Have You Checked Your Six?

“Check your six”: a popular military expression meaning, “Check your six o’clock position” (the spot directly behind you).


Every day, high-performance-wing technology moves forward and canopy pilots push the envelope harder than ever. Where high-performance landings were once the domain of a few, the availability of better technology, faster wings and expert canopy coaching have made them an everyday sight at drop zones around the world. XRW (mixed canopy piloting and wingsuit formations), competitive canopy piloting and other extreme canopy flights that require small canopies, high wing loadings and great speeds were once on the periphery of the sport but are now increasingly common.

Unfortunately, the higher speeds generated by these advanced canopies often exceeded the activation parameters of standard-model automatic activation devices (which some manufacturers call the “expert” model to distinguish from the student model). To resolve this problem, manufacturers began engineering and producing AADs that meet the increased requirements. However, even now that these new “extreme” or “speed” models are on the market, people pursuing high-speed disciplines are still using standard AADs and getting injured or killed when the devices initiate reserve deployments during high-speed landings.

In one recent incident at a large U.S. drop zone, an AAD activated exactly as designed and within its required tolerances while a jumper was landing his 69-square-foot canopy. Fortunately, the jumper was uninjured. His AAD was a standard rather than a speed or extreme model, the choice of which he explained by saying, “Well, it never happened to me before.” In another recent incident that occurred overseas, a jumper’s multi-mode AAD (in which a user can change the activation parameters) activated on landing because it was set on the incorrect mode.

Both incidents were avoidable. Jumpers who are flying high-speed canopies must be knowledgeable about their equipment, including the operating parameters of their canopies and AADs, and must be vigilant when operating and maintaining their gear. Ignorance and complacency can be fatal: Ignorance will put you into a bad position, and complacency may stop you from identifying or getting out of it.

How can a high-performance canopy pilot reduce the risk of an AAD activating on landing? Here is some tried-and-true guidance:

Advice. Get advice from a subject matter expert. Whether you are downsizing, starting XRW or getting into wingsuiting, talk to people in the know. Find out which AAD they use or recommend for the discipline you are pursuing and why. Ask questions and don’t walk away without answers. If you still have questions or need to clear up ambiguous points, talk to other experts.

What brand? That is up to you to decide once you have asked an expert all your questions. People are loyal to AAD brands just as they are to cars. Try to see past brand loyalty. Speak to a pro shop employee or a master rigger to get the unbiased low-down on the AADs on the market. It is about getting what is right for your discipline and equipment.

Is it suitable for my needs? You can have a perfectly good AAD on your back, but if it is not suitable for your canopy type or size or how you use it or load it, you’ll have a problem. Jumpers flying smaller or discipline-specific canopies (such as those used for speed rounds in canopy piloting) will in most cases exceed the activation parameters of a standard AAD (78 mph for most brands). In particular, jumpers who are making large turns to increase their landing speeds or are loading their canopies heavily need to ensure that they are using speed or extreme AADs (which fire at between 96 and 102 mph, depending on the brand) or using a multi-mode AAD set on the correct mode.

Emergency procedures. Have you thought about how you will handle a two-out situation with a small main and reserve? As students, we all learned how to respond to having two canopies out, but this was when we used larger canopies that gave us more time to react. If you have a dual deployment under a 71-square-foot main and a 113-square-foot reserve, how will you deal with the more violent malfunction and the reduced time available to deal with it? In addition, how will you deal with it at AAD-firing altitude or below? Your conventional emergency procedures may be borderline ineffective at lower altitudes, especially once you’ve committed to the landing phase. This is a subject that you need to think about and discuss with experts as you downsize.

Data collection. If you are unsure of your performance range during canopy flight and landings, you can use a GPS device (such as the FlySight) to gather data. As a bonus, you will also get data that can help you improve your landing technique. And don’t forget the manufacturers: They can provide excellent information and advice.

If the data you collect shows that you’re nearing the firing speed of your AAD, fly your canopy more conservatively and limit your turns until you can replace the AAD with a speed or extreme model. Lean on the side of caution until you get the right AAD.

Use. Some jumpers choose to turn off their AADs when performing solo hop-and-pop jumps dedicated to swooping or during competition, and many canopy formation skydivers also choose not to use AADs. Before you choose to do this, speak with an expert. Then, if you regularly switch modes or switch your AAD on and off during the day, make it part of your habit to check before every jump that you’ve set it correctly for the type of descent you are about to conduct. You need to incorporate this step into your regular pre-jump gear checks, since you no longer “set it and forget it” at the beginning of the day.

There is no doubt that an AAD is a lifesaving device, but just like a plane, if you fly it outside of its operating parameters, it will be unsafe. If you don’t know how and why your AAD works as it does, please take the time to learn. Read the instructions and talk to an expert. AADs have saved countless lives, but they are only as good as the people using them. In the words of British aviator Alfred Gilmer Lamplugh, “Aviation is not in itself inherently dangerous. But … it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

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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