Jump-Run Emergencies—What You, the Jumper, Can Do to Keep Body and Soul Together
By Annette O’Neil
Let me ask you this: When was your last aircraft emergency?
At the very least, it’s probably been a while. Since it’s tough to practice on the ground for an aircraft emergency—and since active skydivers are likely to be on board for at least a minor version of one at some point in their jumping careers—it’s pretty important that we talk about this stuff more regularly than we do.
Enter Chris Schindler, D-19012. He’s the fella behind diverdriver.com, the industry’s hub of information for jump pilots. Schindler has spent more than 3,000 hours flying skydivers over more than a decade, and he reads every single skydiving aircraft incident report to come over the transom. “If you are so cavalier at the sport that you’re leaving your leg straps off when you board the plane,” he began, “it’s time to stop jumping. This is not grabbing your golf clubs. The focus of the sport has turned from surviving to being super fancy, and there are so many super-fancy people who are jumping on borrowed time because they’re relying on luck and technology to stay alive.”
“OK, a really catastrophic incident is a needle in a haystack,” he continued, “but if you aren’t ready for that needle and you happen across it, it will prick you.”
- Be belted in. “Be properly restrained,” Schindler said, “And don’t keep quiet if someone else isn’t. ‘Tight cabin theory’ [that being packed in like a sardine makes you safe] is bunk, and seatbelts save skydivers’ lives.”
- Factor in altitude loss. “Realistically, with single-engine airplanes, you are probably not getting out below 1,500 feet,” Schindler said. “Jumpers who make it to the altitude where they think they’re high enough to get out may not actually have the time after they unbuckle and start to exit. They will be way lower than they thought, and it could be very bad.” He continued, “Keep an eagle eye on that altimeter and know your margins. Have a decision point where, if a bailout is necessary before a certain altitude, you’ll go to your reserve canopy. Get higher and you can decide to deploy your main parachute first—but have the decision in your pocket well ahead of time.”
- Listen to the pilot, not the panic of other skydivers. Act on clear messages from the pilot: Stay put or get out on the pilot’s orders. “That can be tough to do in an emergency situation,” Schindler admitted, “but it is absolutely key.”
A premature deployment is always a serious matter. Depending on the type of aircraft involved, it can result in anything from a minor annoyance to the jumper (in the form of a long, long canopy ride) to a multiple-fatality incident in which the premature deployment causes the plane to crash.
A premature deployment on jump run in a tailgate aircraft (e.g., a Skyvan or a CASA) will usually result in the jumper making a safe-but-awkward exit at altitude. Sure, it’s not ideal, but the jumper usually won’t collide or entangle with the aircraft.
Most jump aircraft, of course, are not tailgates. Instead, they have a horizontal tail aft of the jump door, which creates a high risk of collision with a premature deployment. The horizontal stabilizer of the Cessna family (182, 205, 206, 208 Caravan, 210), the PAC 750XL and the King Air 90 will be in direct line of collision if a canopy deploys while the jumper is in the door. An entanglement at this point is likely to snap the stabilizer right off and send the aircraft spinning very quickly toward the ground. Pilots have recovered from some instances of horizontal stabilizer entanglement, but several have crashed because of it.
What’s a Jumper to Do?
- Mind your reserve. The most common cause of a premature deployment is a deployment of the the reserve canopy: when the handle is accidentally pulled or when the reserve pin is dislodged by mechanical manipulation (often, by rubbing on the door frame while exiting). Don’t let that happen: Keep an eye on yourself and, as far as you’re able, on everybody else.
- Speak up. As you certainly know by now, a jostled pilot chute on the step or in the door can also lead to a preemie. Often, other jumpers will see it first. Schindler insists that pilots and jumpers should have prearranged signals to indicate to a jumper that their pilot chute is deploying, so the jumper has a chance to either contain it or jump immediately and get well clear of the plane.
- Contain the situation. The proper course of action to take in the event of your (or another jumper’s) premature deployment depends on the aircraft, as well as a myriad of other factors, and the decision tree can be quite complex. The starting point, however, is decidedly less so. First: If the door is open, shut it. Close second: Trap any pilot chute (either main or reserve) as best you can.
“A main pilot chute is almost certainly going to be easier to trap than the spring of the reserve,” Schindler noted, “but you have got to try to control that pilot chute. The plane can always go around and while it’s doing so, you can decide if you’re landing with everyone at that point or if it is possible to shuffle people around to get the preemie away from the door.”
Having an engine failure on a jump plane is never good. That said: You may be interested to know that, if it happens on jump run—when power is greatly reduced for the exit—neither you nor the pilot may recognize what’s going on. (This is especially true of the Cessna 182/205/206.)
When an engine fails in a multi-engine aircraft, jumpers should stay put and let the pilot try to clean up the airplane and get configured for single-engine flight. A lot of these twin-engine jump planes can run on one engine (slowly, but they will climb).
What’s a Jumper to Do?
- Talk to your pilots beforehand. Addressing the issue is gold for everyone involved. Ask, “What would you like us to do, at what altitude, in an engine-failure situation?” That question alone might set the whole team up for success. “Dealing with engine failure while at the same time telling their removable cargo what to do can be a classic recipe for task saturation. If everyone’s guessing in the moment because they assumed they (and everyone else involved) had the skills and knowledge to handle it,” Schindler said, “it might not turn out well.”
- Prepare. “In pilot training, we tell people to start a stopwatch,” Schindler said. “Most of the magic of that is that it takes them a second to find the stopwatch button and start it, and that second usually takes them out of the panic mindset.”
While your pilot is theoretically starting a stopwatch, you should take counterpart measures. When you realize you’re in the context of an emergency, look at your altimeter. Start cross checking to make sure your altimeter matches the others on the plane. While you’re carefully listening for pilot instructions, perform a 3-ring check. Start preparing for an exit as if you were on jump run. “That way, when you get the order, you’re calm, and you know you’re ready to go,” Schindler said.
- Do not panic. You’re at altitude. Breathe. The pilot will be trading altitude for airspeed, working hard for coordinated flight and communicating with the jumpers as much as possible. Your job is to keep it together and listen.
This is one of the scariest jump-run emergencies in the collection, and the type of jumper-in-tow situation you’re involved in will determine how you, the other jumpers and the pilot handles it.
It used to be that the most likely jumper-in-tow emergency was from the failure of a static line to detach. To solve the problem, the instructor usually used a hook knife to sever the part of the line connected to the aircraft. As static-line student training has become increasingly rare, not many jump pilots need to worry about that type of incident, but jumper-in-tow situations in other contexts are still very real potential nightmares.
The two common causes of a jumper in tow are the booty snag and the premature deployment gone critical. In the former, a jumper’s booty snags on the corner of the step during exit and the snagged jumper remains attached to the aircraft by the snag point. This may seem like it’d result in an annoyance and an expensive suit repair, but it’s actually much more dangerous. Modern suit manufacturers use strong material and in numerous booty-caught incidents, that booty has not ripped. It has instead kept the jumper firmly attached to the aircraft, doing endless fruitless situps as they wait for someone else to engineer a way to hook knife them free.
If they aren’t freed, the situation can easily escalate to the latter of the two jumper-in-tow types: the jumper panic-deploys their parachute on their own, or their equipment deploys due to being exposed to air forces for an extended period of time. If the deploying canopy doesn’t cause the snag to release, the increased drag of the chute will cause the aircraft to stall and subsequently crash, or the forces involved will literally rip pieces from the plane and cause a total aircraft loss.
What’s a Jumper to Do?
- Dose up with an ounce of prevention to avoid a nasty pound of cure. According to Schindler, prevention is the best medicine against a jumper in tow. “The pilot should be briefing their skydivers or make sure they are briefed on what to do if they are in tow,” he said. If your pilot hasn’t done so, start that conversation.
DIY type? You can run a quick test yourself to prevent gear snagging in the door. “If the plane you fly has a step, it absolutely should not have any corners that a loop can catch over.” Schindler said, insistently. To test the setup of any plane you happen to be jumping out of, take a shoelace and rub it over the corners of the installed step. If you can get the shoelace to snag, then the step is a hazard and should really be modified before further jump operations. Tell somebody.
- Decide if you’re going to cut away. If you’re the unfortunate jumper in tow and are entangled by your canopy, you have some hard decisions to make. “You may have to decide to cut away, if you’re entangled by your main and you have that option,” Schindler said. “If it is a reserve and you’re entangled, tough call. You can cut your reserve lines and then hope the main deploys correctly. If you’re trailing anything, that’s a really difficult situation.”
- Keep your hands behind your head. This next nugget of information is vital: If you’re in tow, you’re going to be largely helpless, and the onlookers who are in the process of resolving the situation need to know that your lights are still on. The universal signal for this is to put your hands on the back of your helmet. This will be important information that folks will use in the decision to continue to attempt to free you or to land with you still in tow.
- Act quickly and confidently. If no one can reach the entangled gear, the next step is to get people out of the plane and therefore minimize the severity of the end result.
“If we are talking about a Cessna 182 and something has tangled with the horizontal stabilizer,” Schindler said, “get everybody out, because that tail is about to rip off. If the jumper’s gear hasn’t already fully deployed, it is probably about to, and it is going to take out the horizontal stabilizer. You are not doing anyone any good sitting there in the door to see what happens next. If a parachute premature deploys and entangles, things are going to happen very fast, and it is kind of a crapshoot how it is going to turn out.”
- Have access to a real knife. Make sure you have access to a large (12-plus inch) hook knife, not just the little guy you might carry to cut lineovers. “Every jump plane should have a big, pilot-accessible hook knife in case they need to use it or pass it back to someone,” Schindler said. As a jumper, you should find out where it is. If someone snags a booty (or anything else), you’ll communicate your intentions to the pilot as you use that large hook knife to attempt to cut the part that is causing the hangup.
- Maybe—just maybe—get ready for a memorable landing. This prospect is, of course, terrifying, but it has been done and done successfully. Under the auspices of a good pilot, jumpers in tow have managed to get away without any serious injuries. The pilot’s skill takes center stage in this situation, as they’ll be very occupied flying in a manner that doesn’t fire the jumper’s automatic activation device and doesn’t shake the jumper loose at a low altitude.
“I know of a case where a plane landed with a jumper dangling from the main strut,” Schindler said. “The aerodynamics of the situation had them with their rig down, so when they touched down, they just slid on the rig. They were pretty beat up, muscle-wise, because they had been doing a sit-up for half an hour, but they didn’t break a single bone.”
It’s Up to You
The partnership between jumper and pilot is never under such a pressure test as it is when you’re facing an aircraft incident together, so it makes sense to develop that relationship before your collective skydive hits the fan.
“Generally, one specific choice—or phenomenon—is not what kills you,” Schindler said. “It’s the attitude toward everything else that develops the actual accident. When it goes out of control, it is happening right now, not when you decide it’s going to go out of control. You can’t say, ‘Is everyone ready? We’re about to have to make split-second life-saving decisions.’ It doesn’t work like that.”
“Wear your seat belt and wear your helmet all the way up,” he concluded, “and realize that sometimes, the forces involved are just simply greater than you can deal with. When that’s what you’re looking at, you try to get the door open and claw your way out. That’s all you can do.
Don’t give up. Claw your way to the light and pull yourself out however you can.”
About the Author
Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.