In the 1950s and ’60s, when skydivers first started using video and still cameras in freefall, they carried large, heavy cameras, separate tape decks and heavy batteries (often mounted on the camera flyers’ chests). All this equipment, along with the bulky parachutes, ensured that most jumpers were happy to be in the video and leave the use of awkward equipment and resulting sore necks to the few skydivers who were both very experienced and really interested in videography and photography.
Flash forward 50 years, and it’s hard to get on a skydiving airplane anymore without finding at least half of the jumpers equipped with a camera of some sort. Digital technology has created small cameras that seem to make it effortless to capture freefall footage. The smaller, lighter gear makes it easier to move around in the airplane, and the smaller, lighter cameras make it easier on the neck during deployment. Regardless, fledgling skydivers should still gain experience by concentrating on improving their basic skills before adding the complexity of a camera to their jumps.
Skydiver’s Information Manual (SIM) Section 6-8 covers camera flying recommendations. The information contained in this section came from discussions with some of the most experienced camera flyers in the world. The SIM recommends that new camera flyers have at least a USPA C license, which requires a minimum of 200 jumps, and that jumpers make at least 50 of those jumps using the same parachute equipment they’ll use for camera flying. In spite of these recommendations, some jumpers with far fewer than 200 jumps seem to feel that the recommendations don’t apply to them. Safety & Training Advisors have reported that jumpers with as few as 15 jumps have shown up to drop zones with shiny, new digital cameras, wanting to hop on a load and start filming the action!
The C-license recommendation in the SIM exists for a reason: Many jumpers with low experience levels have gotten in over their heads while using video or still cameras and have caused accidents. A camera flyer must have above-average flying skills that are ingrained and instinctive. If a jumper is still struggling with fall-rate issues or has trouble maintaining horizontal proximity with his group, for example, then he’s not ready to add a camera to the mix. Many new jumpers say that they’ll just strap the camera on and then forget about it, but it rarely plays out that way—having a camera on almost always seems to cause a distraction.
Cameras and camera helmets also add a new dimension to emergencies and emergency procedures. A jumper needs to be seasoned enough that emergency procedures are second nature. And even small cameras create snag points that can lead to camera and suspension-line entanglements. A camera flyer needs to be able to control the risers and canopy through the deployment to keep the camera out of harm’s way. The jumper should be experienced enough to initiate a cutaway while keeping his head forward in order to help keep the camera setup away from the deploying reserve. It takes experience and practice to be able to keep all these things in mind during the stress of a malfunction. This is also the reason that any camera flyer should have significant experience under the exact canopy and gear he’s using for the camera jump.
Jumpers also need to consider the additional risk of injury, particularly during deployment, that is inherent when flying camera. Hard openings combined with the extra weight of a camera helmet cause injuries ranging from strained back muscles to injuries as severe as a broken neck. The smaller cameras used today help to reduce this risk, but it is still something that every camera flyer should consider.
Many camera flyers also choose to use specialized jumpsuits that have arm wings to help increase their range of freefall speeds. These suits can be difficult to manage during freefall and deployment. Investigators have attributed several fatalities to jumpers’ having difficulties with the wings on their camera suits during deployment. Once a jumper decides to start using a camera suit, he should make plenty of jumps wearing the suit without adding a camera. Once the jumper is familiar with the suit and his new deployment procedures, he can add the camera helmet and cameras (that he learned to use without a camera suit on) back into the mix.
Many new camera flyers want to start filming students, either to make money while skydiving or for the fun and excitement of working with new jumpers. Because student jumps can be unpredictable and challenging, the USPA Instructional Rating Manual recommends that those filming students have at least 300 group freefall skydives and at least 50 jumps using a camera while filming experienced jumpers (and many tandem manufacturers’ recommendations are even higher). Thankfully, most drop zones do a good job with training and evaluating camera flyers before allowing them to film students. But camera flyers have still been involved in fatal collisions with students and instructors.
Flying a camera is fun and exciting, but there are many additional risks that come with it. Consult with your DZ’s Safety & Training Advisor to make sure you are ready to take on those challenges before you get started. Sure, you don’t have to deal with a 25-pound-monster camera on your head and a 30-pound tape deck strapped to your chest, but even with the tiny camera, it’s a lot harder than you might think.
—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training