Choices, Choices: Pilot-Chute-In-Tow Malfunctions and You

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Curt Vogelsang captures some hot canopy-on-canopy action.Y’know when you don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning? Your main parachute is likely a lot brighter-eyed and bushier-tailed than you are, but every once in a good long while it just doesn’t feel like getting out and doing its job. Y’know? Relatable.

Kidding aside: When you throw your hand-deployed pilot chute but the container stays closed — trapping the main deployment bag inside, helpless to deliver you a parachute — you’ve gotchaself a pilot-chute-in-tow. In other words: you’ve got nothing out, which makes you the clenchy, concerned (and hopefully very temporary) owner of a high-speed mal.

You’d better get on that, buddy. Stat.

But how?

Deploy the reserve immediately or cut away first and then deploy the reserve?

One Handle or Two Handles: The Cagematch

If you’re not sure which you’d choose,* you’re certainly not the first. This particular point has been the subject of roaring contention since the invention of the BOC, my friends. (Guaranteed: the comments section below will corroborate my statement. I can sense people sharpening their claymores and dunking their arrows in poison even now.)

There’s a school that says — well, duh — get your damn reserve out, like right now what are you waiting for. There’s another school that calls that school a bunch of mouth-breathing pasteeaters. The latter group insists that you’d better go through the procedures you know lest you mess it up when it counts. They usually follow up by spitting on a photograph of the first group’s mother and wondering aloud why the first group is even allowed to skydive. Then they start punching each other.

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Images by Joe NesbittThe USPA Skydiver’s Information Manual doesn’t make a move to break up the fight. It stands clear of the flying arms and legs and says, “Y’know — they both kinda have a point.” Section 5-1 of the manual says this, verbatim:

“Procedure 1: Pull the reserve immediately. A pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction is associated with a high descent rate and requires immediate action. The chance of a main-reserve entanglement is slim, and valuable time and altitude could be lost by initiating a cutaway prior to deploying the reserve. Be prepared to cut away.

“Procedure 2: Cut away, then immediately deploy the reserve. Because there is a chance the main could deploy during or as a result of reserve activation, a cutaway might be the best response in some situations.”

Let’s look a little closer at the options, then, shall we?

Option One: Not Even Gonna Bother With That Cutaway Handle.

  • Pro: Immediately yanking out that reserve saves a step. When AGL counts (and golly, doesn’t it?), saving a step can save a life. Many skydivers are quick to point out specific incidents in which jumpers with PCiTs have gone in with sealed magical backpacks, having failed to pull both handles (or pull any handle at all) while the clock was ticking. Gulp.
  • Con: It takes the pressure off (in a potentially bad way). As the reserve leaves the container, there’s a chance that it can take the sealing pressure off the flaps that are keeping the main container closed. The main can then leap to freedom and deploy at the same time as the reserve. At this point, you might wind up with an entanglement, a side-by-side, biplane or downplane to figure out.**

Option Two: Get Off The Field, Main Parachute. Reserve, You’re In!

  • Pro: It’s the same stuff you’ve been taught to do for every other reserve-requisite malfunction. …If you initiate the reserve deployment clearly, confidently, and as early as possible, of course. After all: making a one-off exception for a single kind of malfunction can be tricky. A jumper might well spend a little too much time thinking it over (‘Am I going for my reserve handle first right now? ‘Cause that’s weird. Is that okay?’) when they should just be yanking the stuffing out of their emergency handles. Going through the real-life motions of the little dance you do before you get on every load makes more sense to your body, for sure.
  • Con: You’re adding more complexity to the situation than you may realize. Especially if you don’t have secure riser covers, the (jealous?) cut-away main risers might sneak out of the container and grab for the reserve as it deploys. Another thing: the main is very likely to wiggle free, detach from the harness as soon as it catches air and do its best to entangle with your Option B. The latter kerfuffle is made much more likely when you add a single-sided reserve static line to the mix, turning the already-dismaying situation into something of a tug-of-war.

Neither of these choices sounds like the cherry on top of a lovely afternoon; I know. At some point, however, you may be forced to make one. If you do, you’d better have a plan in mind.

Not in the mood to make that choice? Me neither. Luckily, there are some steps you can take to better your chances of never seeing a PCiT — and in next week’s article, I’ll tell you what they are.

*If you have a Racer (or any container with a cross-connected RSL), you do not have a choice. You must pull the reserve without cutting away. Do not pass ‘go,’ do not collect $200. In that particular configuration, the main will choke off the reserve if the cutaway has been pulled. If this unnerves you, get thee to a rigger to discuss it.

**Head over the PIA.com to check out a handy study they did in 1997 regarding the management of two-out situations. It’s called the “Dual Square Report.”

4 Ways to Avoid Pilot-Chute-In-Tow Malfunctions new

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Image by Joe NesbittLast week, we talked about the mighty kerfuffle that is the pilot-chute-in-tow malfunction.

So…who wants to have one?

Nobody!

Right. So now that we’ve established that, we can get down to the business of avoiding the hell out of those. There are four big steps you can take to lessen your risk of a PCiT, and there’s a good chance you’re currently messing up at least one of them.

1.Cock it up (so it doesn’t cock your jump up).

Your collapsible pilot chute is a demanding partner. Her deal is this: no foreplay, no canopy.

Most of the time, you’re good about it. You guys have a really established routine at this point, right? From the time you’ve got your nylon laid out on the floor to the time you wrap your legs around it to finish it off, you follow a very predictable routine. Somewhere in there, you give that collapsible pilot chute a tug and get her indicator window nice and blue. Everybody’s happy.

But what happens when you get distracted? If you end up ignoring your PC for a surprise debrief or a dance break or an awkward conversation with the meaty contents of the best-fitting freefly suit you’ve seen all week, make no mistake: she’s going to get her revenge. Failure to cock the collapsible pilot chute, after all, is the leading statistical cause of PCiTs.

The solution here is simple: focus. Give your pack job the attention it deserves, in the same order every time. (It’s never a bad idea to include that little indicator window on a quick gear check, either.)

2. Do what you’re told.

I know. You’re the boss of you, and I’m not your real mom, and manufacturers are basically like corporate drones, and the USPA is a bunch of guys throwing canes and slippers at kids who merrily chase balls onto their collective lawn. You do what you want.

That said: maybe you should do what you’re told every once in awhile.

This is revolutionary stuff, I know. But the manufacturers’ instructions for bridle routing and main-flap-closing aren’t just there to give you something else to toss giddily out of the box when your new container arrives. As any pro packer will tell you, those yawn-inducing closing procedures differ dramatically between brands. If you’re using the wrong one for your particular equipment, you’re setting yourself up for a container lock.

3. Watch the news.

Along those lines: be on the lookout for updates. Remember a few years back, when all those photos came out of closing pins stabbing neatly through the middle of their bridles? It kinda looked like a fabric samurai drama, but it was pretty serious — several jumpers, jumping different equipment, experienced pilot-chutes-in-tow in this same manner. In response, manufacturers posted updates to their manuals, changing the closing procedures for their containers to lessen the risk.

The moral of the story is this: Maybe you’re still doin’ it the old way and have managed to be lucky so far. (Emphasis on: so far.)

You can also investigate pull-out — as opposed to throw-out — pilot chute systems, if you like to be on the oddball end of technology.

4. Embrace the transient nature of our linear existence.

Nothing is forever, dear reader. All seasons pass. All kittens turn into old cats. Your pilot chute and bridle will eventually wear out. Thus is the way of the world.

We know you love your pilot chute and bridle. They love you back. They yank that nylon out of the bag for you over and over and over without complaint. They get dragged across the grass and the filthy packing mat and the Arizona desert for you. They get stepped on and sat on and waved around willy-nilly when you need to get someone’s attention on the other side of the hangar. But they can’t do it forever.

Collapsible pilot chutes lose effectiveness when their little kill lines shrink. If that line shortens to the point that the PC can’t inflate fully, you will probably end up with a dead pilot chute flapping around above you in freefall while you count to yourself in your helmet.
Insufficient drag to pull the closing pin = PCiT.

Like many existential tragedies, this doesn’t happen overnight. Have you noticed little hesitations after you throw? Are they getting longer? Have you noticed the aging process creeping up on your little bitty sub-parachute in the form of obvious wear? Cuddle up on the couch with her, read The Velveteen Rabbit together, cry a little bit and give your old, loyal PC a Viking funeral.

She deserves it.

 

 



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