Ground School

NOTE:  It's important to view this ground school story as simply that -- a story.  You should follow your own sky dive center instruction and listen to your instructors and jumpmasters in all cases. 

This short story in no way covers all the detail you'll have in ground school.  It simply covers many of the highlights. 

Your ground school is the most important aspect of your training!


When did you complete Ground School?

On the same day as the Tandem five jump, I completed ground school.

The ground school began with an orientation on the facility and basic safety regulations (such as where NOT to walk around aircraft!). The importance of keeping skills up-to-date ("staying current") during the training program was stressed.

Next the instructor went over the purpose and benefits of belonging to the USPA, which included a monthly magazine, support of the sport, and insurance.

The regulations and governing bodies for the sport were also discussed.  The FAA administers federal regulations covering the sport.  The areas of primary concern to skydivers are in regard to safety on board the aircraft (i.e. helmets and seatbelts during take-off), cloud coverage and visibility during jumps.  

Additional acronyms were added to the mix in the discussion of rules and regulations.  BSRs (Basic Saftey Regulations) and TSOs (Technical Specifications) were discussed.  Fortunately, the USPA publishes the SIM (Skydiver Information Manual) which details all of the information.  The SIM can be downloaded from the USPA website.

Since we were in ground school and continuing to the Instructor Assisted Freefall program, the logical progression through USPA licenses was discussed:

  • A License (Basic) - 20 freefall jumps
  • B License (Intermediate) - 50 freefall jumps
  • C License (Advanced) - 100 freefall jumps
  • D License (Master) - 200 freefall jumps

To progress through licenses also requires training and execution of various other tasks including night jumps, formation skydiving, and water landings.

Hands-on with the Rig!

The next section of the class covered the parachute system, and in particular, the student rigs used at our Skydiving Center.  Every strap, band, handle and cord was described and examined.  

Next the containers and bags for the main parachute were explained.  At the same time the pins, loops, and seals were detailed, we discussed how to inspect the equipment as well as the rigorous inspection and packing requirements for the equipment, and in particular, the reserve.

The AAD (Automatic Activation Device) was displayed and discussed.  The AAD is designed to automatically deploy a skydiver's reserve parachute at a specified height in the event the diver has become incapacitated and fails to open his or her main chute.

Next, we unrolled and examined the main parachute.  Not only did we go over how the ram air parachute flies, we also went over every inch of the chute, lines and rig:

  • Ram air design
  • Nose and tail
  • Cross ports
  • Stabilizers
  • Lines (A, B, C, D and steering)
  • The slider
  • Risers and connector links
  • Bridle, bag and pilot chute
  • Steering Toggles and Brakes
  • Containers, cables, pins

This single section of the class helped more than any to reveal the mysteries of canopy flight and control.  Understanding how the parachute is constructed and controlled helps a lot in understanding how to fly the canopy.  It's also interesting to note how the technology for ram air parachutes has been refined with additions such as crossports, stabilizers, and sliders.  

Next came the reserve.  Quite a bit of time was spent on the reserve system and its deployment.  We also went through the three ring system in detail.  The three ring system is now the most common harness design used in cutaway systems.  This ring design applies 10 to 1 leverage along each ring to decrease the stress on the connection points of the cutaway system.  With the added 2 to 1 leverage of the loop, the system provides an amazing amount (over 200 to 1) of strength!   The ring design (i.e. round)  also inherently results in less snagging.  After examining the system, it's little wonder it has become the overwhelming standard!

Our student rigs are designed with a Single Operation System (SOS).  The SOS system is a single handle cutaway for releasing the main parachute and deploying the reserve.  Later, we may progress to a two-point cutaway system with separate handles for releasing the main and releasing the reserve.  An additional backup is built into the system via a Steven's Lanyard or RSL (Reserve Static Line).  The RSL is a direct line which pulls the reserve pin as the main chute pulls away.

We finished with a complete review and walkthrough of a gear check. 

More stuff you're gonna need...

Accessories are basically all the other stuff you need as a skydiver:  gloves, helmets, googles, altimeter, jumpsuit, etc.  We were already familiar with all of this stuff since we've completed five Tandem training jumps.

After the Jump

The next thing after a jump is to get in line to go again, right?  Well, almost.  First you need to daisy chain your lines and return all the equipment to its proper place.  This includes the radio during IAF training, your jumpsuit, goggles, and gloves, and of course your parachute.  Be sure your equipment is put back on the proper shelf or hook.

Aircraft Emergencies

Back in the classroom we went through the proper procedure for aircraft emergencies.  As a student, your main task is to watch and listen to your jumpmaster or instructor. Disarm your AAD.   Below 1500' you make sure you're buckled in and assume a crash position.  Above 1500', you will upon direction, bail out and immediately deploy your reserve.  Above your normal pull altitude and 9000', you exit and pull at your designated altitude.

Pull, pull pull!

If you're ever asked "What's the most important thing to do in a skydive?", the answer is PULL:

  1. Pull!
  2. Pull at the proper altitude
  3. Pull in a stable position.

If you become separated from your jumpmaster during a IAF what you do depends upon your condition.  If you are in control, stable, and altitude aware, pull at your assigned altitude.  If you are unstable or in trouble, arch hard, count to five, and PULL.  If you have any doubts as to your altitude or condition -- just pull.

Under Canopy...

As a skydiver, some of your most focused time is immediately after deploying your main parachute.  You have to make some quick assessments and choices.  Fortunately, they make it fairly straight forward for you.  When you deploy your main parachute, you look up as it inflates and answer three questions:

  1. Is it square?
  2. Is it stable?
  3. Is it steerable?

A square ram air parachute should fully or almost fully inflate upon deployment.  There are some common cases of end cells not inflating which can be corrected or flown as is.  For the most part, however, you want a fully square chute.

A stable parachute is one that is flying straight and level, and remains relatively rigid (inflated).  

A steerable parachute is one that is controllable.  If you pull the toggles to left or right does the parachute respond?  Do you need to wrap the toggles around your hands to shorten the length?  


Malfunctions.  It's not a word you particularly want to hear -- but you know it's important and in ground school you'll learn about the types of malfunctions and how to deal with them.  Malfunctions include situations including:

  • Bag lock
  • Streamer
  • Horseshoe
  • Broken lines
  • Line overs
  • Blown cells
  • Canopy holes
  • Two canopies out
  • Broken steering lines

Make your decision and execute before 2500'.  Never cut away below 1000'.  If you must, deploy the reserve only, but never cutaway under 1000 feet.

Most malfunctions have fairly easy identification and obvious action.  Some malfunctions aren't "fixable", so you simply cutaway and pull your reserve.  

Other malfunctions, such as sliders far up, certain lineovers, and many twists are many times correctable.  Some instructors are vehement: "You need to attempt to fix any potentially correctable problem." -- while others are more pragmatic: "If in doubt, cutaway and pull the reserve."

Should you cutaway or correct the problem?  As you'll read in subsequent stories, this is an issue that isn't solved with a simple yes or no.  There is no dotted line to follow from the sky to the ground.  YOU must learn the procedures and follow the best course of action for any emergency situation.  The best advice I've had is this:

"If you have a malfunction, and you are low speed (a canopy or partial canopy has slowed you down significantly) then try to correct the problem -- if it fixable.  If you can't fix it within a reasonable amount of time (altitude), then cut away and deploy your reserve.  If you have a malfunction and are still in high speed, get as stable as you can to cut away and deploy the reserve."

The good news is equipment malfunctions are rare, and your chances are increased greatly simply by doing thorough gear checks before your jump.  In addition, your training should allow you to correct most unusual situations including:

  • Line twists
  • Closed end cells
  • Tangled pilot chutes
  • Sliders partially or even fully up
  • Premature brake release

The overwhelming majority of the time, you will deploy your main and know that you have a good parachute.  In the rare occasion you have a malfunction, you'll know what to do to correct the situation or simply cutaway and deploy your reserve.  You'll perform some control checks and enjoy the ride down to the drop zone!  

Control, approach and landing

After examining your parachute you'll perform control checks -- turn to the left, to the right, and flare.  Once you've determined your parachute is flyable, you should plot your route to the drop zone.  

From the moment you deploy your parachute, look around to make sure you stay away from others.  Remember that people below you have the right-of-way.  As our instructor put it: "Your head should be on a constant swivel.  If you've looked at one thing or one direction for more than five seconds, it's time to check in another direction."

Determine where the drop zone is by the use of landmarks.   

Determine the direction of the wind.  You determine wind direction by looking at your speed in the direction you're flying (looking down), by looking at water or smoke, and of course by observing the windsock at the DZ. 

Fly toward the drop zone, but don't fly past the drop zone.  You want to stay up wind of the landing area.  If needed, simply fly into the wind to slow or "hold" your approach to the field.  If you're too high, turn to lose altitude.  If you're too low, fly with the wind or "run" toward your landing area.

At 2000' to 1500' you want to be at the outskirts of your landing area.   If you're not over your intended landing area by 2000 feet, look for the nearest safe alternative.

Your instructor will explain the box-pattern approach so that you land into the wind.  The altitudes and distances vary according to wind conditions.  Generally, in low winds the box pattern will consist of:

  1. Downwind 1000 feet
  2. Base 500 feet
  3. Final 300 feet

The most important thing is to fly safely.  Don't obsess about getting to a specific spot.  If needed, land in a different spot.  Be most concerned about landing safely away from others.

Finally, you'll learn to land.  Landings will consist of a good flare, executed at roughly 15' to 20' above the ground.  You'll also learn about PLFs, or Parachute Landing Falls.  If you see that you may have a harder than expected landing, you'll learn in ground school how to land with feet and knees together -- and roll with the landing to dissipate the energy.

If you have the opportunity, go to the drop zone after your ground school to observe experienced skydivers approaching and landing.  You'll get to see and understand upwind, downwind, running, holding, and crabbing.

Not where I want to be...

Hazards include trees, water, power lines, and even other skydivers.  In ground school, you'll learn to be on the lookout to avoid hazards.  If you do end up in a hazard, you'll learn the basic skills to lessen the danger.

Are you ready to Skydive?

At the end of the class, you will  have reviewed all the material, watched videos, asked questions, and practiced in the harness.  You will have viewed photographs of malfunctions and described how to deal each situation.  You'll be able to describe every component of a parachute rig.  You'll know how to navigate to the field and land.  You'll know the hand signals that your next IAF instructor will use in the air.  You're ready for your next skydive, Instructor Assisted Freefall, jump number 6!

If not, now is the time to grab an instructor and go review...

Packing Skydive rigs
After hearing all the regulations and technical specifications, you're ready to go into the loft and get your hands on a rig!
Pilot Chute
The pilot chute is attached to the chute by a bridle.
Parachute Risers
The harness, containers, handles, risers, lines, toggles, pins... everything is explained in detail!
Risers to Canopy
In ground school, you'll learn how every component works and how to inspect you gear. 
Parachute on floor
Knowing the proper name of each item and how it all works prepares you for when things don't work as expected.

Skydive malfunction photos
Videos and pictures are used to teach you to identify and deal with malfunctions.
hand_arch.jpg (4819 bytes)
This hand signal tells you to arch.
hand_checkarms.jpg (4779 bytes)
This hand signal indicates you need to check your arms.  They should be out to your side and relaxed in the standard box man position.
This signal indicates you should perform a practice rip cord touch.
Circle of Observation.  Check your altitude, heading, and instructor(s).
hand_clickheels.jpg (4012 bytes)
Click your heels.  The point is to make sure your body position is balanced -- otherwise, you may be in an unintentional turn.
hand_legsout.jpg (4429 bytes)
Straighten you legs slightly.  Usually, you should do this in small increments -- about each time the signal is given.
hand_legsup.jpg (5455 bytes)

Pull your legs up.  Just as with straightening your legs, this should be in small increments of about 6 inches at a time.

Push your pelvis down to accentuate your arch.
hand_pull.jpg (3927 bytes)
PULL NOW.  Don't wave off, don't hesitate -- PULL.  Note hand signals may be given in any direction, so it doesn't matter the direction the instructor is pointing.

Want to learn more?  Go to

(c) Copyright 2002, Keith Turbyfill.  May not be distributed, reproduced, or reprinted without my express, written permission.  You may get in touch with me by leaving your e-mail address the guestbook.


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