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The End of AFF Level 1

by Jan Meyer and Paul J. Sitter

The freefall part of a typical AFF level one dive goes like this: A student climbs out, gives a hotel check: check-in, check-out, and then gives an exit count: up, down, arch or equivalent and leaves the aircraft in a relaxed arch position. A student takes a few seconds to overcome sensory overload and then does a circle of awareness: ground, altimeter, JM2, JM1. He then does 3 PRCPs and another circle of awareness. After this, he is supposed to do short circles of awareness: ground, altimeter, JM1, and have free arm time until 5000ft. After the jumpmasters regrip at 5000 feet, a student does another circle of awareness and maintains eye contact with JM1 until the assigned pull altitude, usually 4000 feet.

There are two common ways to end the freefall part of level one:

Plan A: A student pulls on a pull command given by JM1 or, if appropriate, JM2. JM1 ensures a ripcord pull by 3500 feet. (Some drop zones use 3000 feet. This black line altitude should be reviewed and agreeded upon by jumpmasters before each jump. It should be consistent with the supervising instructor's guidelines.) This is the way the end of level one is outlined in the USPA AFF Certification Course Syllabus and expanded dive sequence.

Plan B: A student pulls on his own altitude awareness. He reads his altimeter and pulls when he sees it's 4000ft. If he passes through the assigned pull altitude, then a jumpmaster, preferably JM1, gives the student a pull signal. The student should pull. If he doesn't, then JM1 ensures a ripcord pull by 3500 feet or 3000 feet, whatever is the agreed upon black line altitude. This method is used by about 50% of drop zones across the United States. Both ways work. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.

Plan A: A student pulls on jumpmaster command


A clear pull signal, delivered to a student, minimizes a jumpmaster's uncertainty about whether or not a student knows it's time to pull.

This method requires jumpmaster action (vs reaction) at bottom end of dive.

A student learns to respond to in-flight commands. A student realizes that receiving a pull signal is an acceptable event.

The freefall portion of the dive ends in a positive, clear cut manner.

A student is more likely to maintain a relaxed body position during entire dive because he doesn't know it's pull time.


A student's focus is on a jumpmaster at lower end of dive, not the altimeter, ground or pulling. This is not good for developing self-reliance and altitude awareness.

A student doesn't have permission to pull if the jumpmasters miss pull altitude.

Advanced levels have a student pulling on his own altitude awareness. This conflicts with what he is taught on Level One.

Dependence on others to know what altitude it is, may lead to poor habits during post-student status dives.

A student may not observe, be slow in responding, or be startled by jumpmaster's pull signal.

Plan B: A student pulls on own altitude awareness


A student maintains responsibility of knowing when to pull and reading his altimeter.

A student develops self-reliance and altitude awareness faster. The end of Level One is consistent with other levels.

A student can anticipate pull altitude.

A student doesn't need permisssion to pull.

A student makes something happen at bottom of dive, even when jumpmasters miss pull altitude.


A student may tense up and de-arch while anticipating pull altitude.

A student may reach for his altimeter with both hands, in order to read it, and lose stability.

Jumpmasters have an ambiguous situation during the time a student realizes it's pull time and when he starts to pull. Jumpmasters must allow a student to learn and not overreact.

This method requires jumpmasters to read a student's actions.


Both methods are widely used and work. Good students will be successful with either method. Unaware students are the ones of concern.

The off in the ozone student is the one who doesn't do anything except look around. He doesn't perform tasks or respond to in-flight commands at the top end of the dive. This tips off the jumpmasters to know that this student needs an early pull signal. Even then, he may not pull. JM1 anticipates pulling the student's ripcord. In this case, both plans are acceptable. Enough warning signals are given by the student to get the jumpmasters to adopt the give the student an early pull signal plan.

The slow to respond or brain lock student is the one that really challenges jumpmasters. This student is aware enough to perform, but keeps forgetting what comes next. (Surveys show that brain-lock afflicts 99.99% of jumpers at least once in every hundred jumps.) Jumpmasters need to remind this student to do a circle of awareness, PRCPs and camera awareness exercises. The student responds to in-flight commands and performs tasks. So at 5000 feet, when the jumpmasters regrip, will this student remember that the jumpmasters regrip at 5000 feet and pull time is next on the agenda?

Plan A is easier on the jumpmaster's hearts, because the not knowing whether or not the student knows it's pull time is reduced or possibly eliminated by a positive, clear pull command from a jumpmaster. A responsive student will pull. The dive is successful and safe.

Plan B has a window or buffer zone of uncertainty, just after passing through the assigned pull altitude. During this time (a heartbeat or two) jumpmasters must read the student well enough to determine if he knows it's pull time and if he's going for the ripcord. If a student is on track, then the jumpmasters assist with the ripcord pull if necessary. Jumpmasters can give a pull signal to a student who may be glancing at the ground or carried away with video awareness exercises and does not observe pull altitude. This should be taught to be an acceptable part of the dive.

A problem may arise with Plan B if a jumpmaster gives a student a pull signal just as the student starts his pull sequence. The jumpmaster just distracted the student from the most important task at hand. This could confuse the student or delay the student's pull, increasing the jumpmasters' heartrate.

The ultimate in cheating a student is to have JM1 distract an on track student with a pull signal. Then as the student starts his pull for the second time, JM2 distracts the student with a pull signal. Then JM1 pulls the student's R/C because of the low altitude.

Plan B demands better performance from jumpmasters. Jumpmasters must be altitude aware, able to read subtle signs from a student and take quick, appropriate and effective actions when necessary. These skills come from experience. Experience is gained from fun jumps, team jumps, RW instruction and certainly actual student jumps.

Plan A is recommended because the AFF Certification Course is targeted to entry level rating holders. Plan A is safer when two newly rated AFF persons do a Level One jump from 9000 feet.

DZs should use either plan uniformly. Do not teach one student to pull on command when his jumpmasters are Mutt and Jeff and another student to pull on his own altitude awareness when his jumpmasters are Thelma and Lousie.

A DZ program can change from Plan A to Plan B when the staff acquires substantial experience (as mentioned previously), exit altitudes are consistently high and a 5,500 feet five-five signal is built into the dive.

Use the method that is the safest for the DZ environment and expertise of the staff.

Originally published in Sport Parachutist's Safety Journal V1, #3 Sept/Oct 1988.
©Copyright 1988, 1996 by Jan Meyer. Republished with permission.

Dedicated to enhancing sport parachuting safety by disseminating information about equipment, environments and human factors.

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