Priorities of Work for Formation Skydiving

Priorities of work is the concept that in almost any situation there are things you should focus on before worrying about other things. The idea comes up often in sayings and books: “It makes no sense to start painting the house before you have the foundation set.” And, “Put first things first,” is habit three in Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Organizations like the U.S. military use the term “priorities of work” to describe this process of prioritization. It is also a concept that applies well to skydiving.

The idea seems simple, but how many times have you seen a person so focused on getting grips that he reaches down while above the formation and flips over and into it? Or seen someone below the formation who reaches, causing him to arch more and fall away? These jumpers skipped the priorities of work.

Eight Moves
U.S. Army Golden Knight Randy Matthews explains that there are really only eight moves in skydiving. Yep, eight basic moves … that’s it.

  • Up (relative to another person or object in freefall)
  • Down (relative to another person or object in freefall)
  • Forward
  • Backward
  • Slide left
  • Slide right
  • Turn left
  • Turn right

Of course, there are transpositional moves such as when a flyer rotates while sliding, but these are just combinations of the basic moves.
These eight moves break down into three basic categories, listed here in order of priority:

  • Fall rate (up and down)
  • Proximity (forward and backward, side slides)
  • Rotation (right and left turns)

To this, we add two more categories for formation skydiving, also in order:
4.    Grips
5.    Keys
So there you have it, the basic priorities of work for formation skydiving. The person who reaches down or up for the formation (or worse, uses the formation as a way to stop) is skipping priority 1 and jumping directly to priority 4. This usually does not work out! Let’s look at why.

Fall Rate
A consistent fall rate is the most difficult of the priorities of work to accomplish on a formation skydive. The variation in body types and sizes, jumpsuit fit and skill level make a steady fall rate hard for any pick-up group to achieve. Teams work out their fall-rate issues during training. Some wear lead, others wear baggier suits, and some adapt the way they fly to achieve a team speed. In more casual formation skydiving where the jumpers don’t have a pre-set team speed, every jump will have a new fall rate, which will likely change even throughout the course of the jump. Most people agree that it is easier to drop down a few feet than to gain a few feet, which is why most groups adopt the rule, “Go to the low man.” If all the jumpers are not on the same level, it is impossible to achieve anything else on the skydive. 

Proximity comes next. Being on level is crucial, but if a jumper is five feet out from the formation, he won’t be able to move to the next priority (rotation) to get to his slot. Proximity can seem tricky, but if you perform the steps in order it can become much simpler. Say you’re on an 8-way with an outfacing slot and are struggling to get in. First, get on level and then prioritize to get as close to the formation as possible (proximity) before rotating into your slot.

Once you are on level and close, align with your slot. Once you’ve matched the fall rate and are in proximity to the formation, simply rotate (turn left or turn right) into position.  

Once you are on level, close and aligned with your slot, you can focus on grips. This does not mean to focus only on taking your grips; you need to focus on grips. A grip is contact between two people. You not only have to pick up your grips, but you also have to present your grips to the person who is taking them. For example, let’s say you screw up priority of work number 3: On a 4-way, you are supposed to form a left-grip donut, but you have not turned your lower body into your slot and the person who is supposed to pick up your leg can’t reach. That person then moves forward to take his grip, which removes the leg grip from the person docking on him. This rotates around the formation until the person you are docking on moves away from you. So what is the good of having taken your grip if the other jumper can’t reach your leg and build the point?  

Only once you and the others in the formation have met your priorities will it be time to key to the next point. First, you’ll need to know whether you are giving the key or whether someone else is. Either way, you need to be ready once the key comes. This means you need to know the grip plan—if one grip needs to be complete before another—to determine when the key is coming. If the key is yours to give, you’ll need to check that everyone is ready. If the key is not yours, you still have responsibilities leading up to the key. You need to know when to look at the key person to let him know that you (or your area) are ready.

The Overarching Priority
The last, unwritten priority is seeing. Not just looking, but seeing what is going on. Is someone low? Are you aligned correctly? Did the fall rate just change? You must constantly observe the situation and adjust each priority of work in order as problems occur. 

Transpositional Moves
Let’s say that you need to move to your left three feet, rotate 90 degrees to your left and pick up a leg grip as part of a donut build. Since you need to stay level to the formation and since attaining the correct fall rate is the most difficult of your priorities, you should initially focus on not falling out. Being in position low does not help anyone.

The next most difficult move is to close three feet to your left, so you should start that move next. Rotation is faster than translation (sliding left or right), so after you have started moving to the left, you can perform the left turn. Once you get to your slot, pick up and present grips. So even when you’re sliding and rotating in one move, the priorities of work still apply:

  • Stay on level
  • Move to your new area
  • Rotate to align
  • Grips

That leaves giving, participating in or anticipating the key and seeing as much as you can.
Even if you’re combining moves, the priorities of work still apply. For example, as your skills increase, you can swoop to a formation, rotate and slide directly into your slot. Top skydivers can and do combine moves, but they still focus on the priorities. They are simply able to spend less time on one priority before meeting it and moving to the next. And when trouble happens, they snap back to the preceding priority quickly.
Remember, it makes no sense to key the formation when you are three feet low, four feet away and facing the wrong direction! Obey the priorities of work. Match the fall rate, get close, get aligned, pick up and present grips and then key or get ready for the key. You will find your dives get better. Skip the priorities, and it’s welcome to the zoo!

About the Author
Ron Hill, D-17112, is a USPA Static-Line, AFF and Tandem Instructor and holds a PRO rating. He’s a multi-time medalist at the USPA Nationals in 4-, 8-, 10- and 16-way formation skydiving. He lives and jumps in Florida.


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Tiago Fabri
Thu, 01/05/2017 - 10:52

Hi Ron!

Thanks for these tips.
After reading, it becomes logical, but during a Skydive, we can easily forget these "stages", which creates bad habits, that are more difficult to change later.

Blue Skies & Safe landings!

Bret Ebaugh
Sun, 02/05/2017 - 02:59


Its nice to be back after close to 30 years.

Grips, I get it. Keys? Lost me. Looked everywhere and don't have any references to rely on. Can you elaborate?


Tue, 02/07/2017 - 13:24

Keys are the cues or signals used to indicate the next point.

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