A Safe Return to Swooping

Chris CookExperienced Skydivers

Team Landing On Valkyries

This is a weird situation for me.  I haven’t gone over a month without at least one skydive since 2010.  When we do get back jumping this is going to provide me with challenges that I have never had to deal with before. The one that concerns me the most is not being current under my parachute.

Most people know what it is like to feel uncurrent at something – you can talk about skill-fade or lack of focus, but what do you actually lose by being uncurrent?  For most disciplines in skydiving, currency can be regained simply by doing that thing more – ie doing a few FS jumps to blow away the cobwebs.  For landing a parachute in general, and specifically canopy piloting however, being ‘a bit rusty’ at it comes with the extra risks of being in close proximity to the ground.

Insert socially distancing joke here

Seeking Advice

So my aim while making this article was to use my experiences, and more importantly get some advice from some of the most experienced canopy pilots to work out what skills we will have actually lost during this enforced break. With this knowledge we can understand what to do before we start jumping again, and then on our first jumps back in order to regain those skills and make our jumps that much safer.

The way I plan to tackle this is to work out what being uncurrent under a parachute actually changes for the pilot, and then how do I go about regaining the skills that may have faded in the time I’ve been out of the air. Hopefully most of these skills will apply to everyone from student to High Performance pilot.

To that end, I have enlisted the help of people who have experience in similar situations:  

  • Tommy Botten Jensen – Norwegian canopy coach and competitor.  Norway’s skydiving is seasonal – very little skydiving is done over the winter.  This makes the Norwegian skydivers uniquely qualified to give advice on how to safely resume skydiving after long breaks.
  • Curt Bartholomew – 6 time CP World Champion and Alter Ego Co Founder/Coach. Curt coaches skydivers of all experiences and all over the world, including at Skydive Langar!
Tommy Botten Jensen (left) and Curt Bartholomew (right)

First, I asked Curt what skills associated with canopy piloting get rusty during time away, and then asked both Curt and Tommy to offer ways to address them:

Curt: “The biggest skill we lose from not jumping in swooping is going to be sight picture. So the canopy pilot won’t know what height to finish the turn at and it is very dangerous. The pattern and adjusting for winds would definitely be another big one, and just an overall feel for their controls.”

Flight Plan / Landing Pattern

The pattern and adjusting for winds is something that we begin learning in our groundschool.  We are taught to run through this on the ground beforehand, and practice for different wind scenarios.  When applying this methodology to canopy piloting, Tommy has some good advice:

Tommy:  “Walk the turns during off time. Watch the video [of your landings] in the living room and walk the turn, visualizing and trying to ‘feel’ the harness and risers. Sounds silly, but it’s given me a lot and I’ve spent countless hours on this.”

Curt: “They could be running through patterns with Google maps and figuring out adjustments for winds before we even get to the DZs and start jumping.”

Good news! We can help our currency right now! Okay so it might not be the same rush, and your pet might give you odd looks, but we all know from FS teams that visualisation really does work, and swoopers are fortunate to have an almost drivers-eye view of their own landings to help.  Even without a video to watch, Google maps can be used to plan landing patterns, and pictures of the landing area can be used to remind us of the view from under a parachute.

Programmes such as FlySight give incredible detail to go along with the video

Canopy Control

If you have ever driven someone else’s car, you will have noticed that the pedals and steering feel different to what you are used to.  Given I haven’t driven my car for over a month now, I expect my car to feel a little alien too.  It makes sense that we will react to our canopies in much the same way.

The best fix for this? Treat your parachute like it’s brand new again:

Tommy: “High pull and get to know the system again. Do the “standard” tasks:

Emergency abort digging both toggles

Back riser high and low speed stalls

Clean turn mechanics, particularly the stop. Over rotations with sashay movements are some of the most common errors. “

Curt:The drills [during a high pull] would be to practice turns (the turn they were doing when they stopped), definitely practice stabbing out or arresting the dive on toggles, and also using the rears to plane the canopy out after the turn at altitude to get a feel for the controls again. Obviously throw in harness turn practice.”

Chris Cook Swooping Selfie
Dedicate specific jumps to practicing canopy drills

Sight Picture

In my opinion, this will be the hardest skill to get back – it will certainly take the most amount of jumps.  The ‘sight picture’ refers to the visual clues the canopy pilot gets before, during and after the turn.  These are built up with experience, and they help to notify the pilot of their proximity to the ground at any point of the landing.  While you shouldn’t rely solely on the sight picture, you should definitely listen to it if it is telling you you are too low.  

Even when current, you can easily lose your ‘picture’ if there are distractions (other canopies, obstacles, or objects on the landing area)’.  Jumping at a place that is unfamiliar to you will also change the visual clues your brain receives.  At your ‘home’ dropzone, you become very aware of the distances between objects (the windsock to the edge of the landing area, for example), and these help you determine your proximity to the ground/hazards.

Valkyrie Team Landing
Be wary of distractions

Due to the importance of the sight picture, both Tommy and Curt have similar advice:

Tommy: “Start with the landing you feel most comfortable doing (for example, if you were demoing a parachute, how would you land?) Getting the ‘sight picture’ back (the view and general feeling for how the landing is going) takes time and can’t be rushed. And lastly, Breathe. There’s always the next swoop, so know when to abort”

Curt: As everyone gets back in the sky, the important thing to remember is that we are all different. Our currency and comfort level will come back to us at different speeds and we will also all be starting back up with different feelings and at a different level from person to person. You may see some people seem to not miss a beat, while others will come back in slowly and more backed off. There is no single right or wrong place to start, that all depends on the individual. Take your time, be safe, and don’t ridicule each other over the path being taken. If anyone needs any advice or has any questions, feel free to reach out!”

I think that if I was to find a positive for the enforced absence we have all endured, it’s that everybody is uncurrent and everybody is in a position of having to retrain their skills.  This gives a great opportunity to remove ego from canopy piloting – no one is expecting to do amazing swoops after months away.  You can even go as far as blaming an inefficient landing on the coronavirus!

Joking aside, for me the pressure is off.  If I mess up a setup or feel that something is wrong in the sight picture, I will simply abort the swoop and work on improving it next jump.  I’m expecting to be rusty, and will make mistakes. 

I would urge everyone to take a minute before each jump to remember how much it has sucked to be not jumping during the enforced lockdown.  Imagine now how much it would suck to put yourself in a similar position just through not being careful enough.  Remember there is always the next jump.