What are the strongest winds you will jump in? Most skydivers claim they know their limits. But, do we stay within them? How strong is your conviction when the door light comes on and your friends are ready to go?
A few weeks ago, we watched the clouds clear to give us fantastic jump conditions at Chicagoland Skydiving Center. It's been a brutal weather year, and anyone who calls the midwest home knows the desperation to jump that arises after days or weeks stuck on the ground waiting for skies to clear.
Everyone was so thankful for a jump-able weekend day that there was no stopping the momentum once the planes fired up. I was a dropzone mentor for the day, a role CSC uses to help bridge the gap between freshly licensed jumper more complicated jumps put together by load organizers. I was working with a group of newer jumpers. We were trying new stuff, laughing and learning. Everyone was pushing to get as many jumps in for the day as possible.
One of the reasons I relocated to CSC was its reputation for excelling at providing a great atmosphere for skydivers to pursue learning opportunities. Few of us will ever join serious teams, become world champions, or plan our lives around world records. But most of us want a dropzone that encourages camaraderie, communication, and safety as we try to become just a little better on each jump.
Game time decisions
When a storm cell moved north of the dropzone late in the afternoon, ground winds remained pretty docile at 11 knots, so our group decided to go for one more jump. About halfway up, the experienced freefly group and wingsuiters forward in the cabin asked the pilot for a ground wind check, knowing that we had newer people in our group, and I was working with them to review the dive. Good to know everybody in the plane is looking out for the safety of each other.
The first ground wind report was ok, but as we climbed through 10k, the pilot checked again for us. Manifest had only seen one gust pass through - at 24 knots. Cue the learning opportunity.
As the 2 minute light came on, our group talked briefly about how quickly the ground winds had changed on our climb. Gust fronts are not predictable, and the newer jumpers knew right away they weren't comfortable with what the winds may do in the next few minutes. Each used the privilege of being a licensed skydiver to make a personal decision. All but one chose to ride the plane down.
The more experienced jumpers decided they all wanted to jump, despite the steep increase in winds since takeoff. The otter emptied. My group buckled up, gave the pilot a nod, and lurched down through the turbulence back to the airport. It was one of those "moments of truth" that you can recognize as it is happening.
The ride of shame?
You've heard jumpers poke fun at the "ride of shame" - when a skydiver chooses to ride down. We were ready for it. But when we rolled up to the loading area and got off the plane, we were greeted with fellow jumpers congratulating us, we got high-fives, thumbs ups, all that. Seemed odd, until we learned that only 4 of the 20 jumpers from the load made it back to the airport. And even those didn't make the main landing area.
The rest were scattered about in fields and neighboring lawns, being picked up in a variety of vehicles. The guy from our group who got out had landed in 8ft tall corn flying backward. Turns out by the time the load was under canopies, winds picked up above 27 knots on the ground, with much stronger layers up to 3k. Luckily, nobody got hurt.
With experience comes responsibility
If you've been around skydiving at least a year, you probably have a story like this, or have heard one. So why do we keep putting ourselves in these situations?
We as experienced jumpers have to set the right example. We have to take care of ourselves. We have to look out for our friends. We have to show newer jumpers how good decision making works - on the ground and in the plane.
Newer jumpers are still conservative, and they will model their attitudes (and egos) after the more experienced skydivers around them. Let's be clear: if we don't educate ourselves about weather, newbies won't either. If we choose to jump in questionable conditions, newbies will too. If we blame anything but ourselves for landing off the airport, newbies will never understand how to develop that personal responsibility. If we shame each other for riding the plane down, newbies will get out on any green light.
I never want to become "too experienced" to make good choices. The skydivers who made the decision to stay on the plane because they didn’t have enough experience to deal with the reported wind that load restored that lesson for me. At a minimum, I'm more prepared to endure some short term ribbing from friends just to help a newer jumper make a good choice about their own safety.
How the dropzone can help
Most dropzones have a "jump at your own risk" policy. Licensed skydivers decide when to manifest, and if the plane is flying, the slots are for sale. One of the reasons I love CSC is for the strong safety culture. There are two things CSC does that I wish I saw at more dropzones.
- Wind Limit Recommendations. CSC created and posted a chart (shown below) with wind thresholds they want the average jumper to consider when deciding to manifest. Based on the landing areas, obstacles, and outs available, the chart recommendations the minimum license level likely to succeed in those conditions. Announcements are made to the hangar if conditions change. For example "Otter load 20, you are on a 15 minute call. Ground winds gusting 21 knots, C License minimum recommended to skydive."
- Jumprun Announcements. On every load before the door light, CSC pilots announce jump run heading, location of the spot, reminder of any offset, location of any other jump plane in the air, and finally ground speed with a reminder for how many seconds of separation. Throughout jumprun, the pilot announces distance from the spot so later groups know where they are. For example "Green light...point 2 past....half mile past...one mile past..."
These two pieces of information, given in real-time, have allowed countless jumpers to make good decisions. Myself included. I love that our home-grown jumpers are accustomed to having this information, so they actually notice when they don't have it. I know I crave these announcements when I'm at a new DZ.
Chicagoland Skydiving Center Wind ChartReal Time Weather available at awos.skydivecsc.com
- Student wind limits subject to instructor approval (CSC has a waiver to conduct student operations in stronger winds than recommended in the SIM)
- Recommendations may vary by wind direction and gust factor
- Recommendations listed are "up to and including" number
Could your dropzone improve communication to help jumpers stay safer? Could you as an experienced jumper check yourself on some of your jump choices? As skydivers, our best defense is leaning on each other.
Photo by Michael "Chico" Tomaselli / Article contributions from Becky Johns