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The Basics of Canopy Formation Skydiving

My name is Wendy Faulkner, and I jump here at Skydive Temple. Just half an hour north of Austin, you can experience the thrill of the best part of skydiving - Canopy Formations aka CRW. There is no better way to spend a skydive than running your parachute into your friends. Dangerous you say? Posh! Freefallers jump out of an airplane and wait until they are 15 seconds from certain death before opening their parachutes and hoping for the best. We are safety minded in CRW, and open our parachutes right out the door.

Canopies: Ideally you want to use specially designed canopies for CRW. Lightnings are the most common CRW-specific canopy and are commonly used for big-way CRW. Storms are another canopy often used for competition, but they aren't compatible with any other canopy than Storms. Big-way wing-loading on Lightnings is typically 1.3-1.4, although most experienced CRW coaches have other canopies to jump if they are jumping with lightly loaded people.
Casual small CRW can be done with other canopies. Triathlons and Spectres fly well with Lightnings, and both are available with dacron lines which is highly recommended when doing CRW. If you get a skinny line wrapped around your ankle, it is far more likely to slice than the fatter dacron lines. The Triathlons even offer CRW-specific line sets with red center lines (Lightnings also have red outside lines.) The Triathlon also offers the option of a retractible pilot chute on their hybrid version. A retractible pc is recommended for CRW because a trailing pilot chute can snag other people’s canopy. CRW canopies have rings on each of the center 3 cells, where the bridle gets sucked up through after opening and the pilot chute will end up sitting on the center of the canopy.

Many serious CRW canopies will have tail pickets. This is a pocket on the rear of the canopy where you stow the lines and the canopy is folded up (mostly) into your container without using a deployment bag. You never want to take this system to terminal velocity, but it does promote fast, on-heading openings.

Risers: CRW risers normally have great big toggles which have some sort of stiffener in them so that they are always open. This makes it easier to grab your toggles quickly without looking. CRW risers usually have blocks on the risers rather than dive loops - which makes it quicker and easier to use your risers. Some people use what are called 2-to-1’s. These are a simple pulley system on the front riser which halves the front riser pressure. Some people have extra goodies and gadgets on their risers like something to pull on their B lines, but these are not common.

Clothing: You should always wear long pants of some sort, gloves, socks, and easy to remove tennis shoes. You don’t want anything on your shoes which make snag, and they should be lightweight and in case your foot somehow comes in contact with another human, you don’t want to wear heavy boots. The shoes should be easily removable, in case a line gets wrapped around your ankle, kicking off the shoe may help free the line. Socks protect your ankles from line burns. Because you will be handling lines, you always wear gloves, even in the summer.

Hook Knives: The more the better. Metal ones are usually the sturdiest. Mount them in various places over your body so if your right hand is trapped, you might be able to reach something with your left.

RSLs: These should be disconnected. If you get into a wrap, you want to make sure you can freefall clear before pulling your reserve.

Altimeters: It is recommended to wear your altimeter on your chest, waster, lift web, or somewhere where it is less likely to snag than on your wrist.

Jumpers: You should always learn from experienced jumpers. You will be far safer than trying to figure it out on your own.

CRW Emergencies Procedures (by Mike Lewis)

The first step towards solving an emergency situation is to have a plan. It must be a good plan gleaned from the wisdom of experts.

The second step is to practice it. You should practice your emergency procedures so that you know them. An emergency is not the time to be confused or indecisive. The best time to review emergency procedures is whenever that natural fear of being out of control starts to creep in. This will replace the negative fear with a positive plan, and the plan will be the first thing that comes to mind in an emergency situation -- not the panic.

The third step is to do it! An emergency is not the time to get creative and try something that wasn't thought out during a less stressful period. In other words, stick with your planned emergency procedures.

CRW emergencies can be divided into two categories, i.e. wraps and entanglements. A wrap is when a parachute is wrapped around a jumpers body. An entanglement is when the parachutes are entangled with each other.

Wraps

A wrap is similar to a low speed malfunction. The top jumpers parachute will remain open. This gives you more time to deal with a problem than you would have with a freefall emergency. You do not want to land a modern square parachute with two people under it. You may have incredible forward speed because of the increased wing loading· The general rule fro wraps is that the bottom jumper cuts away first. The top parachute usually remains open, so there is no reason to release it. Also, if the jumper who has the parachute around him cuts away (the top jumper), he/she will go into freefall with the bottom jumper's canopy wrapped around him. That will only make matters worse. Usually you can climb out of a parachute by sliding the material down your body. If not, then the bottom jumper cuts away. That will release the tension and make it easier to climb out of the fabric.

Entanglements

An entanglement usually results from one jumper passing through the lines of another jumper's canopy. This causes the two parachutes to be entangled, with the pilots dangling beneath them. This situation almost always requires both jumpers to cut away. Usually one person will be suspended higher than the other. The general rule for entanglements is the top person goes first. If the bottom jumper releases, his lines and risers may recoil upward and wrap the other person. When the top person releases first, he may bounce off the bottom person on the way by, but he won't have much momentum. The top jumper usually is the one who passed through the lines, and many times his parachute will pull itself out of the mess after being released. This is a bonus for the bottom jumper. Sometimes the entanglement will start spinning, with one jumper hanging downward and the other one orbiting the entanglement. In this situation the orbiter should cut away first. This will fling the orbiter clear of the entanglement without changing the other jumper's orientation. If the jumper hanging downward releases first, it will change the orbiter's orientation to the mess and could make his situation worse.

Communication

When involved in a wrap or entanglement the first thing to do is to communicate with each other. You need to communicate the altitude, the problem and the plan of action. When someone has a parachute wrapped around him, he may not be able to read his altimeter. In all the excitement, he'll probably forget his last altitude reading, and you don't want him to panic and cutaway. When you are totally engulfed in nylon, it is very reassuring to hear the altitude called out every 500 feet. It also helps to hear that your parachute is okay and if "you crawl to the left" it will come loose, or some similar instruction. If you cannot get any response from the person wrapped up in your canopy you should go ahead and cutaway. The jumper probably has nylon around his face or neck and you need to release the tension by releasing your risers. If you are the one who is wrapped in parachute you should communicate that you are working on the situation.

Speak to the other jumper at regular intervals. "Don't cut away" is the wrong thing to say as the other jumper might only hear the last part and jettison his canopy. Once the decision to cut away has been made, you don't want to panic. First get your hands on both handles and check that you are clear of any lines. You should peel the cut away handle off the velcro, but leave the reserve handle in its pocket. If you have a hard pull on the cutaway handle you can release the reserve handle and use both hands to cut away. Keep your eyes on the reserve handle so you can grab it quickly. Be ready to make a freefall delay if you have sufficient altitude. If more than one person is going to cut away, the first one out needs to freefall for five to 10 seconds. This will allow sufficient vertical separation for the next person to open a reserve. The foremost thing we can do to keep a margin of safety is to respect the altitude. Most problems start during docking or break-off. USPA says the limit for docking is 2500 feet. The real question is "How low do I want to be in a wrap?" The next question is "How low do I want to be in freefall" USPA says the decision to cut away should be made by 1800 feet and the procedure started by 1600 feet. These limits were determined by years of experience and should be respected. I do not recommend that you cut away below 500 feet. At that altitude you should save yourself by deploying your reserve without breaking away. It is better to add more nylon to the mess than to accelerate towards the ground at such a low altitude.

Docking

What causes wraps and entanglements? Most are caused by bad docks. The three factors most often involved are speed. angle and distance from the center. If you have too much speed your body continues to travel after you have docked. The point where your canopy has been gripped remains stationary, but the rest of the canopy continues to move in the direction your body is traveling. If you warp the parachute too much it will lose pressurization and wrap the other jumper you are docked on. Because things tend to swing in an arc, it is common for the parachute to wrap securely around the other jumper.

There are good and bad docking angles. A straight in approach, directly behind a jumper at zero degrees is the safest. Docking head on, or 180 degrees, is obviously the worst angle. Docking with your parachute at 90 degrees relative to the other jumper's heading will still give you too much speed. The most efficient angle is at 45 degrees relative to the other jumper. Docking with an end cell is more likely to cause a wrap than docking with a center cell.  These factors combine to make a dock safe or unsafe.

Formation Funnels

Another cause of wraps and entanglements is when the formation funnels. This can be the result of a mismatched or "misflown" canopy that is collapsing. it can also be caused by a stalling canopy. In a planed formation the nose of the parachute below you is pushing on your brake lines. Your canopy could stall if you apply as little as half brakes. If someone docks and wraps the corner of a formation it can cause part of the formation to funnel. It can also funnel at breakoff because the trim of the formation changes and the wing people aren't paying attention.

Another problem is people not looking where they are going. You should always look before you turn and not just watch the formation. Many people have gotten wrapped by not looking where they are going on opening. If you are staring at your toggles right after opening, you may have an unpleasant encounter with someone else doing the same thing. Avoid tunnel vision.

Avoiding Problems

What can we do to prevent or minimize wraps and entanglements?

The foremost preventative measure is a thorough dirt dive. That is the time to share techniques that work for the type of formations and transitions that are planned. CRW is very three dimensional and therefore complex. Participants can easily miscalculate an approach if they are trying something new. Don't just dirt dive the formations, share any information that you know. If someone is docking badly you can spread out your arms and prevent the parachute from wrapping you. Even if it does wrap, you can extractt yourself more easily because you won't be cocooned so tightly. Nylon will stick to itself like a Chinese finger trap when it is wound tightly around you. But if you can give it some slack it will come loose. You can grab the area of nylon With the most tension on it then lift it by as little as an inch. As you let it down, it will then loosen and start sliding down your body.

If you are in a formation and someone beiow you gets wrapped, it would be good to hold on to him until he can sort things out. This will give the jumper more time, and less worry, by keeping his parachute on heading. If someone is entangled in your lines you can apply light front riser pressure. This keeps tension in your nose and tends to keep your parachute from spinning. The jumper may then be able to slide up your lines which will allow his parachute to stay inflated. This front risering must be done immediately, because once the two parachutes become entangled one or both of you will have to cut away.

If an end cell wraps around your foot it can be difficult to release. You can't lift the jumper's weight up with one leg and it can also injure you. As the canopy comes around your foot, stick the other foot in there also. This will enable you to lift the lower jumper up and get your hands on the canopy. It should also help prevent injury. If just one foot is wrapped, grab your risers and turn yourself away from the other canopy -- you'll be facing backwards under your canopy. Now you will have a 180 degree wrap around your ankle instead of a 360 degree wrap. This should make it a lot easier to shake off the canopy. If the canopy is collapsing and re-inflating, don't fight it. Have the bottom person cut away. The snatching action can really damage your ankles.

More information on CRW can be found on Wendy Faulkners's Website.


Written by Wendy Faulkner, 10,000+ jumps, AFF-I, CRWdog