Video Below :
I have been skydiving as a licensed sport jumper for two-and-a-half years though I actually experienced my first tandem skydive at Skydive the Ranch back in 2009. I then did one or two tandems a year afterwards for fun until I finally decided to pursue the student AFF program in mid-2015 and make this a focused pursuit. Although I’ve dealt with some minor issues under canopy like mild line twists and one spiraling rear-riser induced “oversteer” through which I worked without having to resort to my emergency procedures, my 749th jump was my first cutaway malfunction.
I’ve often had off-heading canopy openings that spin my body 90 to 180 degrees but nothing as bad as my recent experience. It is quite likely that I created the issue myself by adding much too much input on the rear risers whilst trying to “fly” the opening. I felt the canopy hunting as it inflated, as it often does, and added both harness and riser input but without really knowing which direction I need to emphasize. It almost felt as if it was going one way and then my body was shot out in the opposite direction. The inertia of my body resulted in several line twists and put the canopy in a dive. I was swung out parallel to the canopy like a tetherball in rotation and I was quickly spinning on my back. It was at this point, combined with my 3,000’ audible altimeter alarm going off in my ear (meaning just 500’ to my pre-established hard deck), that I felt I had run out of time and options to successfully work through the twists. Because I was still spinning I hadn’t even had a chance to try and figure out the line twists. Past line twists were not so violent and still had me below the canopy able to assess the situation and get right to work on kicking out. It was never an issue before this jump. Now, though, I was rotating on my back looking at the sky above and feeling helpless.
As soon as I realized my situation I immediately made a decision to go to my emergency procedures. Before I could even consciously put the steps together my right hand had yanked out the cutaway handle and my left was reaching for the reserve handle. The reserve canopy was out before I even began to pull the reserve handle thanks wholly to the ACE MARD (RSL). I don’t remember dropping the cutaway handle but I did; I certainly was not concerned or even aware of the idea of holding onto it to save the money on ordering new gear. I had never experienced a cutaway before and I think my biggest concern on every jump prior was that I did not know how much force would really pry the handle out of the velcro and how far I’d have to pull in arm’s length to lose the cutaway cable from the cord loop successfully. I had had anxious visions in my dreams of the velcro being stuck and fighting to pull out the handle, or pulling it out and still having to take my left hand to the cutaway cable to yank it from the three-ring cord loop. During the real episode I had no time for worry or fear. The handle came out like melted butter and the reserve, as mentioned before, was already over my head before I even registered that I did in fact pull the cutaway handle without issue. It was as seamless as it could be, thankfully. My next concern as I went through the emergency procedures was if the reserve would also spin up in line twists being that my body was still in motion spinning, and if there’d be any issue with me deploying the reserve while on my back. Luckily, the reserve opened perfectly and things were still and peaceful. It was all over in a split second. I barely had time for any feelings of anxiety or fear. I realized that I was in a situation unlike any previously which required me to take immediate action, and I was solely focused on that action. The emergency procedures were executed with muscle memory because of my training on the ground and really happened a bit subconsciously once I made the more conscious decision a tenth of second prior to initiate.
Once I was under the reserve and I knew I was safe my next thought was to check for traffic around me, check my altimeter, and check my position over the ground to best be ready for the landing pattern. I then looked around to see in which direction my main canopy was headed, to hopefully recover it once I was back on the earth safely. After this, I remember reaching up to collapse the slider and tuck it behind my head as I do on my main - more muscle memory - and laughing to myself when I remembered I was on my reserve.
I am still just a novice skydiver compared to the majority of the sport jumpers, tandem masters, and instructors at my home drop zone who have years or even decades of experience and many thousands of jumps. If I could offer any suggestion for a less experienced jumper concerned about his or her own first cutaway it would be this: know that it is a matter of "when" and not "if" and stay mentally prepared, train your emergency procedures every day you show up at the drop zone and before every jump, have your hard deck set before you ever get on a plane and stick to it (and the same thing goes for your break-off altitude and pull altitude as you plan fun jumps with other skydivers - stick to the plan), understand the different types of malfunctions and envision how you will react to each one (or use the mock harness in the student area if available at whichever drop zone being visited and go through the physical action of the emergency procedures), anticipate the worst scenarios at every stage of a skydive and have a plan for how to deal with that hypothetical situation should it become reality (aircraft emergencies with your seat belt still on, after it comes off but below your hard deck at a low altitude, above your hard deck, with fabric out if the door is open, or any other such concerning but very real scenarios), and generally have a mind for handling crises with deliberate action and no hesitation.
I feel that my malfunction could have been avoided by better skills in packing, a more relaxed body position, and learning to better “fly” a twitchy opening without adding unnecessary and potentially devastating inputs of my own. This surely is all human error and the gear was working just as it should. I have total confidence in my gear with regular training, inspection, and maintenance. My next move before my very next jump is to ask my drop zone mentors for additional training with packing, deployment, and better managing the opening sequence. This is a great lesson learned to lead me to improve my skills and awareness and become a better, safer skydiver.