Flying a Flag
Demo jumps made with flags and banners can be great publicity for the sport if done correctly. Although there are a number of different setups, the most popular for demo jumps is known as the "drop flag," so called because the flag is dropped down on a lanyard for display below the jumper’s body. Drop flags are pretty awesome to see, make great symbols of pride and can be very effective advertising.
The benefits of flying a drop flag, as opposed to other setups, such as flags that trail from suspension lines, is that you’re only limited by the size of the external container that holds the flag and the weight your wing can handle—with a drop flag, a jumper can put on a large display that is very recognizable, even from a distance. However, pilots of large flags need to be very current, well-trained and competent. Jumpers need to take a lot of extra care and remember that a flag can pose a snag hazard, can easily overload a canopy and complicate landings.
Before attempting any flag jump, make sure to get hands-on coaching and advice from an experienced flag jumper. Be sure to seek guidance before attempting any flag-rigging needed. Working with an established team will help a lot. Test, test and retest your entire setup. Practice your procedures on the ground and work out how you will move around in the aircraft before making any practice jumps. And be sure to make several practice jumps before jumping a flag as a part of any demo.
Pack your own flag or watch it being packed and make sure you inspect it prior to attaching it to yourself so that you know it is good to go. When jumping with larger flags that use large containers, designate someone to help you out, particularly for maneuvering around in the tight confines of an aircraft. Make sure that you are 100-percent stable at the time of deployment; tangling during deployment with an external flag container can be fatal.
Try to follow protocol and make an effort not to let a national or state flag touch the ground as you’re landing. When this is unsafe to try or unavoidable, which can be particularly prone to happen with a really large flag, just make sure to pick it up quickly—your audience will understand that no malice was meant. The ground crew should be able to help and may even be able to recruit extra catchers who can help to pick up the flag once you’ve landed.
The Drop-Flag Setup
The basic setup is the same for all drop flags. You’ll have an external flag container, suspension (lanyard) and connection system, the flag and weights.
The flag container can range from being a simple fanny pack holding a flag purchased at a local surplus store to a custom-built flag bag holding a world-record-sized, custom-built monster. The flag container generally sits in front of the jumper’s stomach, and is attached around the jumper’s waist or directly to the jumper’s harness.
The suspension system can range from being a simple cord, with one end tied to the fanny pack and the other to a small flag (this is simplified for ease of visualization—consult an experienced flag jumper before trying any sort of flag rigging yourself), to a large-scale flag setup with high-load-bearing tubular nylon sewn down the flag’s leading edge, which is clipped to a ring custom installed on the harness.
Since a drop flag is only attached to the jumper by one point, it will need some suspended weight to help keep its leading edge straight in flight (so that it is displayed properly and will not just look like a streamer). Suspended weight can be applied in two primary ways, attaching the whole weight, in a bag, to the bottom of the leading edge or by attaching a percentage of the weight at various locations along the leading edge. The advantage of the second method is that usually you can get away with less weight, but it is usually more difficult to recover (pick up, pack away and store) the flag after use.
Drop flags don’t work well going fast and look like a badly designed streamer when flown with low suspended weight under a fast canopy. The best combination is a larger, slower canopy and a lot of suspended weight. For really large flags this may mean flying a 400-(or more)-square- foot tandem canopy with a suspended weight well in excess of 100 pounds. The suspended weight is the hardest part to determine—how much can be used without overloading the flag-suspension system—and is usually found out by trial and error. It is also dependent upon other things such as whether the canopy is a seven or nine cell, made of zero- or low-porosity (F-111) fabric, its square footage and the square footage of the flag.
Weight is only needed on the flag; the jumper’s body is not where weight needs to be applied. Adding weight to the jumper will just increase the wing loading, which will increase speed, which in turn will cause the flag to streamer, which will make it necessary to add more weight to the flag for it to fly properly. This turns into a vicious cycle that becomes a detriment to the jump, since the jumper will constantly need to ride the brakes to slow down and show the flag. It also increases the descent angle and increases the chance of injury on landing.
In an emergency, if a small flag is cut away, it will probably not injure spectators or damage property. For a simple fanny-pack setup, the quick-release buckle on the waistband of the pack will suffice as a cutaway system. As the size of the flag increases, so does its weight and the complexity of the method of attachment to the jumper (or the jumper’s harness and container system). Many flag jump systems include master-rigger or factory-installed hardware on the harness for attaching flags. This includes a release system for in-flight emergencies, both before and after the flag is deployed. The larger flags should also have their own reserve-type parachute so that the weighted flag will not injure people or property on the ground.
Whenever you are jumping an unfamiliar system, test it several times before and after it is rigged on the harness, and before and after you don the system. Check things such as ease of reaching deployment and release handles, check that all handles are secure yet easy to manipulate if they are needed, and make sure that all handles are easy to protect when moving around in the airplane. Try everything with eyes both open and closed.
Taking It to the Air
Once it is time to take it to the air, plan a simple hop and pop to around 5,000 feet on a day with mild weather. Jump with familiar equipment and plan to land in a large landing area (if this is your DZ’s student area, make sure you get permission and clearance). Everything about the jump other than the flag should be as familiar to you as possible. Make a poised exit, leave stable, and deploy as soon as you’re clear of the plane. Once your main is open, orient yourself into the wind and ensure you’re clear of other jumpers. You may want to make a few jumps without releasing the flag from its container until you are comfortable.
When it is time to lower the flag, some may want to leave their brakes stowed initially and steer with the risers so that the canopy has a shallower angle of attack. Fanny-pack setups will simply require the jumper to unzip the pack and lower the flag; larger flag-and-container systems may have specialized procedures. Once the flag is fully on its lanyard, check to be sure that it is flying properly. If the flag is fouled with itself it may be possible to pull it up and fix it, but be careful not to lose altitude awareness. Sometimes landing with a fouled flag is better than cutting it away or trying to fix it. After deploying and successfully lowering the flag, many cross their legs and have the lanyard pass in front where the feet cross. This helps the jumper feel what the flag is doing as he’s flying and in some cases stiffens the lanyard and helps the flag to fly straighter and pendulum less, and can keep a harness-mounted flag from keeping pressure on your crotch (uncomfortable no matter who you are). Remember to clear your feet of the lanyard prior to the landing.
Once the flag is lowered and the canopy is in full flight, do some basic checks to see how the canopy and the flag are handling. Don’t make any really aggressive turns with the system. Fly a standard box pattern for landing with a holding area, entry point, downwind, crosswind and final-approach legs. Keep a wary eye for drift during each leg and make the appropriate adjustments so that you land in your intended target area.
Landing drop flags can be simple when they are relatively small and pretty tricky when they get bigger. For the smaller flags, a standard approach and landing will generally be fine. For the larger flags, sometimes a ¼- to 1/8-braked approach works best since the canopy may dive a bit due to the drag of the material on the ground. This may be slight or even unnoticeable, but some feel that slowing the approach can help make the landing a little more manageable. Make sure it is not too deep a braked approach, as you still need something left for a flare. Finding the balance takes time and practice. At first, make your landings under the observation of an experienced flag jumper, and try to get it filmed. After each jump, get a full debrief and go right back up and practice more.
Remember to say, "No," when you should and avoid putting yourself in a position where you could get hurt or could hurt someone else. Treat the drop-flag-jumping progression like any other skydiving progression—take small steps and build on the last one you got right. With a bit of time, respect for the equipment and practice you very well find yourself on the national news as the "good story gone right."
On a memorial jump honoring skydiver Joshua Mitchell, who died while serving with the U.S. Coast Guard, Jim Crouch flies an American flag over Skydive the Point in West Point, Virginia. Photo by Matthew Fry.
About the Author
Matt Cline, D-21585, has been skydiving for 13-plus years. He’s been a member of two Army demonstration teams and is now a member of Team Fastrax. Cline is a USPA Coach Examiner, Static-Line and Tandem Instructor Examiner, AFF Instructor, holds a PRO rating and is the USPA Safety & Training Advisor at Large for the southern region.