How do Skydivers Know When to Open the Parachute?

Skydiving—it’s a real rush! Picture it: the clouds are zipping by as jumpers descend down the background of a bright blue sky, the wind rushing up against them as they fall. Some of them coming down in groups, students with instructors, tandem skydivers, and some solo jumpers. Each person flying their body, maintaining stability, taking in everything around them—the world below stretching on expansive and full. With all of this going on and so many things to focus on, you may wonder how do skydivers know when to open the parachute? How could they possibly keep track of it all? Here at Skydive California, we like to provide inside information for inquiring minds. If you would like some exclusive information on how skydivers know when to open the parachute, just keep reading.

Specialized Equipment

Many sports have specialized equipment: baseball uses a bat and glove, soccer uses cleats and shin guards, rock climbing uses ropes, harnesses, and belay devices. Skydiving is no different. In order to know when to open the parachute, skydivers must be altitude aware, or in simpler terms, skydivers must be aware of how high up they are/ how far away they are from the ground. If you have watched any skydiving videos or seen skydiving on the television or in a movie, you may have noticed skydivers sporting something that looks a lot like a fancy watch. In skydiving, this ‘fancy watch’ is the piece of gear that is used to determine altitude, and it is called an altimeter. Altimeters function by using atmospheric/barometric pressure to determine altitude.

There are two primary types of altimeters used by skydivers: digital and analog.

Analog Visual Skydiving Altimeter

The analog visual altimeter looks very similar to a clock face and is marked from 0-12,000ft. The arrow on the altimeter points to the current altitude. Often, the face of the altimeter will be marked with yellow and red sections which mark the recommended deployment altitude and the emergency procedure decision altitude respectively.

how do skydivers know when to open the parachute alti 2 skydiving altimeter

Digital Visual Skydiving Altimeter

These neat little pieces of electronic innovation also operate using changes in barometric pressure. However, they indicate the current altitude with a digital number on a screen rather than with an arrow on a face. These tiny computers are often able to keep up with other things and may contain features that are able to record the speed reached on a skydive.

digital skydiving altimeter when do skydivers know how to open the parachute

Audible Altimeters: Another Piece of Important Equipment for Skydivers

In addition to the visual altimeters, a skydiver may also utilize an audible altimeter to help them know when to open the parachute. The audible altimeter, also known as a Dytter, is a small computer that jumpers can slide into their helmets. Before a skydive, a jumper will program the Dytter to emit a warning tone at preset altitudes. In this way, even if the jumper has gotten a little carried away with the fun of it all, there’s a back-up to remind them that it is time to open the parachute.

When Do Skydivers Open Their Parachute?

It depends on what type of skydiver and license holder they are. Drop zones that are members of the United States Parachute Association adhere to certain basic safety recommendations. The United States Parachute Association provides minimum opening altitudes within the Skydiver Information Manual. These are the minimum altitudes above the ground that different levels of skydivers must open their parachutes. Keep in mind that these are minimums, and most drop zones set the altitudes that parachutes be deployed a bit higher.

  • Tandem Skydivers must open parachutes by 4,500AGL (Though, most open around 5,000-5,500 to allow you to enjoy the view)
  • Students and A License holders must open their parachutes by 3,000 feet AGL.
  • B-License jumpers must open their parachutes by 2,500 feet AGL.
  • C and D licensed skydivers must open parachutes by 2,500ft AGL (this is waiverable to 2,000ft AGL but no lower)

Skydiving is a sport that requires jumpers to be aware. After all, there is quite a lot going on. Thankfully, the jumpers at Skydive California are safety-focused and altitude aware. Now that you’ve learned how skydivers know when to open the parachute, why not come don a ‘fancy watch’ and give it a try yourself! You can leave it to the experts and let your tandem instructor open the parachute for you and go along for the ride! Live in Northern California? Then check out Skydive California for your first tandem skydive!

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Skydiving: What Happens if Your Parachute Doesn’t Open?

Every skydiving student has had that worrying thought, ‘what happens if your parachute doesn’t open?’ It can quickly fill you with dread and fear, thinking of the permutations. Let’s be honest, while it can and does happen, it is incredibly rare, and you have more chance of having a severe car accident on the way to the jump spot than having a serious skydiving accident.

With that said, skydiving is about fear and courage, and knowing it’s a rare occurrence doesn’t stop the thoughts running through your mind and getting your heart pounding! In fact, it’s good to consider these possible dangers and know what to do in all circumstances, no matter how unlikely.

So let’s take a look at what happens if your parachute doesn’t open. We will also look at why parachutes occasionally don’t open and dare to think about what would happen if your reserve parachute also failed!

What happens if your skydiving parachute doesn’t open?

What equipment is needed in skydiving?

What happens if your skydiving parachute doesn’t open?

We’ve said it many times before, and it’s true, skydiving is a lot safer than most people think. However, it does carry some risks. Most skydiving accidents happen with the parachute open, usually due to poor judgment or avoidable risks taking during the landing. Broken legs, sprained ankles, and fractured pelvises are heard of far more than a fall where the parachute is unflyable.

On the rare occasion that a parachute doesn’t open, there is a reserve canopy in place. This backup parachute will deploy if the main parachute doesn’t open. The chances of the main parachute and reserve parachutes both not opening is millions to one. The reserve shoot is a super solid plan b. If for any reason, your main parachute doesn’t open or is faulty, the thing to remember is to stay calm, and the reserve will come to your rescue; the most significant risk to the reserve parachute not saving you is panic.

In some rare circumstances, the main parachute may open but become twisted or unflyable. You may need to cut away the main chute and then deploy your reserve in this situation. Most modern parachute setups have the reserve parachute in a separate container from the main canopy. A simple three-ring release system will jettison or cut away the main chute, which releases it in a split second. If for any reason, the parachute doesn’t release, skydivers carry a hook knife to finish the job. Once the main parachute is clear, the reserved will deploy.

How do you use your reserve parachute?

When should you pull your parachute?

How do you use your reserve parachute?

If your main parachute doesn’t open, stay calm and take a deep breath. If you are an amateur skydiver, you will already be jumping and deploying at a height that allows plenty of time to correct such issues.

To start, get in the breakaway position. This position ensures you stay stable and your reserve will open clearly and not risk any tangles. The breakaway position involves spreading your legs as wide as possible, arching your back, and keeping your head up.

If your main parachute opened but is unflyable, you should locate and grab the breakaway handle with both hands (usually on your right). Once you have it gripped, fix your eyes on your reserve handle, which will be on the opposite side (it’s important to stare at the following handle and keep calm and focussed). You can then pull the breakaway, which will release your defunct parachute. Once it is clear of you (usually within a second or two), you can pull your reserve handle to open the chute.

If your main chute didn’t open at all, there is no need to use the breakaway handle; you can go straight to pulling your reserve. The reserve handle is usually a metal or red cloth loop on your left. Once your reserve chute is open and you are floating to the ground, take a look down and start preparing for your landing. You may need to brace for a faster or more difficult landing as you have deployed lower than planned. Make sure to find a suitable landing spot and point your feet to the ground with your heels up and with not too much stiffness in your legs.

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What happens if your reserve parachute doesn’t open?

What happens if your reserve parachute doesn’t open?

It seldom happens, but if your reserve chute also fails to open or malfunctions, you have not to panic and try to think clearly. While this is a dangerous situation, people have survived great falls and skydives without a parachute, and the one thing all these survivors had in common was making intelligent decisions.

Firstly, you should spread your body out as wide and horizontal as possible in an X shape; any speed reduction you can cause will help. Then it would help if you started planning the safest possible landing sport. Anything that can absorb the impact will be best, such as snow, tree branches, marshy areas, or a freshly plowed field. Stay clear of any hard and solid surfaces such as concrete or hard, flat earth. Water can also be a wrong choice; not only will it cause a significant impact, but you will likely be made unconscious and drown even if you survived the impact.

To move into position, try to tilt with your elbow and maintain the spread position. When you are close to the ground, you need to get into the landing position. You should adjust to falling feet first, with your heels up and toes pointed to the ground. Keep your knees slightly bent and flexibly, and bring your arms into your body. You will then need to brace for a strong impact.

Don’t worry, the chances of a parachute not opening are greater than one in 1,000, and the possibility of the reserve also not opening or being unflyable is more than one in a million.

Skydiving: When To Pull Your Parachute?

Moreover, you are probably wondering how you will know when to deploy your parachute! And how do you even deploy it? Don’t worry. Skydiving is a safe sport these days, and there are lots of modern tools and devices to help you open your parachute at the right time and in the right way. There are also fail-safes and backups to ensure you drift down to earth safely.

Let’s look at the different heights you can open your parachute and how you know which height is for you. We will look at the devices which help you open the parachute at the right time and the mechanics of how a parachute opens.

When should you open your parachute?

When should you open your parachute?

Your experience and license level determine the altitude at which you should pull your parachute. Drop zones and skydiving schools in the U.S. adhere to the United States Parachute Association (USPA) recommendations which supply clear guidelines on who should deploy their parachute when. The USPA detail the minimum altitudes they recommend for each level of skydiver. However, as these are minimums, you may be asked to open your parachute a little above the minimum height, based on your ability or your school or drop zone preferences. Despite the minimum height for tandem skydivers being 4,500 feet, it’s typical that the instructors will aim to open at 5,000 or even 5,500 feet.

Here are the USPA minimum heights for opening your parachute:

  • Tandem Skydivers = 4,500 Above Ground Level (AGL)
  • Students and A License holders = 3,000 feet AGL.
  • B License holders = 2,500 feet AGL.
  • C and D License holders = 2,000 to 2,500feet AGL (depending on the circumstances)

How do you know when to pull your parachute?

How do you know when to pull your parachute?

To know when to open your parachute, you need to know your altitude and how high above the ground you are. Don’t worry; no one is expecting a new skydiver to have any idea what height they are at during a freefall! Fortunately, there are modern gadgets that not only give you a precise reading of how high you are but can also be programmed to deploy your parachute when you hit your preferred or minimum height.

An altimeter is a tool that gives your altitude reading. Using barometric pressure, the altimeter provides you with the precise altitude as you fall. It comes in analog or digital and is just like a watch, worn on your wrist. The analog visual skydiving altimeter has a face very similar to an analog watch and reads from 0 to 12,000 feet. The hand on the analog face will point to the current altitude, with markers to warn you when you are reaching your ideal and minimum altitudes. Digital visual skydiving altimeters are very similar but use digital numbers rather than a clock face style reading. The digital altimeters can be set to alarm or vibrate when you hit certain stages of your fall. You can also get an audible altimeter (known as a Ditter) worn as an earpiece. It lets off warning sounds at preset altitude points.

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There is also an automatic activation device (AAD). AADs will automatically open your parachute at preset altitudes. They are often used as a backup to make sure new skydivers have opened their parachutes by the minimum set altitude.

How do skydiving parachutes open?

How do skydiving parachutes open?

Now you’re maybe wondering how the parachute opens. Here are the stages a parachute goes through when once it’s deployed:

  • At the chosen altitude, the skydiver reaches back to the deployment handle at the bottom of the container (the backpack holding the parachute). When pulled, it releases the drogue, which is a small pilot chute.
  • When the drogue pilot chute is released, it quickly opens and catches the air to inflate. By inflating, the drogue immediately pulls out the bridle (a long nylon webbing, around 8-10 feet long).
  • You may then hear a small ‘pop’ at the bridle pulls a pin that opens the container and releases the main canopy.
  • The tension lines open and help pull the parachute out of the deployment bag in an organized way.
  • The main canopy starts to unfold and catch the air, filling each ram-air foil with air, opening the parachute fully and quickly, but just slow enough so that it doesn’t yank or jerk the skydiver too hard or cause too much tension on the lines.

Once the parachute is open, the skydiver will quickly slow down to 10-20 MPH. There are two toggles that the skydiver can then reach up and grab. These toggles allow you to steer the parachute safely to the drop zone.

How high can you pull your parachute when skydiving?

Military skydivers leap from the plane, one by one

Military skydivers leap to freefall

We’ve talked about the minimum heights the USPA requires skydivers to deploy their parachute, but what is the maximum height you can open it?

The highest altitude a skydiver can jump in the U.S. without getting special permission is 18,000 feet. Bear in mind that you also want to be well clear of the aircraft before deploying. Some military will deploy their parachutes at high altitudes for tactical reasons. These are called HAHO (High Altitude, High Opening) and take a lot of skill, training, and specialist equipment to perform. Some military train to jump at heights up to 40,000 feet.

There are a few other factors to consider. The air pressure begins to decrease after 12,000 feet and above. And as you go above 15,000 feet, you need to consider the use of oxygen even during freefall. Deploying a parachute above 15,000 feet will certainly require oxygen equipment to stay conscious.

The temperature also decreases by roughly 2-3 degrees every 1,000 feet. It can already be pretty chilly on a 12,000-foot jump on a sunny day. Deploying a parachute above 10,000 feet would require some thermal clothing, so much higher than this has additional risks. And at more extreme heights, above 30,000 feet, there is radiation exposure.

In reality, few skydivers want to pull their parachute as high as possible as the freefall is usually the best bit!

How low can you pull your parachute when skydiving?

How low can you pull your parachute when skydiving?

The USPA minimum required heights are there for a reason, and at beginner level, or with an A or B license, you should always regard these as strict limits. It’s also worth noting that some sports canopies can take up to 800 feet to open fully.

While the adrenalin of the freefall is the highlight of a skydive, safety and risk limitation should always be paramount. The lower you deploy your parachute, the less time you have to assess and react if anything goes wrong. On the rare occasion that your main canopy doesn’t open, you may need to cut it away and deploy your reserve. It can take around 400 feet for a reserve parachute to deploy and inflate.

The U.S. military sometimes uses a HALO tactic (High Altitude, Low Opening), seeing highly trained skydivers deploying their parachutes as low as 400 feet. Some base jumpers are known to deploy parachutes at less than 200 feet! They use specially set up rigs and often remove the pilot chute, to limit the time it takes for the parachute to open. Bear in mind that this is incredibly dangerous and is a sport that has a high fatality rate. We advise sticking to the much safer sport of skydiving!




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