Tracking dives are popular among jumpers with a wide range of jump numbers and skill levels. In addition, the size of the tracking group can be very flexible, limited only by the number of jumpers and the type of aircraft available (although common sense dictates that if there are newer jumpers on a tracking dive, the size of the group should be kept small). But regardless of whether a tracking dive includes one jumper or 32, or whether it consists of fresh A-license holders or world-champion record-setters, there are special considerations that every participant needs to understand.
Planning the dive ahead of time helps everyone know what to expect and eliminates confusion. This is not the time or place for winging it! Each jumper should know the direction of the aircraft’s jump run and the group’s planned exit point and intended flight path. In general, tracking groups exit the plane last. Because the group will cover so much distance, the direction they choose to fly is critical to their safety and well-being, as well as that of the skydivers who exited before them.
The leader of the group, commonly called the “rabbit,” usually tracks back-to-earth in order to keep an eye on the rest of the group. It is essential that the rabbit starts out on the correct heading and keeps the group tracking in the planned direction. The rabbit needs to know the drop zone and surrounding landmarks well and should frequently check the group’s position over the ground in case he needs to adjust the heading. He should be someone with the skills and knowledge necessary to lead the group and should have the ability to plan and execute a flight that is as safe as possible.
Tracking dives generally follow one of the following two flight plans, in order to remain clear of the jumpers who exited earlier:
- The group exits and immediately flies perpendicular to the flight path of the airplane, eventually turning 90-degrees to fly back toward the drop zone in preparation for deployment.
- The group exits and continues to fly in the direction of flight of the aircraft before turning perpendicular to the line of flight, and finally executing one more 90-degree turn back toward the drop zone.
Using either option, a long track that is perpendicular to jump run will offset the group from others, and they’ll have airspace that is clear of other groups when they break off and deploy. Based on the size of the tracking group and the experience level of the members, organizers should carefully choose breakoff and deployment altitudes. A- and B-licensed skydivers and jumpers with highly wing-loaded canopies may need to deploy relatively high, so the breakoff for the whole group may need to start sooner than some are used to. Additionally, a tracking group’s opening point may not be ideal in relation to the wind line and landing area, so a higher deployment provides more time for jumpers under canopy to reach a safe landing spot, whether it’s on the airport or off-field.
But what if the dive doesn’t go as planned? It doesn’t take much for the jump to become confusing and chaotic, so there should be a contingency plan for dealing with some of the most common “what ifs.” If the rabbit loses his heading (for example, if he starts flying back up the flight line toward other groups), the jumpers closest to him should redirect him with simple hand signals. If the jumpers formulate a plan before the skydive, everyone will know what to expect.
If a jumper sinks below the rest of the group, he should try to slow his fall rate to float back up, avoiding drastic changes that could lead to a dangerous freefall collision. Jumpers should be aware that the location of a tracking jumper’s burble may be slightly behind and above him. Avoid losing air and possibly colliding with others in the group by steering clear of this area.
The low jumper should still stay with the group since it is always safer at break-off if everyone has remained together. If he is still low at the breakoff altitude, he should track away from the others to achieve as much lateral separation as possible. While tracking away, it will be very important for him to look over both shoulders for other jumpers above him in preparation for wave-off and deployment.
Tracking jumps are generally fun and relaxing, which is why skydivers like them so much. But they still require solid planning and leadership so the jumps are successful and everyone remains as safe as possible.
—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training