What If the Parachute Fails to Open on a Skydive?

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What If the Parachute Fails to Open on a Skydive?

Published: June 7, 2017

What happens if the parachute fails to open? Not panic, as you might think. In fact, what happens in the moments after a skydiving parachute malfunction is that a very well-tuned set of fail-safes spring into action. When a parachute doesn't open, the myriad strategies and technologies that have been developed for the past century-or-so have a chance to shine. And shine they do!

We know you're not excited to see this stuff at work from an up-close-and-personal perspective--and the chances are overwhelmingly in your favor, as the odds are about one in a thousand--but here's a peek behind the curtain regardless. Here's the technological "magic" that makes a parachute malfunction simple to manage and rectify.

First off, here's the lingo you'll need to know:

  • Malfunction: In parachuting, when a parachute doesn't open or opens in a way that the skydiver determines to be unflyable

  • Container: The 'backpack' harness that contains the parachute

  • To deploy: In parachuting, the act of initiating the exposure of the parachute to the environment outside the container. In modern sport skydiving equipment, this is accomplished by pulling a small parachute out of a pocket on the bottom of the container which pulls on a bridle. The bridle is attached to a pin which holds the container closed over the main parachute. When it pulls the pin, that part of the container opens and the canopy completes the process of deploying, as it was designed to do.

  • Main: The primary parachute (more often called the "canopy") that conveys the skydiver from deployment to the ground

  • Reserve: The backup parachute contained in every legal, airworthy skydiving system. Where the main canopy is built to be fast, agile and fun, the reserve is designed for a quick, on-heading deployment and a smooth ride to the ground that's comparatively slower for landing. (When you're under a reserve, chances are you're pretty darn into the idea of taking it easy!)

  • Three-ring release system, or "three-ring": A system of three metal rings that connects the main parachute to the container. The rings interlock in a way, stayed by a cable, that the main canopy remains securely attached to the system until an event during which the skydiver decides to "cut away" the main and complete the descent using the reserve. See photo below by Angus Dorbie.

closeup of 3 ring system on skydiving rigs

Got that? Okay. Now that you're armed with some background knowledge, here's what happens when a parachute malfunctions during a skydive, and the step-by-step skydiving emergency procedures followed:

  • The skydiver decides to cut away. The skydiver determines that her main canopy is either not deploying at all or has not deployed in a flyable configuration.

  • The skydiver pulls the cutaway handle. This releases the three-ring system and detaches the main canopy from the container. (Yes, we have to run around and find it later. Yes, there are lots of campfire stories about how interesting a process that can be.)

  • The skydiver pulls the reserve handle. On most modern skydiving rigs, the act of cutting away the main canopy also deploys the reserve, but pulling the reserve handle is part of our training, so we do it anyway as just another failsafe.

  • The reserve parachute deploys overhead.

  • The skydiver flies the reserve to the landing area in much the same way as she would have flown the main canopy. This process is pretty darn seamless. Often, the tandem student doesn't even know there was a malfunction that required the reserve.

In sport skydiving, sometimes this gets a little more interesting--but the process of handling a parachute malfunction is still much the same. Every once in awhile, two experienced jumpers will be doing an advanced, acrobatic maneuver together and collide in midair. Sometimes, the collision will actually knock one of the jumpers unconscious! Even this extraordinarily uncommon eventuality is covered by modern skydiving safety gear.

If a skydiver is unable to deploy her own reserve parachute, an automatic activation device (a.k.a. "AAD") will automatically deploy the reserve parachute for them when it senses that the jumper has reached a certain altitude without deploying. This little bit of gear has resulted in several skydivers waking up in golf courses and fields with a headache.

tandem student makes parachute landing

The moral of the story? Don't worry--just jump! You really don't need to worry about your parachute failing to open, especially if you're jumping as a tandem skydiver with a reputable, professional dropzone (like Skydive Coastal Carolinas). You can rest assured that your instructor has undertaken extensive training to ensure they are able to deal with any situation--hairy or not--that might pop up, and that you'll land with a smile on your face regardless.