The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to figure out which weather conditions—low clouds, rain, freezing temperatures—should put a halt to jumping. However, the one weather condition that always seems to bite skydivers, year after year, is the wind. What some may consider comfortable wind conditions may very well be too difficult for others to handle. So, how do you decide when the winds are too dangerous for you to jump? There are a lot of factors to consider:
- Sustained wind speed
- The speed and range in speed of gusts
- Your experience level
- The general trend of the wind speeds for the day
- The wing loading of your canopy
- The size of the landing area
- Turbulence created as winds pass over obstacles located upwind of the landing spot
The USPA Basic Safety Requirements (BSRs) limit student jumpers to winds of 14 mph or less, or 10 mph or less if the student is equipped with a round reserve canopy. The local Safety & Training Advisor can raise these limits, and some have raised the wind limits at their specific drop zones to allow solo students to continue to jump in winds as high as 20 mph. There are no wind limits in the BSRs for licensed skydivers. However, that doesn’t mean you should continue to jump in any kind of winds just because you have a skydiving license. A little common sense will go a long way.
In smooth, steady winds, it is pretty easy to decide on a maximum wind speed and simply stay on the ground if the speeds are above that limit. Perhaps at a jumper’s current skill level, he is confident that he can handle jumping in 17-mph winds, in part because his drop zone’s layout provides plenty of clear, unobstructed landing space and there are not any obstructions that will cause turbulence. This is a simple set of guidelines for him to follow. However, jumpers often allow themselves to push beyond their personal limits, rationalizing that it will be “just this one time.” However, if a landing during 20-mph winds is uneventful, that becomes the new cut-off point, and the jumper will continue to bump the limit upward until an injury occurs or something scary happens. Eventually, the wind speed will equal or exceed the forward speed of the canopy, and this is where the really scary part begins. Generally, once the wind starts blowing hard, the winds will remain strong for several hours or more. Before resuming jumping, it is a good idea to wait at least 30 minutes once the winds seem to be reasonable to be sure that the weather trend that was causing them has passed.
Landing a parachute that is flying backward or coming straight down can be tricky—especially if the landing is in an unfamiliar or hazardous area. Off-field landings are more common in windy conditions, mostly due to the canopy pilots’ limited control in these conditions. It can be more difficult to choose a landing direction in the absence of a windsock, and jumpers can sustain serious injuries while landing downwind. Smaller canopies at higher wing loadings will give jumpers more forward speed to help penetrate winds, but jumpers can more easily get hurt under these speedy canopies, and wind penetration is not a valid reason to downsize rapidly. Stick with a wind speed you know you can handle with your current parachute.
Gusty winds are often tricky, and continuing to jump in gusty, shifting winds is not for the faint of heart. No matter what your experience level, gusty winds can lead to hard landings, collapsed canopies and serious or even fatal injuries. If a jumper is flying in 10-mph winds, gusts to 15 mph are usually not a problem. But when the wind-speed spread increases, say from five-mph sustained winds to gusts of 15 mph or more, the canopy descent can range anywhere from bumpy to violent. If the gusts become severe just as the jumper is attempting to land, it can mean a collapsed parachute and a very hard landing. And because gusts are impossible to predict, jumpers often get nailed at the last second by a fluke gust that was higher than forecasted. In gusty weather, it is a good idea to stay on the ground.
Even if the winds are smooth and their speed is constant and steady, if a jumper selects a landing spot that is downwind of buildings or trees, he can encounter turbulence that can lead to a hard landing or even a collapsed canopy. Selecting an appropriate landing area is critical when the wind starts blowing, and a jumper needs to have the skills to land his parachute in any area he desires, regardless of the wind speed. Jumpers must also be ready to perform a parachute landing fall.
Look around the drop zone on the next windy day; you will probably find the most experienced jumpers scratching off the manifest before anyone else. That’s because they’ve “been there-done that” and don’t care to do it again. Strong and gusty winds are nothing to fool around with, so learn to recognize when the conditions are deteriorating to the point where you are better off staying on the ground. It’s much better to be stuck on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be under canopy in bad winds, wishing you were on the ground.
—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training