, and the procedures are not common sense. You can only learn them on the ground.

Types of Collisions
For the purposes of deciding upon a reaction, all malfunctions due to canopy collisions fall into one of three categories:
• Entanglement—When both jumpers and their containers are clear of fabric and lines but the canopies are stuck together.
• Wrap—When any fabric or any of the lines are on either the people or their containers.
• Low-Altitude Emergency—When the jumpers are below 1,000 feet. (Jumpers will not have time to assess whether it’s a wrap or an entanglement.)
Each type of malfunction requires the jumpers to perform specific procedures (although with a low-altitude emergency, the jumpers’ options will be limited).

What to Expect
Canopy collisions can be violent. When canopies wrap or entangle, they often partially collapse and continue trying to fly in different directions. This asymmetry often results in spinning and bucking. The pilots get flung around and their movements are often constricted. If the jumpers are wearing full-face helmets, communication may be very difficult.
Collisions can also easily evolve from being low-speed to high-speed emergencies.
Many canopy collisions require no action. A canopy may collide with another canopy or jumper and separate itself quickly with no input from either of the pilots. So, if you have a canopy collision, you need to identify whether there is an emergency and what type it is before acting. Cutting away immediately without assessment is not advisable in any situation.
After a collision, your priority is altitude awareness and emergency identification. If you have just deployed at your normal altitude, then you are probably still around 3,000 feet. Proper opening altitudes are meant to allow for this type of emergency. You have time. Do not cut away yet.

Entanglement Procedures
When both canopies are entangled but the jumpers are clear, it is a high-speed emergency that requires both jumpers to cut away. Allow the upper jumper the opportunity to cut away first. Cutting away below another jumper increases the risk of that person getting caught in your risers or lines. If it is uncertain who is the upper jumper but you are sure your cutaway will not hit the other jumper, then the order is not critical. Stagger the cutaways so both jumpers have clear space to deploy their reserves.

Wrap Procedures
If you are the lower jumper in a wrap, your priority is helping the upper jumper. The upper jumper is in the most dangerous position. If you are the lower jumper, you do not cut away until:
• the upper jumper tells you to; or
• you reach your lowest safe cutaway altitude; or
• the upper jumper stops responding.

If you have fabric or lines on you, then you are the upper jumper in a wrap. Do not cut away. Your canopy is still trying to fly, and you need to keep it until you have a better option. Your aim is to work your body and container free of all fabric and lines. Protect your handles from an unplanned cutaway or reserve deployment. Follow your risers up and out of the fabric. If you cannot get clear, then releasing the lower jumper’s weight may help.
Instruct the lower jumper to cut away. You now need to clear or contain (and land with) the fabric. Never cut away when you have lines or fabric on you or your container. 

Low-Altitude Procedures
Below 1,000 feet, you are no longer concerned about whether you’re in a wrap or entanglement; your only concern is having a survivable descent rate. Do not cut away. Your options are limited to:
• Keeping what you have if it seems survivable
• Adding more fabric by pulling your reserve handle
Low-altitude emergencies occur when jumpers do not successfully resolve a higher-altitude wrap or entanglement in time or when they collide in the landing pattern.

Knowing canopy collision emergency procedures is great, but it is not enough. There will be two people involved, and it is likely that you’ll collide with one of your close jumping friends. Help educate them. Your lives may depend on it.
More information on collisions and a full 10-page guide, which includes advice on communication, reserve static lines and hook knives, is available at rotorout.com.au/download.

About the Author
Steve Smith has been skydiving for more than 15 years. He is a multi-time Australian national champion in canopy formation skydiving. He is a current member of the Australian team Rotor Out.

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