by Jan Meyer
A dangerous trend may be developing within the AFF program. Well intentioned AFF jumpmasters have chased unstable students, that get away from them, too far and for too long. A moral obligation to save a student is making jumpmasters focus on pulling a student's ripcord above all else, including altitude awareness and their own safety. Currently, AADs firing near a preset altitude are saving two lives at a time; the student's and the jumpmaster's. An AAD is required on an AFF student's reserve parachute by USPA Basic Safety Requirements. AADs provide an extra margin of safety, but are the weakest link in safety measures in the AFF program. AADs are mechanical devices. They may fail. They must be properly maintained and calibrated. A jumpmaster may have to rely upon an AAD to save a student's life.
The AFF program was approved by USPA's BOD in October 1981. Scenarios of jumpmasters pursuing unstable students to low altitudes were non-existent early in the AFF program. The 1982 annual AFF Supervising Instructors Survey reported that there were no AAD firings at or below preset altitudes (ESCORT , August 1983). In 1982 and 1983, AFF was slowly being adopted and gaining acceptance by more and more DZs. In 1984 two students were saved by AADs (ESCORT , December 1984). One student was taught by good instructors. The instructors, however, failed to become recurrent in relative work skills after a winter lay-off. The jumpmasters lost control of the student, who was saved by an AAD. Two relative work world champion AFF jumpmasters lost control of a student and gave chase until the student's AAD fired. One jumpmaster was open at a very low altitude. The student reported that he thought everything was okay because he saw the jumpmasters still in freefall. One way to possibly get a student to pull in this case is to let him see you pull.
Recently, the "chase the student down to AAD territory" scenario has occurred with alarming frequency. An AFF graduated student, on a relative work instructional dive, was chased by a jumpmaster too long and too far (SKYDIVING , October 1987). The jumpmaster pulled when he noticed he was very low. The inexperienced jumper died, even though his AAD did fire. The exact firing altitude was indeterminable. The AAD properly fired in a test chamber several days before the accident. Another AFF jumpmaster narrowly escaped with his life after tumbling with a student, pulling the student's ripcord and then his own ripcord (PARACHUTIST , December 1987). The student's AAD apparently did not function properly on this dive. An AAD firing near the preset altitude saved a student and the pursuing jumpmaster (SKYDIVE ARIZONA, AFF jumpmaster newsletter, February 1988) on an advanced static-line (ASL) jump. (The ASL program is a hybrid of S/L and AFF programs.)
The AFF program has had an exemplary safety record: zero fatalities. The chase scenario is threatening that record. Ensure that your student knows he should pull whenever he is unstable and unaware of altitude. He should also know to pull immediately if he sees you pull.
AFF jumpmasters are responsible for their own safety as well as their student's safety. Ensure safety by
providing adequate and complete ground training,
properly maintaining and calibrating AADs
pulling by 2000 feet.
The AFF Training Syllabus for Certification of jumpmasters and Instructors states that the student retains full responsibility of his jump. The student should pull between 4000 and 3000 feet. Jumpmasters should pull between 3000 and 2000 feet. In other words, the chase must stop by 2000 feet (PARACHUTIST , February 1988).
Originally published in Sport Parachutist's Safety Journal V1, #1 May/June 1988.
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