by Jan Meyer
Altitude awareness is a very simple concept. Look at the ground, then look at your altimeter.
"Oh- so that's what 12 grand looks like."
Most jumpers learn this on student status.
Altitude awareness is very easy to maintain - just look at your altimeter or the ground every so often.
A whuffo friend asked me once (actually this happened more than once) why so-n-so went in. I said he lost altitude awareness.
My friend said, 'Well - that seems odd. Isn't how high above the ground something you need to know all the time on a jump?'
I said, "Well - sort of. Up high you just need to know you are high - above pull altitude. You do not need to know when you pass 9k or 6k. But you do need to know breakoff altitude, pull altitude and emergency altitude."
My friend then asked, "This guy that died knew he was at pull altitude because he pulled. Why didn't he then do that emergency stuff?"
I replied, "He was trying to fix the problem or hoping his main would open. He lost track of altitude."
My friend asked, "Why didn't he look at the ground or his altimeter?"
I said, "Because he got distracted with the main. It took all of his attention and he 'forgot' the ground was coming up fast."
My friend, "He 'forgot' about the ground?"
Me, "Yeah, he 'forgot' about it. He didn't have a plan to look at the ground or altimeter every few seconds. I don't know why. Every jumper is taught this. It is a key to survival. I don't know why he did not just glance at the ground at some point. That could have saved him. The ground would have put him into emergency action mode."
"As easy as altitude awareness is to maintain, it is just as easy to lose it. You look up at a canopy - not quite open, shake the risers, poof you just lost 5 seconds or close to 1000 feet."
"Many jumpers have dirt alerts, aka audible altimeters, that beep at the emergency altitude, but only if they are 'going fast'. It is a way to remind a jumper to check the altimeter or ground."
"Some jumpers sing a song or count after opening."
"But once you start looking at something besides the ground or altimeter, it is very easy to 'think' you have only done that for an instant when in reality several seconds have passed by."
"It takes a conscious effort to remember to check altitude."
My friend, "Have you ever loss altitude awareness?"
Me, "Yes, plenty of times. One time, this is so ironic, on the ride up I mentioned that the scum layer of clouds was at 1500 feet. If you find yourself freefalling through clouds - pull. Well, 4 of us from a 12 -way were going to the next point as we hit the clouds. Our eyes got REALLY big. We turned & pulled. We were all open by 1200 feet."
"Another time, I was shaking risers, looking up at my canopy and my dirt alert sounded. It was many years ago when the dirt alerts went off at the altitude you set them at, no matter what speed you were going. Most jumps it went off when I was under a good canopy. I had the dirt alert set for 1500 feet. Sure enough - that's what the altimeter said. I cutaway and pulled my reserve. Don't know what would have happened otherwise."
"These incidents, as well as others, and many friends losing altitude awareness and sometimes their life keep me vigilant. Nowadays, I tend to look, more like stare, at my altimeter or the ground when I have a snivelly opening or line twists. I only glance at the canopy. I can reach up & shake risers, pull risers apart without looking at the canopy. I can feel the opening. It takes a lot of effort to do this. The thing you want to do is look at the canopy. I figure the altitude is more important. It is worth the effort."
©Copyright 2003 by Jan Meyer.
Dedicated to enhancing sport parachuting safety by disseminating information about equipment, environments and human factors.