System Restart—Coming Back to Skydiving After a Long Layoff
By Matt Leonard
Safety. It’s the reason we made changes to every facet of our lives in recent months: to help minimize the threat to humanity posed by COVID-19. As we return to the skies, it is our responsibility to be as safe as possible, because, as we learned during the pandemic, our actions affect not only our own safety but the safety of others.
Risk mitigation and the decision-making process surrounding risk mitigation is an important part of the foundation of safety. Every jump is calculated risk, and everyone’s risk-to-fun ratio is different. (Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld wrote a great article on this topic. It’s available on the Performance Designs website at blog.performancedesigns.com/skydiving-and-risk/.) Still, it’s important for all skydivers to think about risk mitigation, especially at a time when so many of us are not current on our skills.
This guideline for returning to the skies is for the everyday jumper, but it’s also for everyone else in the community, be they instructors, sponsored athletes or pro competitors. All of these people are mentors and influencers in the community, and they influence each other, as well as casual weekend jumpers. An instructor may look up to an examiner, Safety and Training Advisor or sponsored athlete, perhaps because they wish to get there someday. A sponsored athlete may look up to a pro competitor who leads the way through good example. And a pro athlete may admire an instructor who sends well-trained students to them for coaching. It’s a community.
The people who are not as active or experienced also look toward the influencers for advice regarding decision-making and safety, but they also look toward their peers. And students look up to everyone in their circle of influence, be they more experienced jumpers or even non-jumpers such as manifest staff or DZ management. Because this community is so closely knit, creating a culture of safety that includes everyone will be of the utmost importance when returning to the sky.
No matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, you can’t take this lightly. After all, when was the last time currency training or taking a step back hurt someone? Take extra time to get back into the swing of things.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given the whole world a new perspective. For skydivers, the lesson we can apply is that your safety, my safety, our friends’ safety and our colleagues’ safety depend on everyone doing their part. And on top of that, now is not the time to be going to the hospital. So, let’s give a break to the stressed healthcare system and do our parts to stay healthy and injury-free.
Where to begin? How about at home:
- Inspect your gear thoroughly (3-ring system, pins, handles, attachment points).
- Make sure your reserve and AAD are in date.
- Repack your main.
- Make sure all your altimeters have batteries or are charged.
- Review and visualize your emergency procedures.
- Review the landing pattern for your home DZ to stay fresh.
Then, when you return to the DZ:
- Look at weather conditions, understand if there are areas of turbulence and thermals you could expect under canopy.
- Are the winds OK for your level of currency and skill set?
- Review your intended exit spot and what your pattern will look like.
- Review the outs at the DZ, even if it’s your home DZ.
- Make sure you’ve consulted an instructor and have undergone formal currency training (if required, although it’s a good idea even if not required).
- Don’t forget to incorporate all the habits you had before the layoff (e.g., equipment checks on the ride to altitude and visualization).
- Make the jump!
- Think about planning to pull a bit higher. Give yourself time to slow down.
- When under canopy, look at the whole picture. Where are you in the stack and landing order? Do you need to adjust?
- Will you make the primary landing area? Is it too busy and maybe you should land in an alternate landing area?
- Do practice flares and get your timing down.
- Jump the canopy you’re most familiar with, not the new toy you bought over the layoff.
- Don’t do a high-performance landing; do a normal, straight-in approach until you can go on a hop-and-pop and practice to get back to where you were.
- After packing, take the time to do an honest debrief with yourself (or an instructor) and think about how you could improve in your planning, the execution of the jump plan and the landing pattern.
- Make a plan to get back into the swing of things (e.g., a few hop-and-pops, smaller ways to hone the skills, etc.).
Even if you’re a highly experienced jumper, it’s important for your peers, lower-experience jumpers and those you admire for you to take a step back for safety. We’re all eager to get back to normal, but we need to understand that we should all mitigate risk when possible. It’s probably not a good idea to make your first jump back in a huge group, even if it’s tempting. It’s not wise to throw down a huge turn for landing after an eight-month layoff; maybe a normal 90-degree turn to final would be best.
It is all about having a mindset that is proactive rather than reactive. Deciding to go to an alternate landing area that’s less congested, deciding to go on a smaller group jump, deciding not to jump the new wingsuit … these choices help you choose and control your environment, where you engage in something you are more familiar with instead of pushing the envelope as you did when you made your last jump. These decisions are for us as a community. Let’s help keep each other safe so we can continue to do what we love: Be in the sky with our friends.
About the Author
Matt Leonard, D-31977, is a USPA AFF and Tandem Instructor, Coach and PRO. He is a member of the Control Tower canopy piloting team and is chief sport instructor at Superior Flight Solutions.