by Jan Meyer
Have you ever been on a mini-blot (10 to 20 way) dive where the first point took "a really long time to build"? The next thing you knew, there was someone frantically kicking and bolting away to clear air. Then reality sets in, "Surprise, you're very close to too many people at a low altitude!" You track, wave-off, clear your back and deploy your main. You pray that your main works this time because you know you just used a lot of your safety margin for that "next point" (that never did build). Do you wonder how you lost track of time?
A way to prevent this type of loss of awareness is to key in on what you do remember from the dive. You were aware that "the first point took a long time to build". This should signal you to glance at the ground or an altimeter just before you dock on the first point or during the transition. You know you're lower than you expected to be, but how much lower? You should be at a rather high altitude, say 8K to 5K. Use this extra altitude information to plan the rest of the dive.
For instance, you notice that you're at 4500 feet at the beginning of a 20-way transition. If all goes well, and no one struggles with a dock, then the point ought to be completed right at break-off. However, if one jumper slides under the formation for a bit, and introduces some tension and potato chipping, then the formation could be completed at an altitude below the break-off altitude. You pay attention to many of these RW cues already. Use them with earlier altitude cues to prevent loss of altitude awareness.
AFF jumpmasters and instructors use this technique frequently with students. Students who are slow to perform PRCPs will use more altitude than faster students. Students who are finishing their second of three PRCPs just before pull time should pull for real right away, and forgo the third PRCP. Jumpmasters will use events that occur on a dive to tell a student to pull. You can use the same technique on your fun jumps.
A key to survival is altitude awareness. Use all events from a dive to give you altitude cues. Did the base funnel? Did someone take out the formation? Was the formation fast or slow in building? Use your RW awareness to help maintain your altitude awareness. Someday someone will ask you how come you were the only one who knew it was break-off. You'll have a tip for them.
You'll also realize on those dives when you see that first jumper split, that you forgot to relate RW events to altitude. RW awareness and altitude awareness can be used together for your survival.
Originally published in Sport Parachutist's Safety Journal V1, #6 Mar.-Aug. 1989.
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