Collision Avoidance

A few years ago, I was driving home from work while deep in thought and not paying much attention to my surroundings. I came to an intersection and quickly looked both ways before I turned left. As I finished the turn, I was a bit surprised to have an angry woman riding my bumper and blowing her horn while showing me a hand gesture that seemed to indicate that I was “number one in her book.” It turns out the intersection had a blind spot that blocked my full view of the road, and I had just pulled out right in front of Ms. Angry Driver. Oops. At least she was paying attention!

It takes two people to have a car collision but only one to avoid it. The same is true in skydiving. Whether it is in freefall or under canopy, collisions are avoidable. Unfortunately, they occur far too often and sometimes have fatal results. It takes only one person to avoid a collision, but everyone should really be paying attention.

Freefall collisions are relatively common and usually very mild in nature. If you drop onto your buddy’s back while trying to burble-hop, your relative speed is similar and a short tumble is the usual result. But when there is a large difference in the two jumpers’ speeds, a collision is bad news. A high-speed impact can lead to broken bones or loss of consciousness, as well as fatal head or neck injuries. Knowing the abilities of everyone in your group, placing them in appropriate slots and then watching carefully as the formation builds can help you avoid a freefall collision.

On belly formation skydives, jumpers who dive at the base but fail to slow down in time create a lot of force when they slam into the slower base. Those in the base should keep an eye on approaching divers and be ready for evasive action if necessary. Divers should have enough experience to swoop toward a formation and still be able to slow down for a stable approach and dock.

Freeflyers have the same type of collision risk as belly flyers, as well as the additional risk of a high-speed collision if a lower jumper corks (loses stability, causing his fall rate to drastically slow). Learning the basics with a coach before moving to jumping with groups is a must for those learning to fly in faster (head-down, sit, stand or back-flying) orientations.

Angle, tracking and wingsuit groups are also at risk of high-speed collisions. It is not uncommon for a group of low-experienced skydivers to join together in an attempt at tracking or angle-flying skydives. “Low experience” and “high speed” are two phrases that do not mix well in skydiving. Use caution and common sense with these types of jumps. 

Canopy collisions can happen at any point during the descent, but the two most common spots for a collision are immediately after deployment and below 1,000 feet where canopy traffic is heavy above the landing area. Careful planning and vigilance during the descent can help you avoid a collision with another canopy.

Tracking far enough away from a group to open in clear airspace is the best way to avoid a deployment collision. Keeping an eye on the other jumpers in your formation during breakoff and tracking can help you make sure you are in clear airspace before you open.

Increasing or decreasing your descent rate with brakes or riser input can help you to reach pattern altitude near as few other canopies as possible. This eases congestion above the landing area. Continue to scan in all directions and adjust your pattern as necessary to avoid other canopies as you fly through the downwind, base and final-approach legs of the landing pattern. The corner of the base leg to final-approach leg is historically the spot where most collisions occur. Jumpers tend to focus on the intended landing spot instead of watching for other canopies and fail to notice nearby traffic. Once you land, turn around and keep an eye on who is coming in behind you, because getting clobbered by an incoming canopy after you have landed safely is an ironic way to end the skydive. And nobody should fly a high-performance approach into lower and slower canopy traffic flying a standard landing pattern. Many horrific collisions are due to high-performance canopy pilots diving into slower traffic below. High-performance landings must be separated by time (by using a separate pass) or by space (by using a separate landing area). 

Nobody wants to have a collision, whether it is in freefall or under canopy. Plan ahead and stay alert throughout the jump. It takes only one person to see what is happening and react to avoid a collision, but we should all work to avoid these situations. Your friends might not have a horn in freefall, but they can still let you know that they think you are number one.

Jim Crouch | D-16979 | USPA Director of Safety and Training

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