Specialty jumps—whether from a helicopter or balloon or with a raft or other inflatable toy—are skydiver favorites. And while these jumps are always good for excitement and giggles, they also require a little extra vigilance to keep the level of safety where it needs to be.
Helicopter jumps can be lots of fun. It’s great to start a skydive by laughing with your buddies who are hanging on the opposite skid and then dropping away. However, the ride to altitude is often cramped and it’s easy to bump and scrape your rig. Because the helicopter’s doors are likely off, a premature container opening in the aircraft can easily lead to disaster. So be sure your closing loops are tight and your container is packed correctly with no loose or exposed bridle. Guard your handles and pins carefully during the ride to altitude, as well as the climb out.
Jumpers also need to stay particularly altitude aware during helicopter jumps. Although no one has gathered official data on automatic activation device firings during helicopter jumps, it appears that they are more common than normal. Exiting from a lower altitude than typical (generally around 4,500 feet for a helicopter jump) and spending too much time giggling at your buddy is a good way to find yourself down and dirty. In most cases, jumpers end up with two canopies out because they deployed their main canopies so low that their automatic activation devices cut the reserve closing loops. Stay on top of your altitude when you are exiting a helicopter. There is not a lot of time to do much more than exit and start tracking for separation.
A balloon jump starts with a peaceful ride to altitude and almost always ends with a landing in an unfamiliar location. That’s because the balloon pilot does not have much directional control and you will go wherever the wind takes you. Although balloon pilots must be in contact with air traffic control to alert other air traffic to the presence of skydivers, jumpers must still carefully scan the skies to look for other aircraft before exiting, especially because airplane pilots may not expect to encounter skydiving activity at locations away from known drop zones.
Once the balloon is high enough for an exit, you need to select a suitable landing area. Off-field landings are nothing to take lightly. What may look like a nice, open field at 5,000 feet may actually be a hazardous area with power lines or obstacles that you can see only once you’ve descended to a lower altitude. Be sure you are looking carefully throughout your descent and that you have at least one other landing area, if not more, picked out as an alternate.
What direction is the wind blowing? Hopefully there is a smoke stack or some sort of flag nearby that will help you determine wind direction. Gauging your track across the ground while you are under canopy can help you determine the direction of the wind, but it takes a sharp eye and some experience. Also, while there is a good chance that the wind direction at 3,000 feet will be close to the same as it is on the ground, that is not always the case, so you might end up landing crosswind or even completely downwind if you do not have a reliable source for determining the ground winds. The ground at your landing area may also be higher or lower than the ground where the balloon took off, so you need to rely on your eyes more than your altimeter while flying your landing pattern. Now is not the time to go big with a high-performance landing, especially if there are other jumpers in the airspace.
Jumping with rafts and other inflatable toys is another skydiver favorite. Be sure to plan for as many contingencies as possible and be ready to stay flexible when a new situation suddenly arises. Never tie yourself to anything or use any sort of looped rope or string that can wrap around your hand or arm and leave you entangled with your toy. You always need to keep yourself in a situation where you can get clear of the inflatable if everything goes to hell. And it often does with inflatable toy and raft jumps!
Novelty jumps always will be popular. The chance to do something new and different on a skydive is both fun and exciting. You just have to stay heads up and use some common sense to help ensure that you and your friends are still giggling long after the jump is finished and you are safely back on the ground.
Jim Crouch | D-16979 | USPA Director of Safety and Training