One of the actions arising from last week’s meeting of the USPA Board will raise the minimum deployment altitude for C- and D-license holders in the Basic Safety Requirements from the current 2,000 feet to 2,500 feet. The board had discussed this idea at previous meetings, and it has now come to the conclusion that the change will save lives.
Since 2001, there have been nine fatalities—two of them this year—associated with low reserve deployments after automatic activation device activations, most of them at line-stretch. In each case, the AAD activated at the proper altitude. There are a variety of factors that can interfere with a timely reserve deployment, among them a jumper’s body position, a weak pilot chute spring, a low-drag pilot chute, a pilot chute caught in the jumper’s burble, a bridle that briefly snags on something or a tight reserve container that slows extraction. And while it is often impossible to determine whether any of these factors were present in these accidents, what is known is that if there had been only another second or two, we could have asked the jumper what happened. Clearly, an AAD-activation altitude higher than the current 840 feet for one product and 750 feet for another may have provided those precious extra seconds.
But the AAD manufacturers had a dilemma: They couldn’t increase their activation altitudes if the BSR allows a 2,000-foot altitude for initiating deployment. If jumpers deployed at 2,000 feet and waited on main canopy inflation or fought a malfunction while going through 1,000 feet, then low-altitude two-canopy-out scenarios or worse, main-reserve entanglements, would become more likely. Raising the minimum altitude for C- and D-licensees to 2,500 feet provides more time for the main to open or for a jumper to enact emergency procedures before the AAD activates and, hopefully, now at an altitude that helps ensure a fully-inflated reserve canopy.
Yes, most jumpers already deploy higher than 2,500 feet; you almost have to if you are complying with the long-standing Skydiver’s Information Manual recommendation for B through D licensees to enact emergency procedures by 1,800 feet, especially with today’s slow-opening main canopies that are quick to go into a hell-bent spin. But some jumpers still deploy below 2,500 feet, sometimes for good reason. To allow those good reasons, the board motion allows Safety and Training Advisors to waive the BSR on a jump-specific basis. If there is a low ceiling and the airplane can’t get above 2,500 feet for low exits or accuracy jumps or if the same low ceiling threatens a demo or if the big-way attempts need a little more room at the bottom to ensure adequate separation, then the S&TA simply waives those specific jumps from the BSR. There is no required paperwork or time spent waiting on someone else’s approval. However, DZ-wide or season-long waivers are not the intent. Otherwise why enact a rule that could be universally waived?
Finally, USPA isn’t ignoring the tight-rig issue. Back in 2010, USPA formally asked the Parachute Industry Association to research the accidents in which the container design may have infringed on reserve deployment. The PIA committee tasked to do so is also setting up testing protocols to try to identify rig designs and components that have the potential to inhibit reserve deployment. We continue to monitor PIA’s progress and look forward to seeing continued improvement in rig design.
There were many reasons behind the USPA Board’s decision to increase the BSR minimum deployment altitude for C- and D-license holders from 2,000 feet to 2,500 feet. In no particular order:
- USPA’s long-time SIM recommendation of 1,800 feet for initiating emergency procedures more or less requires main initiation above 2,000 feet. The fact that the SIM has listed a 2,000-foot minimum container opening while at the same time recommending 1,800 feet as a decision altitude has always been an unrealistic set of guidelines to provide to our members.
- The 2,000-foot minimum altitude was in place years before the now faster freefall speeds, slower-opening mains and slower reserve deployments, which all argue for a higher main deployment altitude, even when no AAD is involved.
- Too many jumpers are running out of altitude with low cutaways after experiencing a spinning line twist. Many of them had deployed below 2,500 feet.
- Recent fatality statistics indicate that the performance of our canopies and rapid altitude loss during a malfunction have gotten to a point where the 2,000-foot BSR is no longer enough of a safety margin.
And yes, there had been discussions with the AAD manufacturers about a series of too-low (i.e. fatal) reserve deployments following proper AAD activations. With a BSR allowing a 2,000-foot main deployment, the AAD manufacturers did not feel that enough buffer existed for them to raise their baseline activation altitude. Now, a 2,500-foot main deployment BSR provides them that opportunity.
The new CYPRES with programmable activation altitudes actually argues for increasing the main container opening altitude, since Airtec states that a jumper should plan for a fully open main at least 1,000 feet above the programmed CYPRES activation altitude.
Skydiver safety is always the primary focus of USPA. The higher deployment altitude is safer for our members, and there is little or no downside to the increase, especially with a Safety & Training Advisor able to allow sub-2,500-foot deployments if circumstances require it for demos, big-ways, etc. S&TAs already have the authority to waive important BSRs like wind limits, landing area size and the need for flotation gear when near water; they can easily handle this waiver as well.