No one wants to have to deploy their reserve chute. And, fortunately, it’s rare to have to do so. But hang around a busy dropzone for a few days and you’re almost certain to see at least one instance. Far from the dire emergency it may sound, reserve deployment is a normal part of skydiving, even though it’s infrequent.
A main canopy can fail to deploy properly, collapse or encounter other problems.
Lines can get tangled to the point that the slider doesn’t slide down properly, leaving the canopy in an irregular shape. Turbulence or inappropriate use of the controls can cause a drop in air pressure or low tension on the lines, leading to an unstable main. When that instability or collapse is unrecoverable, deploying the reserve is a must.
In rare cases, a canopy will rip. A small tear is minor. A modern ram canopy is composed of many curved cells that hold air under pressure. Losing part of one doesn’t affect the rate of descent much. At a certain point, however, it’s wise to let it go and deploy the reserve.
When the reserve has to be deployed, a procedure called a cut-away is performed. The main is released, disconnecting it from the harness. That’s done using the cut-away handle (mounted on the harness), which detaches both main risers. It flies away, to be picked up later. One hopes! Canopies run around $1,500. A second later, the reserve is deployed.
In some cases, performing a cut-away on the main automatically deploys the reserve. In some designs, a reserve static line is attached that pulls the reserve out as the main flies away. In others, the skydiver pulls a second handle to deploy the reserve manually under controlled conditions.
That second method can be desirable if there’s still plenty of air and the skydiver wants to reposition him or herself to avoid an obstacle. Turbulence can be caused near mountains, for example, and it may be good to track away before deploying the reserve.
Beyond mechanical problems, whether natural or man-made, skydivers can panic especially when inexperienced. They can black out. That can produce a situation in which a canopy has to be deployed automatically. That’s the job of the AAD (automatic activation device).
The AAD is a compact computer that automatically senses elevation above ground level, air speed and other variables – not least of which is whether the main canopy has already been deployed. When the skydiver reaches 750ft – 229m, it will activate a projectile called a cutter that cuts a strap and causes the canopy to be deployed automatically. That device can be used on the main or the reserve.
Deploying a reserve is often a pain. The main has to be recovered. Gear attached to the reserve that flies away when it’s deployed has to be retrieved. A certified rigger may have to inspect the chute, leading to delays in going back up again and extra charges. At the very least, the skydiver will often miss the dropzone and have an unpleasant walk ahead.
But everyone is glad the reserve is there and is happy to use it when necessary. The alternative is just so much worse.