Once you've decided to go throwing yourself out of airplanes, it's important to know about what kind of things could go wrong when you deploy your life-saving device. Knowing the exact name of a malfunction is usually not important when you're actually having it: who cares about the difference between a slider up snivel and a slider up spin? Not you, if you're under either of them, since there's a universal fix for almost any problem. However, understanding the different types of malfunctions you can encounter can help one react appropriately to malfunctions when they happen, and also help to avoid them.
Parachute malfunctions are generally classified into three types: Total malfunctions, major partial malfunctions, and minor partial malfunctions. Each is either high-speed or low-speed. Each one also fails one of the 4 S's, so when you have a parachute malfunction, it's not always necessary to diagnose the specific problem you're encountering. If you have any doubts at all about your parachute being good enough to land with, cut it and pull your reserve.
Disclaimer the first: Among skydivers, I am a newbie. The information contained in this write-up is the best of my knowledge based upon manuals I've read and experts I've talked to. If you think you know better than I do about something contained within, odds are that you do.
Disclaimer the second: I've tried to post preventative measures for each potential malfunction. In general, careful packing and equipment maintenance will keep you safe from harm, but even then, sometimes things just happen. This is why you're jumping with a reserve. Don't forget to use it.
General tips for all malfunctions
- Don't panic.
Yes, this seems patronizing. But your instructors wouldn't have let you jump if they didn't think you could save your life. Don't worry about remembering your emergency procedures, because you know them. They'll be there if you need them. A corollary to this is know your emergency procedures. Practice them on every ride up to altitude.
- Remain altitude aware.
Difficult, but oh-so important. If you're trying to fix a small problem, don't let it become a big one by forgetting where you are. You will be tempted to fixate on the canopy itself. Don't do that! With some conscious effort, you'll be able to feel what the canopy is doing without looking at it. Instead, use your eyes to look at the ground or your altimeter. Count to yourself while you're trying to fix a problem. Remember that you're still falling, and if you fall into the planet at high speed there will be paramedics involved. If you can't fix a problem right away, just get rid of it.
- Don't ever cutaway under 1,000 feet.
For almost every malfunction I'm about to describe, the recommended solution is to cut your main parachute away (thereby removing the problem) and deploy your reserve (hopefully fixing the original problem of landing safely). If you are under or at about 1,000 feet, you should skip the first step, because if you cutaway from that altitude, your reserve will not have time to inflate before you hit the ground. It's much safer to deploy the reserve with your main canopy out and take your chances that way (although even safer still to not get yourself into a situation where you have to make this decision).
Total malfunctions are when absolutely nothing happens. You can't find the pilot chute, it's missing, or perhaps the bridle is broken. The upshot is that nothing happens when it should. This looks exactly like a skydiver in freefall, since nothing happened at an attempted deployment. Because there's nothing slowing you down, total malfunctions are high-speed. Total malfunctions fail the 4 S's check at Square, due to the complete lack of a nice rectangular parachute behind you.
Possible causes of total malfunctions:
- Hard pull - Meaning any attempted pull that doesn't work quite right. You've got the hackey for your pilot chute in your hand, but the pilot chute won't come out of the container.
How to avoid hard pulls: Hard pulls could be caused by your pack job. Also, make sure you've really got a grip on your pilot chute handle when you grab it.
Fix: Try again, but only try once. If you can't get it on your second try, pull your reserve.
- Missing pilot chute handle -
Having gone to pull your pilot chute, you find there's no handle. This can be disconcerting, since generally there's a really nice hackey-sack sewed into the pilot chute, ideal for grabbing onto when you want to deploy.
How to avoid missing handles: Protecting your handles is very important; don't let them snag on seatbelts, aircraft doors, other jumpers, &c. Inspect your equipment, and don't jump if anything is loose or in questionable condition. If you're not sure about something, ask your rigger and err on the side of caution.
Fix: Put your hand on the side of your container and work your way down to the corner. Find your pilot chute and manually pull it out. If you can't, forget about it and pull reserve.
Major Partial Malfunctions
Partial malfunctions encompass a wider variety of malfunctions, but they are grouped together by at least a partial deployment. After you throw the pilot chute, something deploys, but either deployment doesn't complete or something is unsuccessful along the way. Major partials are big problems that universally lead to cutaways and reserve rides.
- Pilot chute in tow -
The pilot chute is thrown out into the surrounding airstream. At this point, it's supposed to pull the deployment bag (sometimes called a d-bag) out of the container. For some reason, it hasn't, and the d-bag is still in the container, with your pilot chute happily dragging along behind you. A pilot chute is not very big and having it in tow doesn't slow you down very much, so this is a high-speed malfunction. Pilot chutes, being round, fail the square check of the 4 S's.
How to avoid a pilot chute in tow:
Correct packing is important. Also, when throwing the pilot chute during deployment, really chuck it out there into the airstream. Weak throws can lead to pilot chute in tow, bag lock, or horseshoes.
When falling, you disrupt the air around you so that there is a burble behind you. The pilot chute could be stuck in this. Looking up over your shoulder helps clear the burble. If you aren't already doing this, try it. If the deployment bag doesn't come out, cutaway and pull reserve.
- Bag lock -
The pilot chute has been deployed, and the deployment bag is out of the container. At this point, the canopy is supposed to come out of the d-bag, but it hasn't. The d-bag is also not a square canopy, thus failing the square check on the 4 S's, and it is a high-speed malfunction.
How to avoid bag lock: Proper packing and equipment maintenance.
Fix: Some people suggest yanking on your risers to try and coax the canopy out of the bag. I suggest getting rid of anything you don't like seeing, especially considering how fast the ground is moving. If you've got bag lock due to premature deployment at 10,000 feet, sure, yank your risers for a while. I don't think I'd want to waste time on it at 3,000 feet. Cutaway and pull reserve.
- Horseshoe -
Any malfunction where part of the deployment system is still in the container, but part of it is out, bouncing around in the relative wind. They are named for the "horseshoe" shape that the pieces end up making. One example of a horseshoe is when the deployment bag has come out of the container, but the pilot chute is still not deployed. Another would be if the pilot chute has been pulled, but the bridle is wrapped around the jumper's arm or leg, preventing deployment. Horseshoe malfunctions are high-speed and scary - the entire point of cutting away a main parachute is to ensure that the reserve doesn't entangle with anything on its way out. If the horseshoe is stuck on something, cutting away may not clear it. Still not a canopy at all, horseshoe malfunctions fail the 4 S's at square.
How to avoid horseshoes: Pilot chute wraps are mostly caused by hesitation during deployment. If the pilot chute bounces around in the burble behind you, it's more likely to get wrapped around something. To avoid this, really throw the pilot chute out there during deployment. To avoid premature deployments of your d-bag, check the pin holding everything in during gear check and again on jump run.
Fix: If the d-bag is out and your pilot chute isn't, deploy immediately. This may just lead to bag lock, but cutting a bag lock is cleaner than cutting a horseshoe, and if it does deploy correctly, problem solved. If the pilot chute is out but wrapped around something, try to clear it twice. If you fail to get it cleared, cutaway and pull reserve. You're still falling pretty fast, and it's best to get something over your head ASAP.
- Streamer -
Hooray! The canopy's out of the d-bag, but that's as far as it got - the canopy isn't unfolding or inflating. Boo! Streamers are high speed malfunctions that fail the 4 S's check at square.
How to avoid streamers:
Pack your parachute carefully!
Fix: Do not be lulled into thinking that it could open any second now, no matter how much you think it might. This is a bad idea. Cut it and pull your reserve.
- Slider up snivel, slider up spin -
The canopy is out, but the slider is still up on the lines. The canopy may be caught in the slider, causing a snivel, or the slider may be applying pressure to the lines, causing a spin. Either way, the canopy is deformed (bad shape) and in the case of a spin, not steerable. Snivels and spins are high-speed malfunctions.
How to avoid snivels and spins:
Pack jobs are important, but the condition of the slider and its grommets may be a bigger root cause.
Fix: Spins might be correctable with toggle input, but don't risk your life on it. Cutaway and pull reserve.
- Line over -
The bottom skin of the canopy has many lines that connect to the risers on the harness. They're supposed to go directly down from the canopy, but for some reason, one (or more) of the lines are going over the top of the parachute. The canopy is completely out, making this a low-speed malfunction, but the canopy will be deformed from the tension put onto it by the line over, so it will fail the shape test.
How to avoid line overs:
Line overs are almost always caused by pack jobs. They could also be caused by an accidental brake release during deployment, which is once again either a packing concern or an equipment concern.
Fix: If you're stuck with it (i.e. you're on your reserve), pull down on the side that the lines are over. If you're not on your reserve yet, get there.
Minor Partial Malfunctions
Minor partial malfunctions can be fixed, or they could be major malfunctions in disguise. Basically, they require a little more effort to diagnose. They're low-speed malfunctions that could very well pass the 4's checks. If they don't, they're major malfunctions that should be ditched.
- Pilot chute over the nose -
Generally, the pilot chute will trail along behind the canopy after it's inflated. It could, however, end up underneath the canopy.
How to avoid pilot chute over the nose:
Not that much to be done here in the way of preventative medicine.
Fix: Check your 4 S's. If it passes, your canopy is okay. If not, cutaway and pull reserve.
- Broken lines -
One or more of the tension lines connecting the canopy to the risers have broken.
How to avoid broken lines:
Broken lines may be caused by abnormally hard openings. Regularly inspect the lines for wear and tear.
Fix: If only one line is broken, do the 4 S's check. If it passes, good. If not or if more than one line is broken, cutaway and pull reserve.
- Line twists -
During deployment, the d-bag rotated around itself, causing the lines to be twisted up around each other. This is a very common occurrence for students. Generally, line twists are accompanied by the slider being up (it can't slide down twisted lines) and you'll be unable to steer until they're cleared. Since they're easy enough to clear, however, they're regarded as a minor malfunction.
How to avoid line twists:
Line twists are generally the result of turning or being unstable during deployment. Keep a heading and maintain stability when you pull. Line twists can also be caused after canopy inflation by radical toggle turns. You shouldn't be making full toggle-input turns low enough for this to be dangerous, but several people per year do anyway. Letting up on the toggles unevenly after a stall is also likely to produce line twists.
Fix: If line twists are your only problem, grab your risers and scissor kick your way out of them. If the lines aren't untwisting, kick in the other direction. Don't unstow your brakes until the line twists are cleared. If you can't clear the twists by your hard deck or they're accompanied by other problems (violent spinning, for example), cutaway and pull reserve.
- Slider up -
The slider isn't all the way down the lines. This, obviously, fails the "slider down" check of the 4 S's. Depending on where the slider is, this could be fixable.
How to avoid slider up:
The slider grommets may be damaged. Inspect the slider and parachute lines for anything out of the ordinary.
Fix: If the slider is all the way up at the top of the lines, you've basically got a snivel - get rid of it. If the slider is partially down, unstow the brakes and do three full flares to coax it. Remember, it doesn't need to be all the way down, just at least halfway.
- Closed end cells -
The outer cells of the parachute have not inflated, but the rest of it has. This fails the 4 S's at shape.
How to avoid closed end cells:
Closed end cells could be caused by turbulence or temperature differences. There’s not very much to be done about them, but they’re innocuous enough that it’s not really a big deal.
Fix: Unstow the brakes and flare, which should inflate the cells. You need at least seven inflated cells on a nine-cell parachute to land safely, but having all the cells inflated is best.
- Holes in the canopy -
The front side of a ram air parachute is supposed to have holes in it, to let air in. The top and bottom skin of the canopy, however, is not supposed to have holes in it.
How to avoid canopy holes:
Regularly inspect your canopy for wear. Treat it well and never drag it along the ground.
Fix: If you see a hole larger than your head, cut the canopy away and pull reserve. If it's smaller than your head, you can probably land with it.
Other things could go wrong, of course.
- Premature deployment -
Any time some part of deployment starts unintentionally. This could be caused by snagged handles or loose pins.
How to avoid premature deployment:
Protect your handles from catching on anything, and double-check your pins.
Fix: If you’re subject to a premature deployment, pull immediately to help things along. Try to let other jumpers know something’s wrong, if you’re able to. Deal with any other problem that arises as normal.
- Jumper in tow -
Usually happens after a premature deployment on or slightly before exit. Not only has your parachute deployed before you wanted it to, but now you’re stuck on and being dragged along by the aircraft.
How to avoid becoming a jumper in tow:
Protect your handles! You won’t become a jumper in tow if you don’t have a premature deployment. If a canopy comes out in the aircraft, yell “Canopy!” and smother it. If any part of the canopy exits the aircraft, have the jumper exit immediately. Assist the jumper if necessary.
Fix: Put your hands on top of your head to let others in the plane know that you’re okay (only do this if you’re actually okay). Disconnect your reserve static line and cutaway. Try also to think of the aircraft; it won't fly normally with a parachute hanging onto it. If you or another jumper has a hook knife, attempt to cut the canopy free of the airplane.
- Floating reserve handle -
During freefall, the reserve handle has become unseated from its velcro and is floating along.
How to avoid floating reserve handles:
Have I mentioned that you should protect your handles?
Fix: You will not be able to get the handle back into its velcro seat during freefall, so don’t waste time trying. It’s a better idea to pull immediately and reseat it when under a good canopy. If there’s a malfunction on the main, be aware that your reserve handle isn’t where it is normally. Look for it. Don’t put it under anywhere that it will be difficult to find. In at least one case that I’m aware of, a jumper put a floating reserve under his harness, had a malfunction, and spent the rest of his life trying to find the handle again.
- Two parachutes out -
Due to misfire, premature deployment, accidental deployment, or whatever, there are two canopies out instead of just one.
How to avoid two out:
If there’s a malfunction, cutaway the main before pulling the reserve. Many two out situations are caused by automatic activation devices automatically pulling the reserve as a jumper is pulling their main. This is due entirely to losing altitude awareness.
Fix: There are three possible configurations for two canopies out. The bi-plane is when one canopy is in front of the other. Gently steer the dominant canopy (the one in front) to landing. For side by side configurations, again gently steer the dominant canopy (this time, whichever is larger). The downplane occurs when the canopies are completely separated. During a downplane, the canopies will generally be pointed downward on opposite directions of the jumper, causing a fall rate of around 40 miles per hour. Since the canopies are separated, you can (and should) cutaway the main with little risk of entanglement.
Parachute malfunctions can be frightening things, but you’ll be well-prepared for them. Keep up-to-date and current with your emergency procedures. Remember also the words of Bryan Burke, who was the S&TA for Skydive Arizona some time ago:
Very few people are killed by deploying their reserve. Lots get it from not pulling the reserve. Make sure this distinction is clear in your mind.