Springtime weather often means windy weather, and while skydivers are often grounded when the winds are too strong or gusty, there are plenty of days when the wind picks up but remains at a reasonable level and we can continue to jump. However, we have to stay sharp and pay attention, especially under canopy.
Not everyone has the same comfort level when deciding a wind limit for jumping. Students jumping solo equipment are limited to jumping in winds 14 mph or less—10 mph or less when equipped with round reserve canopies—by the Basic Safety Requirements (unless the drop zone has a waiver for students to jump with a higher wind limit). But beyond that BSR, USPA has set no rules for wind limits, leaving it up to the individual jumper to decide when to jump and when to stay on the ground. Wind-related skydiving accidents are common enough to show that wind conditions can and do play a factor in some landing accidents.
When making the decision as to whether you will make a jump or stay on the ground, you’ll need to consider several parameters:
- The wind speed
- Whether the wind is steady or gusty
- The speed range between the gusts
- The wind direction
- The landing area size and nearby obstacles
- The size and location of off-field landing areas
- Obstacles that can cause turbulence
- The wind speed and direction at higher altitudes
Set a wind-speed limit that is reasonable for your experience level, canopy size and type, and the landing-area characteristics of your drop zone … and stick to it. A smaller-sized landing area with nearby trees or buildings that can create turbulence will mean setting a more conservative wind-speed limit. In general, you should select a maximum wind speed that allows your canopy at least some forward movement on final approach and landing. Smooth winds are much easier to deal with than gusty winds. But keep in mind that winds can gust without warning, and obstacles can create unpredictable turbulence for those landing downwind of them.
If the winds are gusty, they add additional risk to the canopy descent and landing. Gusting winds can make it difficult to land softly and increase the risk of your canopy collapsing during the descent. Setting a maximum gust range can help you decide whether to jump or not. Winds that are 12 mph gusting to 15 mph should be manageable. Winds 8 mph gusting to 22 mph would make even the most seasoned canopy pilot need a change of underwear after landing. It’s better to stay on the ground when the gust range is more than a few miles per hour.
Depending on the layout of the drop zone and alternate landing areas, the wind direction can play a significant role in whether jumping in stronger winds is an option or not. A long, narrow drop zone with trees on each side of the runway can be perfectly fine on windy days when the wind is aligned with the runway, but the same wind blowing perpendicularly across the trees and runway can create turbulence and make it challenging to land. Always consider the direction of the wind and the turbulence-inducing obstacles near the landing area that the wind is passing over when you decide whether to jump. A steady wind easily turns into a gusty wind when it blows across trees or other obstacles. Keep an eye on the wind direction and look at the height of the obstacles upwind of your landing area. You should expect to experience turbulence downwind of the obstacle for a horizontal distance of 10 to 20 times its height.
If your main landing area is very small and surrounded by trees, buildings and other obstacles, you also need to consider the size and location of the alternate landing areas near the drop zone. Do you have suitable options in case you are not able to make it to the intended landing area?
Strong winds on the ground often mean strong winds at higher altitudes. Aviation weather reports can help you determine the wind speed and direction at altitudes of 3,000, 6,000, 9,000 and 12,000 feet. Are the winds so strong at 3,000 feet that you will be backing up under canopy? It’s never a good feeling to be traveling backward under canopy, hoping that the wind speed will drop enough to give you some forward penetration. Thankfully, the wind speed usually drops as you get closer to the ground. But you need to stay heads up and adjust your landing pattern for the stronger winds. Remember that in strong winds you’ll be moving quickly across the ground on your downwind leg, you’ll be crabbing a lot during your base leg, and you won’t cover much distance at all on your final approach. It is much safer to land into the wind, but landing with the wing level with the horizon should take priority, even if it means landing downwind to avoid making a low turn under canopy.
Strong winds don’t necessarily mean you are not able to jump. With planning and preparation, you can still make it happen. But it requires a watchful eye to make sure conditions remain safe and smart canopy flying to make sure you can land where you intend with the wing level and (if at all possible) facing into the wind.
—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training