How to survive if your parachute fails to open

How to survive if your parachute fails to open

Every Wednesday, we offer advice and strategies to survive all of the most dire and urgent circumstances, as well as some of the more common scenarios we all deal with.

This week we’ve got an excerpt from the original Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. If someone had shown me this before I went skydiving, I am not sure I would have done it at all! But it’s better to be prepared if you’re going to do something as insane as jumping out of a plane.

How to survive if your parachute fails to open

How to Survive if Your Parachute Fails to Open

From the Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook

1. As soon as you realize that your chute is bad, signal to a jumping companion whose chute has not yet opened that you are having a malfunction. Wave your arms and point to your chute.

2. When your companion (and new best friend) gets to you, hook arms.

3. Once you are hooked together, the two of you will still be falling at terminal velocity, or about 130 miles per hour. When your friend opens his chute, there will be no way either of you will be able to hold on to one another normally, because the G-forces will triple or quadruple your body weight. Be prepared for this problem, book your arms into his chest strap, or through the two sides of the front of his harness, all the way up to your elbows, and grab hold of your own strap.

4. Open the chute. The chute opening shock will be severe, probably enough to dislocate or break your arms.

5. Steer the canopy. Your friend must now hold on to you with one arm while steering his canopy (the part of the chute that controls direction and speed). If your friend’s canopy is slow and big, you may hit the grass or dirt slowly enough to break only a leg, and your chances of survival are high. If his canopy is a fast one, however, your friend will have to steer to avoid hitting the ground too fast. You must also avoid power lines and other obstructions at all costs.

6. If there’s a body of water nearby, head for that. Of course, once you hit the water, you will have to tread with just your legs and hope that your partner is able to pull you out before your chute takes in water.

How to Prepare

Check your chute before you jump. The good news is that today’s parachutes are built to open, so even if you make big mistakes packing them, they tend to sort themselves out. The reserve chute, however, must be packed by a certified rigger and must be perfect as it is your last resort. Make sure that:

• The parachute is folded in straight lines—that there are no twists.

• The slider is positioned correctly to keep the parachute from opening too fast.

How to survive if your parachute fails to open

You’re more than 3.6 km (12,000 ft) above the Earth. And there’s no turning back now.

But as you jump out of the plane, and see how beautiful the Earth looks below you, you start to think that this might not be so bad. Then you pull the cord to open your parachute, and all your worst fears come true.

There’s no parachute coming out, and now you’re plummeting towards the ground at about 200 km/h (125 mph). You’ve only got about a minute before you hit the ground. Is there anything you can do to save yourself?

Here’s how to survive a fall without a parachute.

Every time your life depends on a parachute, there is a one in 1,000 chance that it won’t work. But a malfunctioning parachute isn’t necessarily a death sentence.

According to skydiving experts, the secret to surviving is all about how you react when the parachute fails. How should you position your body? Is there anything you could do to slow down your fall? And why could landing on a roof be better than landing in a big body of water?

Step 1: Slow Your Descent

Just like most survival situations, the best thing to do is to slow everything down. Slow down your breathing to avoid hyperventilating, slow down your thoughts so you can focus, and slow down the speed of your fall so you don’t splatter on the ground.

To do that, you’ll need to spread out your body into an x-shape. Spread your arms and legs, point your chest toward the ground, and arch your back and head upward. This will create more air resistance, and slow your acceleration, giving you time to choose where to land.

Step 2: Avoid Landing in Water

Although the giant pool of liquid below you might look like a more appealing landing spot than the solid ground, it would probably be just as deadly. Like concrete, water doesn’t compress, so landing in a lake would be just like landing on a sidewalk.

Sure, you could position yourself to reduce the impact, but even then you could still be knocked out cold. And being unconscious underwater does not help you survive, so let’s find somewhere better.

Step 3: Direct Yourself to a Better Landing Spot

To move sideways through the air, away from the water, and towards a safer target, you’ll need to use a skydiving technique called tracking. Bring your arms and legs in against your body to steer it as you fall.

Your three best options for landing spots would be a swamp, snow, or trees, because they would all extend your deceleration time and help you slow down. If you were to land on solid ground, your body would decelerate from its falling speed of 200 km/h (125 mph) to 0 km/h in half a second, hitting you with enough g-force to kill you instantly.

But if you were to land somewhere that provides more cushioning, you could extend that deceleration by a couple of seconds, which would significantly reduce the g-force, and give you a better chance of surviving. If you can’t see a swamp, snow, or trees anywhere nearby, then your next best option would be to look for something big to break your fall, like a rooftop, or a bus. These structures are not very strong, so when you hit them, they’ll break and absorb some of the energy of your fall.

Step 4: Land on Your Feet

Okay, so now it’s the moment of truth. You’ve chosen your target landing spot, and now you’ve got to hit it. The best way to do this would be to point your toes toward the ground, and land on the balls of your feet. I know what you’re thinking. “That sounds painful!” And you’re right, it will be.

But the idea is that your body will have more time to slow down if you land feet-first. The long bones in your legs will absorb a large amount of the impact energy before they fracture. Essentially, you’ll be sacrificing your legs to protect the rest of your body.

Step 5: Cover Your Head

Just before landing, put your head down, with the fingers of each hand locked together behind it, and point your elbows in front of your face, to protect your head and neck from impact. The main reason why people die from falling off tall buildings and bridges is severe head trauma.

Even if you do everything else right, if you end up bouncing on your head when you land, you won’t survive.
So quickly, get into position. That should be all you need to know. Now comes the hard part. You need to figure out where you are, and get help as soon as possible.

How to survive if your parachute fails to open

In December 2006, Michael Holmes jumped out of a plane over Taupo, New Zealand. It was just a routine day for the 25-year-old skydiving instructor who had 7,000 jumps under his belt. But on this day his parachute failed and Holmes fell 15,000 feet before hitting the ground. Somehow, he survived, placing him in an extremely exclusive club of people.

The history of aviation is full of people who've fallen from impossible heights and somehow survived. Examined individually the cases seem like miracles, but there are enough correlations between each to suggest that aside from blind luck, there are some things you can do to improve your chances.

For the simple fact that falling out of a plane is my number one fear, I called up Michael to get some advice.

VICE: Hi Michael, let's start with the day itself. Can you run me though what happened?
Michael Holmes: It was probably the third jump of the day. I had already checked my equipment at the beginning of the day. I checked my gear before I put it on, then I checked my gear again as I was going onto the plane and nothing was out of order. Nothing had been rushed and everything had been done in the exactly the same order of checking, double checking, and getting someone else to check.

We did the jump from 15,000 feet. I jumped with a tandem pair, and flew around them to take different shots. I then opened my main parachute at about 2,000 feet but I instantly started spinning violently. The parachute was caught on something but I knew that there was no way that I could deal with it because I was spinning so fast, so I tried to disconnect. When you disconnect the malfunctioning parachute, it's supposed to disappear leaving you free falling with your reserve. But it didn't and I was still spinning. That left me in a situation I'd never been in before. I instantly knew that I was more than likely going to die because it wasn't something that's supposed to happen.

What did you try first?
I was trying to reach around the back and cut the parachute off with my hook knife but I was spinning so fast I couldn't get my arms up. I thought about pulling my reserve parachute but it was likely to go into the entangled parachute and do nothing. But I had no other ideas, so at around 700 feet I pulled the reserve… and nothing happened. I thought to myself well you've done everything you can and this is how you'll die. It wasn't really a panic, just coming to terms with the situation.

What did you think about at that moment?
Yeah, I thought about saying a message to something, or someone, but I realised I was taking too long. so just I waved in front of the camera and I said, "Alright, bye." Then I hit the ground.

Do you remember anything about hitting the ground?
Nothing whatsoever. The only feeling I had was an emotional feeling which was oh shit, I'm dead . Then I was knocked unconscious. It was only until my friend came over that I realised I wasn't dead but because of the concussion I was in a state of confusion. I was thinking what happened? I was more concerned that, with my level of experience, I hadn't made a mistake.

So you almost woke up feeling embarrassed?
Yeah, it was more confusion until I got the facts. Then there was this element of embarrassment.

You landed in a blackberry bush, right?
Yeah, it was less than a meter high and it wasn't super dense but it was better than hitting than the hard floor or hitting the lake. If I'd landed in the water I would have been knocked out just the same and broken the exact same bones. But my lungs would have collapsed and I would have drowned, because I was unconscious.

What position were you in?
I hit the ground with my left ankle and shattered and my foot pretty much off the leg. Then my left hip, left shoulder, and head hit the ground. That was one of the things that they say contributed to me not dying. You know how when free-runners or parkour people jump off a building and hit the ground, they use the momentum and do some sort of roll to go forward? The fact that I didn't hit the ground vertically deflected the impact off all the other body parts.

Was that deliberate?
No, I didn't land willingly like that because I was expecting to die. I did everything I could to try to survive so I was almost at peace with the fact that I was going to die. Also, I think the fact my body was relaxed might have contributed to my survival.

For the sake of the article, you seem to be suggesting that floppily landing in a bush is ideal?
Yeah a big, dense bush. Going back in history, various air force pilots during the war bailed out of planes and landed in thick trees, which broke their fall. I had a lot of things against me, but then in the last few seconds there were a few things for me: mainly the way I hit the ground, and the fact that it was in the blackberry bush. If the reader was to take something away, then try to think about not tensing up and just go with it.

What did this experience teach you about survival situations? Is there some more general advice?
That's a tough one to answer. I'd just say that with any aspect of life make sure that your risk is calculated. Then if something bad does happen, relax and try to slow the situation down. Think back to your basic training and deal with it step-by-step. On top of that, don't take an option that's going to be gambling another option. For example, I could have opened my reserve straightaway and hoped for the best but I knew that was a risk. I wanted to wait until I was at 700 feet, so it was a well-calculated risk.

Finally, as I mentioned in the intro, this happens a bit. Have you ever met up with anyone who had a similar experience?
Yes, and I made sure that I was not going to be put in the same boat as the same person. There was a guy I had known for years and his incident was entirely his fault and he was like oh me and you are in the same boat, and I was like no we are not in anyway the same boat . The difference being that if we were both driving towards a brick wall, I was dealing with it step-by-step to get the brakes working. He just closed his eyes. Don't give up until you have tried every single option. That's all I'll say.

Skydiving is an incredibly exciting sport that attracts thousands of people across the US every year. It’s sometimes associated with risk-taking, where jumping from “a perfectly good airplane” (as the saying goes) is seen as risky and frivolous. We want to demystify one common skydive safety concern we often hear, “What happens if the parachute fails to open?”

The truth about skydiving is that it’s far less risky than you might think. From the military-style in which skydivers are trained to the huge investment in both time and money that goes into creating the equipment, to the basic safety checks we all conduct prior to jumping, skydiving today is safer than it’s ever been. According to the National Safety Council, a person is more likely to be killed getting struck by lightning or stung by a bee than during a skydive.

But we’re not here to talk about safety. We’re here to answer the question of what happens if the parachute doesn’t open on a skydive. And the reason that’s not a question of safety? ‘Malfunctions’, as it’s called when a parachute doesn’t open, are perfectly normal parts of the sport and something we can manage and rectify.

Why would a parachute fail to open?

There are lots of factors that can contribute to a parachute not opening. The successful deployment of a parachute is dependent on the correct packing of that parachute and is affected by any changes to the process or to the body position of the skydiver when they go to deploy.

That’s why all skydivers are fully trained in the correct parachute packing procedures and the body position to adopt to aid the successful deployment.

But with all precautions taken and all training employed, it’s still possible for the parachute not to open successfully, be it through error or simple chance. Typically, one in a thousand parachutes will fail to open.

How to survive if your parachute fails to open

What is the skydive safety procedure when the parachute doesn’t open?

An essential part of the training undertaken by skydivers is learning how to manage a ‘malfunction’ and how to rectify the situation.

Skydiving ‘rigs’ (the ‘backpack’ we wear containing the parachute) are very clever in their design. They contain not one but two parachutes, one being the ‘main’ and one the ‘reserve’.

The main parachute is connected using a ‘three-ring release system’; this system of three metal rings uses basic physics principles to spread the load of the weight of the person on the parachute in such a way that the pulling of one handle quickly and efficiently breaks the connection and allows the skydiver to ‘cut away’ the malfunctioning parachute.

So when a skydiver finds themselves in a position where their main parachute isn’t opening or has opened with an error, they simply remove that parachute and deploy their reserve parachute instead.

Reserve parachute deployment

The reserve parachute is typically slightly different in design to make it more reliable and less ‘sporty’ in the way it flies. It’s packed in a similar way to the main parachute but with some key differences that negate any potential issues to ensure the reserve parachute will always open correctly.

When a skydiver needs to use the reserve parachute, they may be choosing to do so and therefore activating the deployment themselves using handles located on the front of their equipment.

If the skydiver is for any reason unable to deploy their own reserve parachute – for example, if they have been knocked unconscious – an automatic activation device (AAD – most commonly a Cypres) will automatically deploy the reserve parachute for them. There are also support systems including the RSL (reserve static line) and MARD (main assisted reserve deployment) which aid the deployment of the reserve parachute and make it even faster and easier.

Do I need to worry?

You really don’t need to worry about your parachute failing to open. If you’re jumping as a tandem skydiver, your instructor has undertaken extensive training to ensure they are able to deal with any situation that might come about.

If you’re learning to skydive alone or are a qualified skydiver, you’ll know that you’ve been trained to the highest level to deal with all potential eventualities.

If you’d like to find out more about skydiving near Atlanta speak to one of our team members today!