Gear Fear? Know Your Rig!

Think you know your parachute? Emerging features and added complexity can create a dangerous knowledge gap. This two-part report challenges you to recognize and understand the details of your particular rig and rethink your settings and operating procedures.

MARDs, user-programmable AADs, Collins pigtails, freefly handles, wingsuit bridles, stowless bags: What is going on with gear these days? Skydivers earn their USPA A licenses with the ability to pack a generic parachute, service a 3-ring system and change a closing loop, but there’s so much more to equipment than that. They stand facing a phalanx of choices that used to be limited only to, “Seven- or nine-cell?,” “Automatic activation device or not?,” and, “What’s your favorite color?” It’s like going from eating homemade vanilla ice cream on the farm to visiting Ben & Jerry’s on Times Square!

So many possibilities and combinations render virtually every rig or rig-to-be unique. Short of practicing as an active parachute rigger for several years, there’s no way to know the ins-and-outs of all systems well enough to select and choose options for the perfect rig … and even then it’s confusing. Right off the UPS truck, each rig comes with its own quirks, requirements and limitations. And then once you get it airborne, there are the updates, service bulletins and product improvements. This all creates an important responsibility that leaves a skydiver only one viable choice: Know your gear.

Know Your Gear
This age-old skydiving dictum applies not just to newbies looking for their first new or used rigs, but also to seasoned jumpers who already own gear. Because let’s face it: You, like most jumpers, probably asked around before you bought, got some advice, found a rig that fit your general idea of what you wanted, took delivery from your rigger and successfully jumped it. Satisfied, there you stopped. It worked once, and so it should work again... right?

But the fact is, many (if not most) jumpers neglect to study as much as necessary to develop the correct emergency procedures and form inspection and care habits for their particular equipment. It’s an understandable gap: Other jumpers may know barely enough about their own equipment to stay safe, much less provide you accurate advice on yours. As a result, smart, current jumpers who lack the knowledge and training to make important choices populate the incident reports.

Take this fun quiz to see where you fit in. Most of the questions have a single correct answer with little room for debate but generate questions to highlight the importance of often-neglected details. Snarky wrong answers aside, all these perfectly intelligent and reasonable questions actually came from real rig owners within the last year, many with these specific items or features on their gear. And some of the rig owners were Federal Aviation Administration riggers! Some questions are rig-specific with answers that may be wrong for your rig but right for the rig that you’re (shudder) borrowing. Or maybe you don’t know an answer that does apply to your rig, in which case . . . well, that’s why you’re wise to read this far!

  1. What is the purpose of a freebag?
    • a. to promote drop zone goodwill and manufacturers’ products at a boogie
    • b. to allow the reserve to continue deploying in the event the reserve pilot chute or bridle gets caught on something
    • c. to contain the packed canopy so the slider can deploy into clean air if the safety stow fails

    Answer: b
    The “free” in freebag refers to the fact that the reserve deployment bag is unattached to the top of the reserve canopy. On most systems, the main-canopy deployment bag is attached to the main canopy so you don’t have to go find it after every jump. High-performance canopy pilots sometimes use an RDS (removable deployment system) that employs a main-canopy freebag, but it’s attached by a long line to a quick-release slider so the pilot can reel it all in and stuff it away. A reserve freebag strips off and lands separately. (They should call it a “treebag.”)

  2. What is a safety stow?
    • a. the procedure for putting away the reserve ripcord and cutaway handle after a malfunction
    • b. a secure gear locker at the drop zone
    • c. a cloth-elastic loop used to hold the locking stows on most reserve deployment bags

    Answer: c
    A safety stow is a bungee loop that slides freely in a channel on the reserve freebag. Each end of the loop—instead of rubber bands—forms one of the two locking stows for the reserve freebag. In theory, if one side locks for some reason, the safety stow will still release both locking stows and allow the canopy to fully deploy. They wear out over time just from packing and age, and most manufacturers insist on factory replacements. The vast majority of reserve systems use safety stows.

  3. What is a Collins lanyard?
    • a. a passage in the reserve static line for the 3-ring-release cable
    • b. the trim device used on the downwind leg
    • c. a line attached to the freebag to retrieve it after deployment

    Answer: a
    The Collins lanyard (invented for United Parachute Technologies by Kyle Collins) started as a simple loop or channel added to the reserve static line that the long cable of the 3-ring system passes through. When the RSL-side riser releases, it pulls the opposite 3-ring-release cable so both risers detach before the RSL activates the reserve.

  4. What is a Collins pigtail?
    • a. the trademark hairstyle of the inventor of the Collins lanyard
    • b. an update that prevents a malfunction of the Collins lanyard
    • c. the freefly maneuver that won the 2012 World Cup

    Answer: b
    After United Parachute Technologies introduced the Skyhook MARD (main-assisted reserve deployment) system, manufacturers began adding a “pigtail” (split) to the Collins lanyard to prevent an unwanted cutaway as the result of a remotely possible, out-of-sequence series of events. Not all early Skyhook rigs have been updated.

  5. What is a staging loop?
    • a. the parking area for manufacturers setting up displays before a boogie
    • b. a type of cutaway handle that uses a steel cable encased in fabric
    • c. a cloth-elastic loop that retards reserve deployment until the pilot chute applies enough force to carry the reserve clear

    Answer: c
    On some rigs, the staging loop retains the last two reserve flaps until the reserve pilot chute or MARD pulls hard enough to disengage it. It is essentially a second elastic closing loop locked in place by a finger-shaped fold of the reserve pilot chute bridle instead of a closing pin. This extra step in the sequence keeps the freebag in the container until the pilot chute or MARD applies enough tension to carry it clear. The staging loop addresses a potential for entanglement caused by a reserve-pilot-chute hesitation or an out-of-sequence deployment (e.g., pulling the reserve ripcord prior to cutting away a low-speed malfunction, or an AAD activation during main deployment where the main inflates after the reserve activates but before it has a chance to deploy). Its use is optional, but you must decide whether to install it before a rigger packs the reserve.

  6. What is the difference between a MARD (main-assisted reserve deployment) device and an RSL (reserve static line)?
    • a. All MARDS are reserve static lines, but not all RSLs provide main-assisted reserve deployment.
    • b. MARDs and RSLs are two separate, unrelated systems.
    • c. MARD can only occur following an AFF jump.

    Answer: a
    Anything that uses the drag generated by the released main to activate the reserve (pull the ripcord or pin) is a reserve static line. In addition, RSLs with a MARD system use a one-way connection to the reserve bridle to extract the freebag from the container.
    After a cutaway, a MARD system can deploy the reserve much more effectively than the reserve pilot chute. The system is carefully designed to only minimally affect reserve deployment in the event the jumper pulls the reserve ripcord without first cutting away (e.g., after a total main malfunction or a freefall AAD activation).

  7. Which of the following is true?
    • a. If I have a MARD, I should still disconnect the little clip on my riser when confronted with certain open-canopy situations in the same way as I trained for using an RSL.
    • b. The training for certain emergencies (tree, power-line, water and building landings; high winds; canopy collisions; two canopies out) is different when using a MARD as opposed to an RSL
    • c. USPA’s incident reports bear out that the complications added by MARDs, RSLs and AADs, especially in combination, have outweighed their overall safety advantages.

    Answer: a
    So far, nothing indicates that a jumper should change emergency procedures for canopy collisions or problem landings when the MARD function is integrated into the RSL system.

  8. How high does my automatic activation device fire?
    • a. 1,500 feet below main-deployment altitude
    • b. depends on the default setting(s)
    • c. 780 feet MSL

    Answer: b
    Target firing altitudes for digital AADs have always varied according to the preferences of the manufacturer and the application of the AAD. Initially, manufacturers preset them to around 800 feet, plus or minus (check your manual), with an option for a special setting to account for any significant field elevation difference between the takeoff airport and the DZ. Now, some AADs allow the jumper to semi-permanently change the default setting.

  9. How high does the aircraft have to climb after takeoff before my AAD becomes effective?
    • a. half the activation altitude
    • b. to level flight (jump run)
    • c. depends on the AAD

    Answer: c
    The AAD has to reach a certain altitude within a certain period of time after takeoff before it goes into an active mode. The altitude depends on the AAD’s make, model and settings. Some AADs don’t become functional before typical bailout altitudes. Find the answer in the user’s manual for your AAD, typically in the section on information for the aircraft pilot.

  10. Is it possible to permanently or semi-permanently change the default activation altitude on my AAD (not counting a one-time adjustment for jumping at a higher or lower field)?
    • a. yes
    • b. no
    • c. maybe

    Answer: c
    Some AADs provide a way for the user to adjust the default firing altitude to user preference. They caution the user to modify main opening altitudes and decide-and-act altitudes for malfunctions accordingly.

  11. Do I have to send in my AAD if the manufacturer specifies service and maintenance?
    • a. yes
    • b. no
    • c. maybe... how much does it cost?

    Answer: a
    In the U.S., the FAA does not require jumpers to install AADs in their gear. However, if one is installed, the FAA requires that all service be performed according to the manufacturer’s directions.

  12. If my AAD fails to cut my reserve closing loop all the way, will pulling my reserve ripcord still initiate deployment?
    • a. yes
    • b. no
    • c. maybe

    Answer: c
    On pop-top reserves and reserves with completely concealed pilot chutes, partially severing the closing loop can lock the reserve container hopelessly closed. (Yup, game over.) If it happens on a rig that has the AAD cutter mounted on the floor of the reserve container with the ripcord pin above the top flap—typical of reserve containers with partially exposed pilot chutes—pulling the ripcord should result in normal activation and deployment.

  13. To prevent the main-canopy curved closing pin from piercing my main bridle and causing a pilot chute in tow, I should always pack my main closing pin—
    • a. so it looks like a smiley face
    • b. so it looks like a frowny face
    • c. according to the manufacturer’s current instructions

    Answer: c
    People still don’t completely understand the problem of the main pin piercing the bridle, so it often gets ignored... sort of like global warming. Some have suspicions regarding design and material. Some manufacturers have changed their preferred bridle routing, provided an alternate routing, reoriented the pin attachment, reinforced the piercing area or a combination of all of these things. However, discussion and instructions on how to prevent the pierced-bridle, pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction remain conspicuously absent from packing manuals.

How Did You Score, Really?
Some of these questions apply to every rig, some to most rigs, some to one brand and some to one model within a brand. So if you got all the questions right, you should quit your regular job, take up rigging and run for office in the Parachute Industry Association. If you had to guess or finished somewhere down in the middle, you may be in trouble depending on which questions you missed.

Next month: Navigating the choices and managing the details of a modern parachute system.

About the Author
FEATURE20119-10Kevin Gibson, D-6943, operates Rahlmo’s Rigging in the loft at Skydive Orange in Virginia. He is a former editor of Parachutist, has more than 10,000 skydives and spearheaded the development of the USPA Coach rating, USPA Tandem ratings and the Integrated Student Program.

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