Reacting to a Canopy Collision

Unless you are a jumper who has some canopy formation skydiving experience, you may not have given much thought about what you should do if you are ever involved in a canopy collision. Knowing what to do, and reacting correctly to the situation, just might save your life and the life of the other jumper involved.

Collisions often occur right after deployment when jumpers do not create enough separation at the end of the skydive. Many post-deployment collisions occur because one or both of the jumpers do not have control of their canopies due to line twists or because of spins caused by a premature brake release. Gaining adequate horizontal separation from other jumpers before deployment can help ensure that even if your canopy does not open on heading or is not initially controllable, there is less chance of a collision while you work to fix the problem.

Skydiver’s Information Manual Sections 5-1 and 6-6 contain recommendations for dealing with canopy collisions, wraps and entanglements. A collision at a relatively slow, survivable closing speed can lead to both parachutes clearing each other after the collision—simply bouncing off one another after the impact. The parachutes may fly normally afterward, or there may be some canopy damage or jumper injuries. This is not ideal, but at least the canopies are clear of one another.

If a collision is imminent, the jumper should spread one arm and both legs as wide as possible to bounce off the other canopy’s suspension lines, reducing the possibility of penetrating them, and to try to spread out the force of the impact. The hand on the other arm should be used to protect the reserve ripcord. Canopy lines can cut your skin during a collision, especially when the collision takes place with any significant momentum, but there’s not much you can do about that, and if the contact is body-to-body, it can lead to serious injuries.

When collisions occur, jumpers must be prepared to react quickly and creatively. In the event of a collision, it is critical to know your altitude at all times. There are basically two types of situations after a collision: wraps and entanglements. If you have canopy and suspension lines around your body, you are in a wrap. If your canopy is entangled with another canopy or jumper, but your body is free of any canopy lines or material, you are in an entanglement. In either situation, the jumpers should be specific in discussing their intentions with one another before acting.

It may be possible to clear an entanglement by following the lines out through the suspension lines of the other canopy that your body passed through. However, if there is an entanglement and both jumpers are clear of the mess, both will probably be orbiting around the tangled canopies. Communication with the other jumper is critical to determine altitude and who will cut away first, altitude permitting.

If the collision results in a wrap, the wrapped jumper will most often bear much of the weight of the other jumper, because the other jumper’s deflated canopy and lines will be wrapped around his body. If altitude allows for a cutaway, the pair must work together to determine who should cut away first, making sure that the cutaway will not worsen the situation. It will likely be safer for the wrapped jumper to stay with his main canopy and have the other jumper cut away first. This will take the tension off the wrapped jumper and allow him to better deal with getting the canopy and lines off of his body. In most cases, the wrapped jumper’s main canopy will be fully or mostly inflated and descending slowly, and he will be able to work to remove the other canopy, which will give his reserve, if he needs to use it, the best chance of a clean deployment.

Other considerations involve whether to disconnect the reserve static line (RSL), which will allow the jumper to fall away from the mess after a cutaway rather than have the reserve deploy right away. Altitude permitting, it might be safest to disconnect the RSL and wait a few seconds after a cutaway to deploy the reserve, to help ensure you are clear of the main canopies. Bear in mind that if you are still entangled, you may not be able to drop away from the mess after the cutaway handle is pulled.

But what should you do if the collision occurs at a lower altitude and there is not enough altitude for a cutaway? Another common place for collisions to occur is in the landing pattern, below 1,000 feet. At this altitude, the only option may be to deploy the reserve canopy (or canopies) in an effort to get something inflated to slow your descent.

Another collision hazard at low altitudes involves canopies flying at vastly different speeds in the landing pattern. These accidents involve highly wing-loaded canopies flown aggressively and colliding with canopies flown at much lower speeds. These collisions are usually so violent that the basic rules for surviving canopy collisions do not really apply. The higher the wing loading, the more violent the collision will be, and the less likely it will be that one or both pilots will survive. Avoidance is truly the only solution when it comes to canopy collisions at high wing loadings.

Every collision will result in different situations, and both jumpers need to work together to help ensure a successful outcome. Altitude awareness and communication are key to the decision making process, and it is crucial that the correct decisions are made regarding who, if anyone, will cut away and in what order. Of course, the best approach is to avoid collisions and to be able to retire from your skydiving career without ever having to deal with what is arguably one of the scariest situations a jumper can face. Fly to survive.

—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training

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