WHAT IF MY PARACHUTE DOESN’T OPEN?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions among tandem students. It is a reasonable thing to ask before throwing yourself out of an airplane. Here’s everything you may (or may not) want to know about what happens if your parachute doesn’t open or “malfunctions”.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF A PARACHUTE MALFUNCTION?
Parachutes almost always open, but they don’t always open correctly. For this reason, every skydiving container system is equipped with a secondary or “reserve” parachute. In the event of a main parachute malfunction, the reserve parachute is deployed. Though parachute malfunctions are infrequent, they are still a part of the sport. The generally accepted statistic is that approximately 1 out of every 1000 skydives results in a malfunction which requires the deployment of a reserve parachute.
WHAT IS A RESERVE PARACHUTE?
Reserve parachutes are a secondary or backup parachute, designed specifically for emergency use. They are carefully engineered to open as quickly and consistently as possible. Unlike main parachutes, which are designed more for performance and have softer, slower openings.
Reserve parachutes are maintained and packed to a higher standard than main parachutes. A main parachute takes about 10 minutes to pack, while a reserve parachute takes close to an hour. The method for packing reserves is meticulous and can only be done by a parachute rigger who has been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Reserve parachutes are inspected, serviced, and repacked every 180 days regardless of use.
WHAT IS A PARACHUTE MALFUNCTION?
Most people imagine a scenario much like a Road Runner cartoon. The one where Wile E. Coyote pulls the handle on his backpack and… nothing comes out. This type of malfunction is uncommon. Most malfunctions are considered “partial” malfunctions. This means, the main parachute has been released from the container but isn’t fully inflating or isn’t functioning properly.
Upon deployment, your instructor will visually inspect the parachute and determine if it is functioning properly based on the following criteria:
- Is it fully inflated? When a parachute is properly inflated, it is rectangular in shape- not just a ball of tangled fabric and lines.
- Is it stable? The parachute should be flying straight ahead and level; not spinning or diving out of control.
- Is it steerable? Your instructor will perform a steerability check to make sure they can maneuver and “flare” the parachute. (Flaring adjusts the pitch and slows the parachute for landing).
If the parachute does not meet these criteria, and the issue cannot be corrected, your instructor can “cut-away” or release the main parachute and deploy the reserve parachute instead.
WHAT CAUSES A PARACHUTE TO MALFUNCTION?
You might think it’s all about how the parachute is packed, however, even a perfectly packed parachute can malfunction. With 300 square feet of fabric, multiple sets of very long lines, and 120 mile per hour winds, sometimes parachutes just don’t open right. Some things that can affect parachute openings are:
- Poor/unstable body position during deployment
- Packing technique
- Needed maintenance
- Size and type of parachute
- Wing Loading (weight being suspended from parachute)
WHAT CAN I DO TO CONTRIBUTE TO A GOOD PARACHUTE OPENING?
The biggest contribution you can make toward a good opening is to maintain a stable, belly-to-earth orientation throughout your skydive. This can be achieved through proper body position.
- Push your hips forward and “arch” through your lower back
- Keep symmetrical arms and legs
- Look out at the horizon ahead of you
SKYDIVING EMERGENCY PROCEDURES AND TRAINING
The USPA requires thorough training and regular practice of the procedures for parachute malfunctions. Because malfunctions are relatively infrequent, it’s important to run through the procedures on every skydive to avoid feeling surprised or out of practice when a malfunction eventually happens.
AUTOMATIC ACTIVATION DEVICES
All tandem parachute systems are equipped with AAD’s or Automatic Activation Devices. This is a skydiving safety device designed to deploy the reserve parachute automatically if the instructor were unable- like in the event of a medical issue. While this scenario is unlikely, and all instructors are required to obtain an FAA Medical Certificate, it’s important to have a plan for every situation.