Tales from the Bonfire - Finding a Cutaway Canopy

by Matt Hoover | D-29246 | Milpitas, California

Skydive Chicago, Summerfest 2015. Last day, last jump. Something I'd always worried about finally happened. I had to cut away over a giant cornfield. With only hours of daylight left, I knew the chances of finding my main were slim. Those cornfields are notorious for claiming canopies every summer. Yet somehow, I beat the odds. I found my canopy eight days later while sitting in a chair some 2,000 miles away. This was the result of perseverance, technology, helpful friends and some luck.
Here's how we did it and a loose set of guidelines for jumpers in similar situations:

Know Your Cutaway Spot and the Winds Below That Altitude
Probably the simplest way to find your cutaway spot is to look straight down once you are under your reserve. But you probably won’t do this … and arguably shouldn’t, since you’ll have more important things to focus on at that moment. You’ll also be overwhelmed by adrenaline, and your memory will be imperfect.

I was able to analyze my video footage, but deducing location from video is not easy. Even if you have footage showing the ground, you will not be able to tell when you were looking exactly straight down. I went frame by frame through the spinning mal that I eventually chopped. The horizon was in frame for much of this video, and when the horizon was level, I searched that frame for landmarks. For instance, when I saw that I was roughly between two parallel roads both pointed toward the horizon, I drew a long line on a map between them, since my spot had to be somewhere along that line. I was able to draw four lines like this, all at different angles, and all four lines intersected near the same spot. This was the location I wanted, and I marked it on my map.

Next, I consulted my meteorologist wife for wind data at that time of day below 3,000 feet, and I drew that line on my map.

Know Where Your Freebag Landed
Knowing where your freebag landed can tell you both the wind direction and also the approximate distance to your main. So keep an eye on your freebag, which will probably land before you, but remember that landing your reserve safely in a good spot is still your top priority. I landed on a small access road in the middle of a cornfield. On final approach at 200 feet, I looked over my shoulder and saw (and recorded) my freebag touching down in deep corn about 1,000 feet away. Once I added that spot to my map, I saw that it was very close to the windline I had already drawn, which meant my map was accurate so far.

Once you know the cutaway spot and the freebag spot, you can estimate where to look for your main. It should be along the same windline but farther away than your freebag, since it falls more slowly and covers more ground. (A general rule of thumb is that it travels twice as far across the ground as the freebag, but obviously this can vary based on many factors such as how open the cutaway canopy is.) I put a mark on my map at a little over twice the distance of the freebag spot from the cutaway spot, and then I drew a moderately sized search area surrounding that mark, ending up with something like this:

Get Your Eyes in the Sky
Searching the ground can be impossible in a case like mine. With an hour of daylight left, I found a helicopter pilot who was willing to fly over my search zone. Unfortunately, we did not see my canopy. I made my biggest mistake here. When searching like this, you should bring a camera to capture pictures from above. I did not do this, and I did not even know it was a mistake until days later. The sun set, and I went back to my hotel. I drank a lot of bourbon, went to bed and flew home the next morning.

Once home, I didn’t want to give up. I spent more time reviewing my video and refining my map. I shared my updated map on the Summerfest event page on Facebook and urged jumpers to keep their eyes open. One friend, John Kallend, spent hours in the hot sun flying his drone over the search zone. He emailed me, saying that he took more than 300 photos, but they all showed only corn. I was bummed, but I still wasn’t ready to accept the loss. I asked him to send me all 300 photos and spent hours looking painstakingly closely at each one. Eventually something caught my eye.

Do you see it? (It’s blue and white.)

How about now?

Or now?

I wasn’t sure what to think. It was only a few pixels, but it really did look blue and white.

While the photo showed only a sliver of unrecognizable road in one corner, several other photos from the same pass showed much more of the road and surrounding landmarks. Using all these photos together I was able to estimate where this spot was on my map. Adding a small area around it to account for mistakes in my estimation, I ended up with something like this:

It was clear that this spot was both within my search region and close to the windline! I was now able to produce a clear set of instructions describing how to physically arrive at the spot. “Go south down 18th Road until the solid line ends,” etc. I posted these instructions to the Facebook page, and a kind stranger, Ryan Risberg, went out to search (with permission from the land owner). He was fully prepared to make extra parallel passes in each direction in case my estimations were off, but his first pass led him straight to the canopy … deep in the corn!

I received my canopy in the mail soon afterward, and despite a week in the corn, it was in pretty good condition (probably having spent most of each day shaded by the corn stalks). I intend to fly it for many more jumps. I am very grateful to those who spent their time and energy helping me.

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