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As skydivers, it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that everyone at the loading area knows what the exit order is. There are often exceptions to the rule. Many drop zones operate differently, and sometimes they allow highly experienced jumpers to change the exit order based on skill level and event organizing.
The United States Parachute Association lays out the basic safety recommendations for skydiving safely. Nestled in Section 5-7 USPA General Recommendations is “Spotting” which also covers skydiving exit order. We will cover spotting in-depth in another article, but for now, let’s talk about exit order and exceptions to the recommendations.
Larger groups of jumpers and slow fallers are exposed to upper winds longer than faster falling groups or single jumpers. Therefore, they go first in order to avoid drifting through the column of air another group may be jumping in.
Your drop zone might do things a little differently. With the popularity of wingsuiting and angle flying, for example, many drop zones have modified the common exit order suggested in the SIM (skydiver’s information manual) to accommodate multiple moving groups.
Let’s break it down. There are several things happening on jump run and in free fall that change group separation and exit order. They are primarily winds aloft speed, the type of free fall, and planned deployment altitude.
Winds aloft affect free fall drift. If there’s a 15 mph wind out of the south, then belly free fall groups who are exposed to these winds for 60 seconds will drift a quarter mile north during free fall. Freefly groups, on the other hand, are exposed to the winds for only 45 seconds or so, meaning they will have less drift during free fall than belly groups.
This is why belly groups go out first. It’s worth noting that the larger a formation gets, the slower its fall rate, so larger groups go out before smaller groups.
We now understand why belly groups leave the plane before freefly groups. But what about angle flying, tracking, and wingsuiting?
Moving groups require less separation on exit because they are heading perpendicular to jump run immediately after exiting the plane. Wingsuit groups leave last because they usually get a bit more distance from the drop zone to fly, maybe a mile or two, and generally stay out of everybody’s hair.
The USPA puts angle and tracking groups out after tandems, which isn’t a problem as long as the leader of the group is experienced enough to achieve good horizontal distance from jump run, and as long as the group stays together.
This can cause an issue if the group is not very experienced (and let’s be honest, we’ve probably all been in a tracking or angle jump that was led by someone not experienced enough!). If the group doesn’t achieve enough distance from jump run before they turn downwind toward everyone else, or they fly the wrong heading back into jump run unintentionally, there could be a tracking group breaking off through open tandem and student canopies.
Most skydivers deploy their canopies between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. The sweet point for most jumpers is 3,500 feet, meaning there will be a consistent deployment altitude along jump run—until we get to the students.
Student skydivers in the coaching phase of getting their A License will be deploying between 5,500 and 3,500 feet, working it down incrementally. Student skydivers on AFF status will deploy their canopies at 5,500 feet, and so will tandem skydivers.
This means that along jump run, skydivers are aligned by the type of free fall and drift expected, then also organized by opening altitude.
In order to avoid tracking and angle groups unintentionally free falling through tandem canopies, many drop zones operate differently. (On a side note, always check with your local drop zone! Just because you read it on the internet doesn’t mean that your drop zone does it this way or wants to change it up. Be safe, communicate, and ask questions if you’re unsure.)
One of the ways drop zones modify exit order is to put tracking and angle flying groups out first, before the large belly groups. This solves the issue of angle flying groups potentially blasting through tandem and student canopies, while also allowing for enough separation for belly groups.
Experienced jumpers leading tracking jumps will turn perpendicular to jump run for awhile, then turn back upwind to avoid getting too far from the drop zone. Inexperienced groups will usually head away from jump run and maintain the same heading the entire time.
If for some reason the inexperienced group picks the wrong heading, or head back toward jump run unintentionally, they should be falling faster than the belly groups and achieve vertical separation for deployment—a better option than potentially free falling through open tandem and student canopies.
Increased complexity requires increased planning. When running multiple angle groups on the same airplane, sometimes they will go out one after the other. I’ve also seen one angle group out first, then a large belly group, then a second angle group heading the opposite direction. This was one complex jump run, because there was a wingsuit group going out last. But the jumps were led by highly experienced skydivers and organized at an event. This was how the instructors wanted it done and that’s how they felt safe doing it, and it was communicated to the drop zone by all involved.
If you’re a less experienced skydiver or you notice less experienced jumpers around and jump run starts getting complex like that, it’s probably time to dial it back. At the very least, we should increase the level of communication in the loading area so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing before loading up the plane.
That way you avoid unintentional zoo dives…
For instance, I’ve been at the loading area on a five minute call with an angle fly group. There were four of us in the group, the leader had 6,000 jumps, and the rest of us were around 300-500 jumps a piece. So, we’re beginners. There’s also a 3 way track planned on the jump.
Then Johnny-Thirty-Jumps rolls up and guess what? He’s planning a solo track.
He doesn’t know where to exit and doesn’t know what the other groups were planning. Hell, he doesn’t even really know anyone there outside of the staff and coaches!
We pulled him aside and told him how dangerous he was about to be. We suggested that he work on some belly turns and we would link up for a jump later and help him with his track. Which leads us to the last point.
The keys to skydiving safety are communication and attention to detail. When complacency kicks in at the loading area, it’s a good sign that we could be overlooking something else!
Look out for each other and remember: don’t be a meat missile.