Taking The Long Way Home
If you’re interested in organizing a cross-country jump at your DZ, there are several steps you’ll need to take to make it a success. A good organizer delegates—and getting help with some of the chores will make a big difference—but you should still plan on one to two hours of ground prep for working out the details with manifest, the pilot and your fellow jumpers.
On a traditional cross-country, jumpers get out of the plane as far away upwind of the DZ as possible, open right out the door, hang in brakes while flying downwind back to the drop zone and get back just in time to enter their landing patterns. That level of uncertainty can be fun (a little less so if you don’t have a plethora of choices for landing out), but hanging in brakes for extended periods of time can be exhausting. However, not all cross-countries have to be risky when it comes to landing off, and most are much more fun when they’re not.
For a good cross-country, you’ll want to exit the plane fairly far upwind of the DZ—three miles at the very least—and for a great one, you’ll want to exit nine-plus miles away. You can do this only if the winds up high are really moving. If the winds are in the teens-to-low-20-mph range from 12,000 feet all the way down, you won’t get much distance and might want to wait for another day. It's equally important to make sure the wind is blowing in roughly the same direction all the way down, or organizing the thing will be a nightmare.
If the winds are OK, the next step is to check with manifest, since there’s no sense in organizing the rest of the jump if you’re shut down there. There could be a variety of reasons it might not work: Perhaps you had sunset load in mind, and the load is already full of people with other plans. Maybe there will be multiple planes in the air, and it’s just not feasible to have jumpers get out way upwind of all the other traffic.
Once you’ve checked in with manifest, create your participant list. Physically create the list, don’t just make a mental one. You’ll need to give it to manifest later on. Only include those who commit. “Yeah, maybe,” is not adequate, since both you and manifest need definitive information. Include the jumpers’ first and last names, their wing loadings, as well as their cell phone numbers. This last item is crucial. All too often, jumpers land somewhere unfamiliar with no way to contact the DZ. If the jump is around sunset, they could end up wandering aimlessly in the dark. This can happen to entire loads, and you don’t want to have to drive around looking for 20 people in the pitch-black of night. Let the jumpers know the importance of providing their real contact information so you don’t end up with a list of numbers that say things like “1-800-BLOW-ME” (based on a true story).
When adding names to the list, let the jumpers know what load the cross-country will be on and an estimated call time for that load. Don’t forget to tell them to bring the cell phones associated with the numbers they gave you. You’d think it would be obvious, but not everyone realizes why you’re asking for it.
If your list of jumpers includes those new to cross-countries, remind them to dress in something that will keep them warm if the air up top is a bit on the chilly side. This might be their jumpsuits, or it could be something warmer, depending on the temperatures at altitude. If they choose to wear hoodies or jackets, make sure the garments won’t cover up emergency handles. Socks, shoes and gloves are also a good idea if it is a bit cool—extremities don’t do well in prolonged cold. Helmets are also a good idea, particularly with the increased possibility of an off-landing. Lastly, cross-countries can be long journeys, and the jumpers will probably get thirsty. Finding a place to put a bottle of water can be tricky (unless they’ve saved their clothes from the mid-’90s and have cargo pants). A bottle cozy with a neck strap, such as a Krochet Koozie (krochetkoozies.com), can be a lifesaver on a long cross-country.
Give yourself a cutoff time for completing your participant list. The folks in the box need to get everyone manifested for the load, and you’ll still have plenty left to do after manifesting. Of course, if you hit the maximum number of jumpers the plane can accommodate, your list is done … but don’t forget to include yourself! Hand the list to the manifest staff and let them know you’ll need it back.
Preparing for the Jump
Now, you’ll need to do the math (see sidebar) to determine exit points and order. This is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a necessary evil if you want to put together a cross-country jump that keeps everyone happy and safe. If you’re numerically challenged, get someone to help, but honestly, the math for this stuff isn’t all that difficult.
Exit order is pretty straightforward. Remember that list you made earlier? You’ll need it again, because it has all the wing-loading information on it. If you’re planning on traveling as far as possible, those with the highest wing loadings will exit first, and no one will have the chance to play around together during the jump. But that’s probably not the case, so let’s assume you plan on ensuring that everyone can make it back and has a little time to play along the way. In that case, you’d want those with the highest wing loadings out last. That will allow those with faster descent rates to catch up to those first out. If those with lighter wing loadings exit last, they’ll be all by themselves the entire time with no chance of catching anyone.
Gather everyone together for a pre-jump briefing, and line them up by wing loading. Tell them to remember who’s exiting after them. (It seems backward, but loading the plane is much easier when everyone knows who to stand behind.)
At this point, while you have everyone’s full attention, you can let them know there will be two to three seconds between exits since you don’t want too much separation. (If your ground speed on jump run is particularly slow, you can extend the exit interval as needed.) Then, go over the plan for each person’s deployment delay after they leave the plane, which will vary. Starting at the front of the line (with who is going out first), instruct that person to deploy three seconds after exiting. The next person will pull two seconds after exiting, and the following person, one second after exiting. The next person (the fourth to exit) will again wait three seconds, the following person two, and the next will wait one second … and so on and so forth until the end of the line. (Again, don’t forget to include yourself!) Insist that everyone pay strict attention during this point of the briefing, as the information is critical for avoiding collisions.
Let everyone know that once they open, they’ll need to turn in the same direction, 90 degrees off jump run (choose the direction in advance and let everyone know what it is). Everyone needs to stay particularly aware of other canopies at this point as jumpers loosen their chest straps, collapse their sliders and do whatever else they need to do to get ready for their canopy flights. At this point, the group will fly on the windline and follow the leader—most likely the person with the highest wing loading—back to the DZ.
If people want to fly very closely to someone else or spiral around one another, they need to discuss it at the pre-jump briefing. Tell the group, “Don’t get close to anyone unless you talk to him about it first. If you want to play around with someone in the sky, ask him about it now.” Canopy accidents are the leading cause of fatalities in our sport, so as the organizer, do your part to help others avoid them.
Boarding and the Ride to Altitude
Make sure everyone gets a gear check, and require all jumpers to show you that they have their cell phones. You took down the numbers for a reason, and manifest expects to be able to use them if needed.
If the plane shuts down and you can talk to the pilot before the jump, do so—it’s much easier to converse without loud props running right next to you. If it’s a turn-around load, board first so that you can talk to him on the way to altitude. Discuss how far you plan on going from the DZ, and be sure to mention when he should throw the green light on. If you know that nine miles is the absolute farthest you can go and make it back, that’s not a good point at which to start exiting. Keep in mind how many people you have and how long it will take everyone to exit, and let the pilot know that he’ll need to account for that.
If there’s concern about weather, clouds, air traffic, etc., you’ll find out about that during your discussion with the pilot. Be prepared to change the plan at the last minute if the pilot says, “I can only take you two miles because of weather,” or something like that. Obviously, inform the load if there’s a change in plans.
Plan on spotting the plane, or if you need to stay up front to talk to the pilot, assign someone you trust to spot. Remind everyone where the DZ will be once they exit, especially those with lighter wing loadings, since they’ll get out first and are also likely to be less experienced. On hazy days, the DZ may be hard to see, so jumpers should make note of which terrain features to follow to get home. If you are spotting, don’t forget to check for other aircraft traffic.
At this point, go over the exit plan and timing again, including each person’s delay out the door. This is very important, as many people will have forgotten the details. If you are sitting by the door, you can even count for people until it’s your turn to leave. Give a final reminder about turning 90 degrees off jump run after deployment.
Exiting the Plane
All jumpers need to be very heads-up at this point. They are exiting much more closely to people than normal, so they need to be ready to kick out of line twists or steer quickly away with rear risers to avoid a potential collision. They can leave their brakes stowed after deployment if they’d like to descend more slowly, but if they’d like to fly their canopies near others and play in the sky, it’s best to release them. They’ll then turn 90 degrees from jump run and prepare to fly their canopies back to the DZ. It’s at this point that jumpers need to remember to locate the DZ. They don’t want to be nine miles away from the DZ, farting around and enjoying the sunset, if they’re not going to be able to make it back.
While flying back to the DZ, it’s going to be very hard for the jumpers to tell if they can make it, so they need a constantly changing plan for landing out. They need to continually look ahead and beneath them to see where they could land if they needed to. If a jumper starts to think he won’t make it, he can hang in half to three-quarter brakes by hooking his thumbs on his harness (usually below the handles, but it depends on the length of the brake lines); otherwise, his arms will get tired pretty quickly.
If someone finds that he does have to land out, it’s probably a good idea for him to land near others from the load … safety in numbers, in this case. It also makes it easier on the runners who are probably already driving around looking for the lost jumpers. The jumpers should not forget to call manifest—if they have GPS on their phones, they can find their exact location first and then call. And if they’re lucky enough to land in a backyard barbecue, they can expect someone to hand them beers.
If you planned correctly and the jumpers stayed alert, everyone on the load should make it back to the DZ. As they approach the drop zone, the jumpers need to stop playing around in the sky with adequate time to prepare for their landings. In Section 6-6, the Skydiver’s Information Manual recommends that canopy formation skydivers break off for landing and stop all approaches and docks no lower than 2,500 feet. Although jumpers on a cross-country may be flying in proximity without docking, moving away from each other at 2,500 feet to begin concentrating on landing is still a good idea. This will provide everyone the ability to enter their landing patterns at 1,000 feet after gaining enough separation to prevent collisions.
Make sure to get a head count after you land—it’s easy for jumpers to get spread out. If everyone made it all the way back to the DZ from their epic journeys, congratulations! Good job! Organizing isn’t easy. It requires patience, focus and, most importantly, giving up your time to get things in order. It’s all worth it in the end to help everyone have a good jump.
About the Author
Brandon Aaskov, C-39694, has 375 jumps and is one of the leaders of Jump In!, a club that helps newer jumpers gain skydiving skills, at Skydive New England in Lebanon, Maine. Partial to 4-way formation skydiving, Aaskov is also quickly gaining interest in canopy-related activities.
The Dirty, Dirty Math (Calculating the Exit Point)
When calculating your exit point, the key is to get all the figures into units of minutes and miles.
Step 1: Determine Canopy Descent Rates
For this purpose, assume that fairly docile, lightly to moderately loaded canopies will descend at about 15 feet per second, and more aggressive, highly loaded canopies will descend at about 25 feet per second. (If you’re curious and have a freefall computer such as a Neptune 3, you can see actual descent rates as you fly.)
You want the descent rate calculated in minutes, so you need to do some basic multiplication:
- Lightly to moderately loaded canopies: 15 ft/s multiplied by 60 (seconds in a minute) = 900 ft/min
- Highly loaded canopies: 25 ft/s multiplied by 60 (seconds in a minute) = 1,500 ft/min
An average load of jumpers will get out at about 13,500 feet, and by the time they turn off jump run, get themselves situated and flying on the windline, they’ll be at about 12,000 feet. Using the descent rates above, let’s figure out how long it will take to get from 12,000 feet to the ground:
- Lightly to moderately loaded canopies: 12,000 ft at 900 ft/min = 13.3 minutes to the ground
- Highly loaded canopies: 12,000 ft at 1,500 ft/min = 8 minutes to the ground
Cool. That was easy. Keep those nearby for now. You’ll need them soon.
Step 2: Get the Average Speed of the Winds
This involves checking the winds-aloft report. Manifest can get this for you if it’s not posted. For this example, we’ll assume that the winds from 12,000 to 3,000 feet are coming from roughly the same direction:
12,000: 45.6 mph | 9,000: 37.6 mph | 6,000: 28.7 mph | 3,000: 20.2 mph | Ground: 14 mph
Add them all up and divide by 5 (since we have five numbers) to get the average: 29.22 mph If you have a layer of wind that’s blowing in a drastically different direction from the others, not only will the math be more difficult, so will the jump. Wait for a better day.
Helpful hint: If the winds are kind of high midday but start to die down a lot in the evening, it probably means that the winds-aloft report is inaccurate, and you should compensate. In the absence of hard numbers, there’s no science to it, but know that your calculated exit point will be too far away and you’ll need to plan to exit closer to the DZ.
Step 3: Add In the Average Forward Speed of a Canopy
This is where it will be OK to underestimate a bit. A normal forward speed for a canopy is somewhere around 15 mph, but if you have a lot of lightly loaded canopies on the jump, it’ll be closer to 10 mph. For this example, call it 10 mph. For ease of math, you’ll also round the average speed you just calculated to the nearest whole number:
- 29 mph (wind speed average) plus 10 mph (canopy forward speed) = 39 mph
Again, though, you want these units in minutes. So let’s convert that:
- 39 mph divided by 60 minutes = 0.65 miles/min
Step 4: Finish It Up
Now, get those descent rates from earlier. Since you know how long it takes to get to the ground in minutes and how many miles a minute you’ll be traveling, you can figure out how many miles away to get out:
- Lightly to moderately loaded canopies: 13.3 (minutes to the ground) multiplied by 0.65 (miles/min) = 8.65 miles
- Highly loaded: 8 (minutes to the ground) multiplied by 0.65 (miles/min) = 5.2 miles
That’s it. You now have a range of how far out the load can go. Run the numbers by another experienced jumper and the pilot just to double check your work. It’s never going to be a bad idea to round some of those numbers down and err on the side of caution (unless you like an element of danger). Just make sure others know if you’re planning on making it a jump where they’ll be on the cusp of making it back so they can determine if they want to be a part of it!