Canopy Traffic: Find Your Place in the Sky

Traffic is a bad word, especially for those of us living in the Houston area! And while we think we can get away from it when we’re flying, the reality is that at any dropzone, and particularly at a busy one like Spaceland, the traffic can resemble downtown Houston rush at its worst. The difference is that if we don’t like what’s ahead of us, we can’t just stop and let things sort themselves out. Parachutes can’t stop until they land, so we skydivers have to manage our position in traffic from deployment through landing to avoid collisions.

When we’re driving down the highway in a pack of cars going 85 mph, we are very, very close to each other, but it works because we’re all going the same direction and at the same speed. Parachute traffic doesn’t have such rigid guidelines for paths and minimum/maximum speed; add the third dimension of altitude and it’s no wonder the canopy pattern can look like a total mess!

SUMMARY

Problems:

  • Closing Speeds
  • Converging Paths
  • Faster Canopies Behind
  • Slower Canopies in Front

Solutions:

  1. Take responsibility for getting in the best place in the pattern order on every skydive, and staying there.
  2. Maintain hyper-awareness of where everyone is under canopy throughout your descent.
  3. Put safe landings for you AND everyone else in the air at the very top of your priority list on every skydive.

There are two major reasons why cars and canopies collide: Closing speeds and converging paths. First let’s look at closing speeds: Just like on the highway, a Ferrari going 40 mph faster than everyone else has a higher risk of catastrophically running into slower vehicles; what would be a bump at similar speeds becomes a crash. With high closing speeds, there is very little time to react if the traffic in front of you doesn’t behave as expected. Flip that on its head and look at it from the other perspective; a slower car in front of a pack of speed demons can cause impressive chaos, especially if it behaves erratically.

This leads us to the next aspect of collisions: Converging paths. We don’t have problems on the road when everyone’s going the same way and staying in their lanes, even if some cars are going much faster. The problems occur when people going the same or different speeds turn towards each other, change lanes, or otherwise get in each other’s way. The problem can be significantly more complex with canopy traffic that can be going in any direction at any time (although hopefully we’re all on a similar page in the landing pattern under 1000 feet!). There is a lot more to watch in the sky than there is even on Houston’s highways, because other people could be coming from anywhere–even from below if you’re descending faster or turning.

The other aspect of converging paths is that essentially, we are all converging on every skydive. We’re spreading ourselves out as we leave the plane, but then flying back towards a landing area that’s nowhere near as big as our jump run.

With more and more canopies filling the skies above dropzones, we need to reduce our chances of canopy collisions by being aware of our ideal place in the canopy pattern and flying to maintain that place. For canopies approaching the same landing area, your place in the pattern is where the jumpers above/behind you are flying at the same speed or slower, and jumpers below you are flying at your speed or faster. Some might call it an “order of go,” and this reduces our chances of a closing speed issue. It’s a loose order given that we are not all aiming for the same pinpoint on the ground such that we are forced to take turns (we do have quite a few acres to land in!), but it is a good guideline to minimize converging canopy paths and closing speeds.

There can be a couple of challenges in getting to that place:

1) Exit order, which is selected to maximize horizontal separation between groups at pull time, may result in faster canopies being placed behind you. For example, freeflyers will exit behind belly flyers, and some of those freeflyers may have more highly loaded, faster wings than the belly flyers (and vice versa!). Also, Skydiver Training Program instructors/tandem videographers who often jump highly loaded canopies will be behind both of these groups.

2) Canopy flight choices are very individual; any one of us can go from being a slow right-lane flyer to a passing demon with a simple turn. We are all flying high-performance canopies that turn and dive easily; one of our instructor likes to say we are all driving Ferraris, but some are in second gear and some are in sixth gear!

As with any problem, there are multiple solutions. Every single skydiver (whether you’re on a fast or slow canopy) should use these strategies on EVERY skydive! If you’re wondering if this is about you… it is. 🙂

Solution 1: Take responsibility for getting in the best place in the pattern order on every skydive, and staying there.

That place will vary depending on what you’re doing and who’s getting out in front of and behind you, and what canopies they are flying. Your job is to get into the place in the order where faster canopies are below/in front of you, and slower ones are above/behind you.

  • Know the canopies that will be in the air around you. This is yet another reason to get to the loading area a good five minutes before your load! Remember that we pick our exit order to maximize horizontal separation between groups at deployment; once that order is set, ask about canopy sizes/wingloadings of the jumpers in the groups before and after you so you can plan the canopy part of your skydive as well as the freefall part. We spend more time under canopy than in freefall, but we tend to plan the canopy part of our jumps much less than the freefall part. For our safety, this needs to change.
    • Slower canopies or lighter wingloadings behind you aren’t likely to be big traffic problems, but a much faster canopy is likely to pass you at some point. If you have a pocket rocket behind you, find out what color it is so you can prepare to look for that canopy in the sky. If it’s near you, let it go by, flying predictably straight and possibly in some brakes to make the pass easier. Don’t forget that kicking your feet lets the other jumper know you see them, which is great to know when you’re passing or being passed! (Kick your legs once or twice while watching the traffic all around you–don’t fixate on the other jumper and forget about everyone else.) It’s better to get that pass out of the way up high than to dive and play so the pocket rocket is forced to pass you at a much lower altitude, leaving you less altitude to recover in the event of a collision. Remember that we are converging on a single property to land, so passing each other closer to the ground generally means all of the canopies from that load are also closer together laterally, with less margin for error.Spiraling and playing with your canopy inputs should be reserved for times when no other canopies are nearby.
    • Jumpers in front of you with slower canopies or lighter wingloadings may pose a traffic problem as well; find out what color their canopies are so you can be aware of those you will most likely pass. Talk to those jumpers and make sure you are both aware of your canopies and colors so you can get yourselves into the right place in the pattern relative to each other. Don’t just swoop past someone close by without warning; people do unpredictable things when they get scared.
  • Once you’re settled into the appropriate spot in the pattern, especially under 1000 feet, stay there! Don’t dive and play and crowd the person in front of you, or float in deep brakes so that you crowd the person behind. Don’t be that guy/girl. :p This requires you to follow the next solution as well.

Solution 2: Maintain hyper-awareness of where everyone is under canopy throughout your descent.

This can’t be over-emphasized! Keep checking the airspace around you every few seconds, because the traffic pattern will fluctuate with people’s wingloadings and canopy flight choices all the way to the ground. The last thing you want is to lose track of someone close to you! Also, we have blind spots behind and below us due to our rigs, so keep checking! As you approach the ground, don’t fixate on the ground or on traffic near you. Maintain awareness of both by using your peripheral vision and scanning fore, middle, and far ground ahead of you, and left and right of your line of flight. Big head movements aren’t necessarily required; but we want to avoid target and traffic fixation, and tunnel vision, to see any traffic problems developing while there’s still time and altitude to fix them.Remember, it takes two to collide but only one to avoid. Also, remember that once your feet touch down, it isn’t over! Look up and around for other traffic landing after you, and collapse your canopy quickly to keep it out of the way of others.

Solution 3: Put safe landings for you AND everyone else in the air at the very top of your priority list on every skydive.

Are you working on accuracy, but someone’s too close? Land somewhere else and work on accuracy on another jump. Or do a hop and pop to work on that with fewer or no other people in the air with you. Or perhaps you’re swooping, and traffic reduces the space you have to do the big turn where and when you want. Remember Rule #1, “Land safe, not close?” Everyone’s safety is more important than your swoop.

On multiple occasions, skydivers considered to be some of the top canopy pilots in the world have collided with others, sometimes with fatal results. No one is perfect all the time, and if we fly very close to others, our margin for error is very small. Let’s increase that margin by knowing when conditions are good for our landing goals and when to bail to plan B. (You do have one, right?!)

I’ve heard it said a few times that parachute landing is a team sport whether you train with your teammates or not. This is so true; we are all in this together, and we need to watch out for our teammates on every jump.

Blue skies and fly smart!

4 Replies to “Canopy Traffic: Find Your Place in the Sky”

  1. Let’s not forget – the low jumper has the right-of-way!

    The higher jumper can typically see a lower jumper easily, but it can be difficult or impossible for the lower jumper to see a higher one (and looking for traffic above takes a jumper’s attention away the direction of travel). For this reason the lower jumper ALWAYS has the right-of-way and it is ALWAYS the responsibility of the jumper above to yield when necessary.

    It is everyone’s responsibility to see and avoid other traffic, but it is imperative that everyone understands that when conflict exists it is the higher jumper that must give way.

  2. I agree with Chuck, the low man always has the right of way. It’s impossible to see up through your parachute.

    All jumpers should be considerate of other pilots around them, including to the jumpers above you. If we start planning from our dirt dives, in the loading area, and on the plane achieving vertical separation is much easier.

    One of the things that has stood out to me in Texas is seeing drivers pull to the side to let other traffic pass even though they were going the speed limit. This courtesy is something we can learn from. Let faster traffic pass, when safe to do so. Doing so will increase our safety.

    The more aware you become of others and your placement in the sky, the more you protect yourself, your friends, and your family.

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