It is rare for beginner level recreational pilots to find themselves in a situation where they have to throw their reserve parachute. Regardless, you should be fully prepared to successfully deploy your reserve if needed. As a pilot, it is important to have a complete understanding of your reserve system, when to use it, a good deployment procedure, and how best to maintain the parachute.
In recent years reserve parachute design has evolved much to the benefit of the overall safety for the pilot. Traditional round reserves are still the most common types of reserve parachute and are by far the most trusted in our sport. You will see some pilots using round reserves, but you will also see new square reserves and combination square/round designs – both offer some advantages to traditional round reserves, but all reserve designs have their place. The important thing is to have a reserve.
One of the most common types of reserve used for paragliding is the round pull-down-apex (PDA) design – or typically referred to as a “round reserve.” By pulling down the apex of a round reserve, the surface area is considerably increased, resulting in a decreased descent rate. The PDA design also helps to dampen oscillations, a major concern with round parachutes that do not have a PDA.
Another increasingly common reserve design is the steerable or “Rogallo” design named after Francis Rogallo who helped pioneer the first hang glider designs. It is triangular in shape and has a significant advantage in its forward penetration over round or square reserves. They also include a brake system that allows the pilot to flare for landing.
The reserves we use are specifically designed for use with paragliders. They are designed and packed to open quickly (4-6 seconds) and at relatively slow speeds. They are not certified for terminal velocity openings, although tests (using dummies) have shown that they can withstand them. The line lengths place the reserve below the paraglider, so that it gets first ‘crack’ at the airflow.
Reserve Deployment System
The reserve is folded to fit inside a deployment bag. The deployment bag is secured with a locking stow (a section of the lines pulled through an elastic loop) that will slide out easily when the reserve is thrown. The lines of a reserve are attached to a bridle, which is attached to another bridle that is connected to your harness at the shoulders. A metal link or a girth hitch is used to connect the reserve bridle to the harness bridle and this connection should be secured against movement or loosening, respectively. Once the reserve is connected to the harness, it is placed in the reserve container located on the harness.
Harnesses vary in the location of their reserve containers; generally they are front, side, back, or rear mounted. The bridles are secured in a routing system on the harness to keep them in place and, hopefully, UV protected. A handle is attached to the deployment bag, and is used to extract the bag from the harness. On the handle will be either one or two pins, used to secure the harness container. The pins, usually curved, are designed to release with little effort, making it imperative for a pilot to guard against accidental deployment. Accidental or Unintentional reserve deployments close to the ground have led to serious injury and should be a consideration when carrying a reserve parachute. You should become very familiar with your reserve system.
In case it gets pulled out accidentally (on the ground) or you need to take it out to be repacked, you should know how to take the deployment bag out and put it back in correctly. A knowledgeable instructor or reserve re-packer should be able to teach you how to properly install your reserve parachute.
It is important to minimize compression of your reserve. Air between the folds of fabric help it to open quickly. Compression is almost impossible to avoid, and is the main reason we repack our reserves. However, you can help by not sitting on it and taking care when packing your harness in the backpack. Moisture in your reserve container should be avoided. If you suspect that your reserve has become damp, open it up to dry, and have it repacked as soon as possible. When they get wet the air is forced out and it will compress as it dries. Note: do not dry it in the sun, reserves do not have any UV protection and UV is very detrimental to the fabric.
Keep dirt and debris out of the harness container, as they are abrasive and can damage the lines and fabric. It’s a good idea open the container and clean it out periodically, especially after being around sand. Over time and with exposure to heat and moisture, the rubber bands holding the lines will break down, allowing the lines to become entangled. For recreational pilots, it is recommended that you have your reserve repacked every 6 months to a year.
As part of your preflight you should already be checking your reserve handle and pins. If your handle is attached with velcro you should be conscious of velcro-lock. Over time two pieces of velcro may become locked together such that they are extremely difficult to pull apart. You should pull your reserve handle velcro apart once a month to ensure it releases easily if needed.
Reasons for Deployment
The most common reasons for deployment include mid-air collisions, severe turbulence or rotor, and equipment failure.
Mid-air collisions can be avoided by not flying at crowded sites and/or being aware of your surroundings and other pilots. Know the right of way rules, but also make sure there isn’t a different pattern being used. Not everyone obeys the rules. You need to determine if the other pilots are, and if not, avoid them or don’t fly.
Encountering turbulence that results in a loss of control, including loss of horizon reference, is a somewhat vague and generalized reason for throwing your reserve, as a result it is pilot and situation dependent. A pilot’s skill and experience is going to determine what they can and cannot control. As a pilot, you should be familiar with all the things that can happen to a paraglider and how to deal with them. Your altitude will be a major factor when dealing with a loss of control. Altitude equals time; the higher you are, the more time you have to deal with problems that may arise.
Flying into rotor will most likely result in a reserve deployment. If you end up in this situation, you probably didn’t follow one of the following paragliding commandments: keep a 2:1 glide to the top of the mountain or ‘if you’re going up, go out’ (in front). There are varying degrees of rotor; the strength of the wind and the height and shape of the mountain or ridge are factors. Your glider needs laminar airflow to generate lift. The airflow in an area of rotor is chaotic, worsening as you descend lower, and will make it difficult if not impossible for your glider to fly correctly. It is likely that you will experience deflations, and the glider will become increasingly difficult to manage. You do not want to have difficulty managing your glider as you near the ground, as this is the most dangerous time. Your best choice in this situation is to deploy your reserve. The parachute will handle the turbulence considerably better than the paraglider.
It is possible that you could have a malfunction of your paraglider; however this is very rare. With regular inspections and maintenance, your probability of having an in-air malfunction should be eliminated. Do not fly equipment that is damaged or not airworthy. Equipment malfunction is most often experienced by aerobatic pilots who put repeated stresses on their equipment.
Anytime you are pushing the limits of the glider and your abilities, the chances of a reserve deployment are significantly increased. Deployments occur more often when pilots are flying in extremely unstable conditions, flying high performance gliders, and especially at competitions or while performing aerobatic maneuvers. If you aspire to perform at this level, you should be aware that the probability of needing to deploy your reserve is increased.
The majority of problems that may lead to a reserve deployment can be solved with enough altitude, so most deployments are made at lower altitudes. In general, you will need a minimum of 300 feet to 500 feet to complete a reserve deployment sequence. Below 300 feet the deployment would have to go perfectly, and in most cases it is probably better to manage the glider rather than give up on it and not have either canopy work correctly.
This is a point that should be discussed in detail with your instructor – some pilots have had successful deployments below 300 feet, but it will be very situational specific. Also try not to over-control your glider if you are having issues – some pilots cause more problems by providing too much input at the wrong time. Sometimes the safe bet is to go hands up and try to let the glider return to safe and stable flight. Discuss this concept with your instructor.
Steps for Deployment
The following is a good sequence for a round, square, or square/round reserve. If you are flying with a Rogallo reserve the sequence will be a bit different – talk to you instructor to decide what sequence will work best for your equipment.
- Look – Look at the handle. Do not waste time blindly groping for the handle. Numerous reserve deployments in skydiving were unsuccessful because the person was pulling on something other than the reserve handle. When you’ve decided to throw your reserve, look for the handle and then reach for it.
- Pull/Throw – After you have looked at the handle, grasp it firmly and pull the deployment bag out of the harness container and throw it firmly down and away from you. Pull and throw all in one smooth motion. The reserve needs tension to release the locking stow loop and open the deployment bag. We can use gravity to our advantage by combining it with the force of the throw. We don’t want to throw it straight down though, as we could fall into the opening reserve. Instead, by throwing the reserve to the side and down at about a 45° angle, we can achieve a faster opening time, and the reserve will open away from the glider avoiding entanglement. If you are rotating, try to throw the reserve in the direction of your rotation, away from the glider, this will also aid in avoiding entanglement. Clearly, if the 45° out and down direction is not into clear airspace, you will need to locate clear space to throw into.
- Retrieve – Retrieve the bridle. If the locking stow has not released for some reason, this step should release it or give you the opportunity to reel the deployment bag back in, figure out what is wrong and re-deploy it. After you have thrown your reserve, immediately sweep your hand down to the bridle and give it a hard yank towards you. If your throw was sufficient, the reserve should already be deployed and pulling you by your shoulders before you get a chance to yank on it. If it has not deployed after 2 or 3 attempts at yanking on the bridle, reel it back into your lap, pull the locking stow open, and throw it again, taking care that the lines don’t get tangled up. This event is extremely unlikely, however, it is a good idea to have a plan, and not to waste any time in the event you have a stuck locking stow. A properly packed reserve should never have a stuck locking stow. You can check for this by trying to lift your reserve, while out of the harness container, by the reserve bridle. If the loop does not release, it is too tight.
- Avoid – Get your arm out of the way. This step is only necessary for bottom or front mount reserves. When the reserve opens and puts tension on the bridle, it will pull through the velcro routing system. Often this routing system runs under your arm. If your arm is over your reserve bridle when it rips through the velcro you may dislocate your shoulder making the next steps difficult and painful. As soon as you see or feel that the locking stow has released and the reserve is deploying, put your hand on your chest to get your arm out of the way. When the bridle has fully torn through the velcro, you should proceed to the next step.
- Disable – Disable your paraglider. Once the reserve opens the paraglider will dive forward and fight against your reserve. This is called down-planing, and will increase your descent rate substantially. To avoid down-planing, the paraglider needs to be disabled by pulling any symmetrical set of risers other than your A-Risers. Pull the risers down to your chest and hold them there until you land. The B risers are preferable, because they disable the paraglider in the most stable configuration. The glider will settle into a B-Line Stall and provide extra drag for a slower decent. Do NOT reel one side of your glider in. The other side will try to fly and may wrap around your reserve, or at least result in a wild oscillation. It also wastes time that you should be using to prepare for landing. You may have to be creative when disabling your glider if you can’t get to the B risers easily.
- PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) – Be prepared for a quick landing by assuming the parachute landing fall position. Having your feet and knees tight together (slightly bent) should be second nature as a novice pilot. Your arms should be to your chest, holding the B-risers. As you come down, you should be watching the horizon, not the ground. As you touch down you should exhale. Your body will dissipate the energy better if you are relaxed, not tense. Roll to the side; feet, knees, hip and then shoulder.
The best decision to make is not to fly. If you are questioning yourself or are feeling like the conditions are above your skill level, it’s always a better decision to stay on the ground. If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where you need to deploy your reserve, it means you may have made a mistake (or series of mistakes), and it is best to commit to pulling your reserve.
Do it and don’t hesitate.
L – P/T – R – A – D – PLF
As with everything that is important to remember, mnemonic devices are great.
LPT RAD PLF is a good one, or LP TRAD PLF. Choose one and stick with it.
LOOK – PULL/THROW – RETRIEVE – AVOID – DISABLE – PLF
If you are landing in trees, you can protect your face and avoid having branches catch the under side of your chin guard by placing your thumbs under your chin and covering your face with your hands and fingers. If you land in water try not to move your legs at all. They can become tangled in the lines which will tend to sink. The back protection in your harness may try and float you face down, so get one arm out of the shoulder straps and reach around to hold the harness. This will keep your head out of the water while you finish unbuckling. If a boat is coming for you, stay still, and away from your lines, using the harness to keep you afloat. If you’re in moving water, and are worried about becoming tangled, leave your gear and get to shore. If you try to fight your gear in water it can drag you under.
If you land in power lines DO NOT touch the ground, the Kevlar lines can conduct electricity. Have someone call the authorities and wait for help.
If it’s windy, and you can’t get free of your harness, you will have to cut the reserve bridle(s), wing risers, and speed-bar lines with your hook knife. If you are getting dragged by your reserve after landing, be ready to cut the reserve away or anything necessary to stop being dragged.
After landing under reserve, if you are not hurt, quickly get up and gather your equipment. This signals to others that you are OK. If you suspect that you are injured, don’t move, and wait for help to arrive. After a successful reserve deployment it is customary to send the person who packed it a thank you!
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