Cloud Dancer
3-D Flying Safety
by Tamara Koyn

Skydiving requires respect. You are responsible for your life. You rehearse your emergency procedures. 3-D flying involves a greater amount of freedom, as you will be exploring new territory. Freestyle and VRW can be dangerous. It requires respect.

By keeping a good head and engaging in safe practices, you can enjoy safe 3-D dives. Safety considerations for freestyle include avoiding injuries, your harness, avoiding premature deployment, exit order, altitude awareness, dealing with disorientation, breaking off, group size, making contact and docking, and night 3-D flying.

Requirements for Safe 3-D Flying

Before practicing any type of 3-D flying, you should be capable of controlled 45 second delays and the basic freefall actions of turning, looping, and rolling. You should be able to start and, most importantly, stop flat turns and spins. Looping and rolling should be performed without disorientation. You should be able to regain stability from any out of control fall. You should be able to maintain good altitude awareness; and consistently follow the 3 basic priorities (Pull, Pull at a Proper Altitude, and Pull with Stability). 40 minutes of prior freefall time is recommended. You should also be familiar with solo 3-D flying before attempting any 3-D flying in relative situations.

Avoiding Injury

Body injuries are undesirable. Muscles can be strained or even pulled during vigorous or strenuous maneuvers and out of control fall. High muscle tension can cause strained or pulled muscles. To reduce the chance of strained or pulled muscles, you can do any number of things to relax the muscles of the body. Massages, gentle relaxed shaking out of body parts, and gentle stretching all help relax the muscles. You should do these things before your jump. Cold muscles are also more vulnerable to being strained or pulled, so dress adequately warm enough for the temperature in freefall.

Damaged ligaments are worse than pulled muscles. While in freefall, don't allow body parts to be thrown into the end of their range of motion. Also, don't allow a body part to be stopped by the end of its range of motion. Stop it yourself before it gets there. When a body part is stopped by the end of its range of motion, it puts stress on ligaments. When this stress is great enough, injury to that ligament will occur. One way of avoiding this confrontation is to not give your muscles a force too large for them to handle. For example, if flaring from a head-down dive with the arms straight is too stressful then flare with the elbows bent and the hands closer to the body. You'll find that you may even be able to apply more force to the wind for a more effective flare with less stress on the muscles!

Knowing the limits of your body and staying within them is a good way to avoid injury. If you don't yet know the limits of your body, it will tell you when you reach it. For example, if a particular move hurts, stop and avoid it. Pain is the body's way of saying that it is being injured. Since you will be pushing into new territory, no one will be able to tell you what to expect and watch out for. It is important to listen to your body. If you don't understand the signals you receive from your body, see your doctor and find out about it.

Your Harness

Since you will be engaging in more body motions than the typical flat RW skydiver, pay more careful attention to your harness. First, it should fit properly. Leg straps that are too loose can end up halfway down to the knee by the end of freefall, therefore producing an uncomfortable opening and the chance of slipping out of the harness (if this is bad enough). An improperly fitting harness can detract from your freefall performance. And what's worse, a shifting harness can cause your handles-the main deployment device, cutaway handle, and reserve ripcord-to move, making them difficult to find when needed.

On new rigs, thread through leg straps tend to unthread as you move your legs through a large range of motion. Make sure there is a safety stitch so that it cannot unthread to a dangerous point, or order B-12 snaps. You may also be able to request leg straps that are unadjustable loops with no connector device.

Avoiding Premature Deployment

While freeflying, your airspeed may exceed the recommended deployment speed for your parachutes. Fallrates in freeflying can reach (and even exceed) 200 mph. A premature deployment is almost certain to cause damage to your equipment and/or serious bodily injury. The high air speeds and tumbling possible during freeflying subject your equipment to more turbulent windflow and your harness & container system must be ready to fly at all angles to this fast windflow.

It's necessary to choose the proper gear, maintain your gear, and to check your gear before jumping.

Before the dive, inspect the jump plane for any obstructions which may snag your equipment. Rehearse the exit climb-out with gear on (especially if you are planning an unusual exit) looking for any potential risk that flaps or handles might be snagged and plan to avoid the problem.

Always verify that your equipment is proper before every jump. If it is not proper, fix it before you jump. You will also want to receive an in-flight pin check including inspection of handles, pins, bridle routing and flaps prior to exit. Offer your friends a gear check.

You should be sure that your gear has adequate protector flaps for all pins and risers and that these flaps will stay closed. They should stay closed even if, by chance, your back is bumped by anyone in your group or against the airplane during climbout and exit. Keep velcro clean. Affixing anti-slide sticky material on your tuck flaps or using an extra tuck flap or "walrus" tongues will help keep them closed. You'll also observe that some models of harness and container systems may close more effectively than others. Replace any worn velcro and tuck flaps on your protector flaps. Flaps that stay shut will protect your pins reducing the possibly of them getting bumped out. Flaps that open can result in the bridle coming loose, risers and toggles flying free in the wind, etc. All of these things can lead to a malfunction whether it be a surprise opening or a toggle that has wrapped around your main deployment handle. Snaps similar to those installed on tandem rigs may be used to secure toggles in place in case a riser cover does open.

The closing loop should be tight and replaced if worn or frayed. After packing, if you can lift your rig off the floor by pulling up on the bridle line, the closing loop is too tight. A loose or worn closing loop can be a 3-D flyer's death wish. Should the pin and bag come loose, a looping freestylist is almost certain to tie himself up in a horseshoe malfunction.

No bridle should be flapping loose in the airflow. A horseshoe malfunction at a fast fallrate and in other orientations of flight should be avoided if at all possible. A BOC throw out or pull-out is better than a throw out mounted on a leg strap. If you absolutely must insist on jumping with a leg strap throw out, keep the velcro clean and replace it frequently. (Even then, experienced freeflyers may not want to fly with you until you get a BOC.) Keep all velcro clean and replace it if it's worn. During maneuvers, the unpredictable wind pattern passing it could cause worn velcro to come undone and increase the chance of a horseshoe malfunction. The drag on the loose bridle can be enough to pull the pin from the main container.

Be sure that the size of your pilot chute and the pilot chute pouch are compatible-especially if your pilot chute has zero-porosity fabric. A pilot chute too small for the pouch can creep out of the pouch and cause a very undesirable surprise deployment while you are flying in unusual orientations and at fast fallrates with others who could be above you. Replace the pouch if the spandex seems to be even slightly worn. Check that your pilot chute is properly stowed just prior to exit.

Because you may come in close contact with your partner(s), you may also want pillows for both of your emergency handles since they are less likely to be snagged. (Note that a pillow reserve handle may void the TSO for a harness and container system, so check with the manufacturer when considering any type of modification to your equipment. Another concern may be that one may not be able to attain the same amount of pull-force without the leverage of having a thumb through the handle.) However, you should not be out flying your abilities to such an extent that you feel that you need these pillow-style emergency handles.

In general, all equipment should be properly donned with all straps fastened and lose ends stowed, etc. Do not carry pull-up cords and the like trailing in the breeze. If it can reach your chin, it will beat the hell out if it. If it is near any of your handles, you could also grab that when pulling a needed handle possibly preventing a successful pull. Since you are moving your body quite a bit in 3-D flying and a faster fallrates, unstowed items could end up anywhere.

Check and glance over your friends' gear in the airplane and in freefall. If you see something wrong, tell your friend. If, while in freefall with him, you ever see anything wrong about your partner's equipment, you should point at him giving him the standard AFF "Pull" signal and begin to break away. This way he will know to check himself and make an appropriate action hopefully before the situation gets out of hand. Similarly, if your partner is giving you the standard AFF "pull" signal-a finger pointing straight at you, this is your cue to check yourself and take care of the problem.

Exit Order

Many centers or load organizers request that freestylists and freeflyers exit first because of their faster fallrates. In this case, your group will be deploying significantly before the rest of the jump run and it is possible to fly a high performance canopy under the group that exited after you while they are still in freefall. It is safest for you to wait for most of the pass to open before flying your parachute in the direction of the jump run. (Note that usually pointing your canopy toward the DZ will most likely be the same as pointing your canopy in the direction of jump run.) Airport angles, multiple runways, and dive focus with your mates instead of the ground can make recalling the direction of jump run difficult especially if you were not spotting. Learn the DZ scenery and check your jump run & spot. If you've become confused, keep your brakes set or fly in brakes until the next groups get under canopy.

However, it is best for freefly groups to exit after the flat flying relative work groups and before freestylists, solos, and those (such as Tandems) opening high. When you (regardless of whether you are jumping alone or with partners) are following another group out of the plane, allow sufficient time between exits-this varies according to winds aloft and the exit speed. The best way to give proper separation is to look down at the ground and exit once you have verified that the airplane has moved a safe distance from the previous exit point. When the winds aloft are strong and/or the exit speed is slow, you will be allowing more time-around 10 seconds or possibly more-between exits. If the airplane has a faster exit speed and is covering more ground more quickly, you can allow less time-as low as 5 seconds. Allow whatever time it takes to insure that the plane has covered sufficient distance on the ground to insure that you will not be above the group that exited before you. Consider adding more time if the group in front of you is doing something radical, such as a tube dive, or they are beginners in 3-D flying and you suspect they will be sliding horizontally across the sky.

Once you are in freefall, you may not find the other groups as you will be busy flying complex 3-D maneuvers with blinding speed which may or may not include maintaining eye contact with partners in your own group if you're not alone. If you are aware of where the other groups are, you can stay clear of them-something more easily done if you're flying solo. Relative workers will not appreciate a freestylist nor a freefly formation in a fast falling maneuver taking out their formation. You should never be over their backs.

Near pull time, a soloist can track perpendicular to jump run to be more sure you are not over anyone's back. In general, it is a good for any soloist to practice moves facing in a direction perpendicular to jumprun. In this way, s/he will not slide into the other groups' airspace.

Exiting last also provides a better opportunity for everyone to be opening on the pass at nearly the same time thereby significantly reducing the chance of flying your parachute under a group still in freefall. Exiting last is also preferred when the airplane is flying head-on to strong winds aloft. If your group exits first and your group's freefall lasts for 45 seconds and the flat flying RW group out after you has a 60 second freefall, they have more exposure to the winds aloft and will have more freefall drift than you. The possibility of a RW group drifting over your opening area becomes greater as the winds aloft increase. Pilots who are aware of this problem and know that freestylists and freeflyers are exiting first can fly jump run at an angle with respect to the winds aloft.

Altitude Awareness

Because of the faster fallrates attained in freestyle and freeflying, altitude awareness is extremely important and instrumental in preventing the tendency of opening low on 3-D flying dives.

3-D moves, depending on their nature, can be capable of rapidly chewing up time and altitude. While tumbling in (or out of control) or holding some vertical orientation, you will fall faster than you would in a flat RW Stable position. Usually those moves in which the body presents (on the average) a smaller surface area to the relative wind are fast falling maneuvers.

Also, the orientations (and positions such as the Chair position) in which you fly and the fun you're having may cause you to pay less attention to the ground. It is easy to get carried away having fun in 3-D flying. It is strongly recommended to make solo freestyle jumps and consistently practice good attitude awareness.

To keep altitude awareness, check both the ground and altimeter between every maneuver. Any altimeter can malfunction and not read properly, therefore it should not be your only gauge for altitude. Use multiple references for your altitude. Use a visual and audible altimeter and know the visual appearance of the ground at pull altitude. Remember that the louder wind noise associated with higher fallrates can obscure the warning sound of an audible altimeter if you are not wearing a leather hat or full faced helmet. You may want an audible altimeter that also provides a visual warning light in your goggles. A chest mount altimeter will not read properly if it is in the burble of your chest, such as the case would be when you are flying back down. For example, this can occur while sit flying if you are reclining onto your back (or have your legs not spread very far to the sides). Some sit flyers prefer to put their altimeter on the leg strap as readings seem to be more accurate, it's more visible, and flops less. However, you can not see it easily in this position while tracking or head-down. Wrist mounts read accurately but can be inconvenient to read in many positions (depending on how you are using your arms) and while tracking. When you are flying relative to other partners, you may even glance at your partner's altimeter. Camera flyers may want to have an altimeter mounted next to the camera for others to use as they "geek" the lens. You may even choose to carry two altimeters. At any given moment on a dive, you will find one source for altitude awareness more convenient than the others.

If you, while on a solo freestyle dive, notice a number of open canopies over your head, you are more than likely falling low. If you are flying relative and no one is around, you are most certainly low, if not dead.


When you are just starting out in 3-D flying, some maneuvers can be more disorientating than other moves, thus you should know how to handle disorientation. At this stage in your experience, you should not be attempt to perform 3-D flying in a relative situation. Disorientation can happen from out of control fall, dizziness, disconcertion, and becoming mesmerized.

If you find yourself violently out of control, the hard arch position really does work. If you have trouble gaining stability, you probably have tension in your body that is adding to the problem. In this case, first relax and then hit a hard arch. If you lose track of time and altitude during stability or other problems, immediately pull. To gain confidence in regaining stability, try this exercise: On exit, grab the left leg with the right hand and hold it for 10 seconds. Get stable. Do this only if your jump altitude is high enough to safely allow it. 7200 ft or higher is best.

When you become sufficiently comfortable with regaining your stability without the need for performing, literally, a student arch, and you can lose and regain your stability without altering your fallrate, you are ready to fly with a 3-D flying partner.

If you can't handle getting dizzy in freefall, avoid maneuvers that will cause it. Usually moves excessive in the number of rotations in one direction cause dizziness. If confronted with dizziness, arch and keep careful track of time and altitude. While freestyling with a cold, you will probably experience erratic dizziness. For example, Back Layouts can cause dizziness about all three ways of rotating instead of the usual one you will experience at full health. If this is a problem for you, then perform 3-D flying only when you are completely healthy.

If you do a large amount of fast turns, rolls, and loops on a very aggressive freestyle dive, you can possibly excite the vestibular sense. If it does get excited, it is normal to get dizzy from a change in the head's orientation for, at its worst, up to two to three days after the jump. If this does happen, getting dizzy from moving from laying down to sitting is normal (during this period).

In freefall, a sudden happening can disconcert or surprise you. Keep your altitude awareness. You may have just got a new freestyle move right and all of a sudden... You find yourself in some odd orientation or motion and you're thinking "Hugh?" Maintain your altitude awareness. Similarly, disconcertion can occur in VRW when a team mate takes you out by surprise. You must not only maintain your altitude awareness, you must maintain your fallrate.

It is possible to become mesmerized or hypnotized when making a change from the normal types of jumps you do. This includes potentially any one of the Elements of Movement. If you've been jumping with your friends a lot, then jumping alone will be quite a different experience. Keep your altitude awareness. The same is also true when you change to RW after jumping solo for a long time. You can also get mesmerized from continuous spinning. The mere fact that you have been reviewing this concept will increase your awareness and therefore help you to resist becoming mesmerized.

Breaking Off

For a solo 3-D dive, you typically need not to consider breaking-off procedures other than to slow down your fallrate before deploying. However, if you are flying relative with other partner(s), there are break-off procedures to keep in mind.

Freefly students should break off at 4,000ft and those with a history of altitude awareness problems should break off at 4,500ft. Breaking-off higher is recommended for those who have a tendency to go low, for those who are trying new equipment, and when participating in larger groups. (During the Freefly Festival held in Eloy last November, the 10 ways began breaking off around 5,000 feet.) Beginning freeflyers, will also be dealing with strange body positioning and maybe strange jumpsuits in addition to the faster fallrate from which they must slow down and these are an extra complication during break-off. A high break-off is better than breaking-off too low.

Some freeflyers make a heel-click, to signal the break-off.

While breaking off, carve/veer your higher airspeed gently into a good track. Because there may be people just above you and your fallrate is fast, it is very dangerous to abruptly go face to wind to track away. Abruptly moving into a flat position abruptly slows your fallrate without warning and can result in an immediate high speed freefall collision with someone just above you. (It's OK to use a position other than a face to wind track, such as tracking away on the back, only if you can maintain your heading and track far away from the center.) For experienced freeflyers, it's easy to simply flip head-down (if they are not already head-down) and then veer away from the center into a good track converting the higher fallrate and airspeed into distance. Then, track in the most efficient manner possible. With high performance canopies and the chance of an off-heading opening, this horizontal distance is very important for your safety. You'll find that your higher airspeed translates quite nicely into good fast horizontal movement.

Because a team member could have a cut-away or an off-heading opening (canopies deploy at different rates) and it's difficult to plan who will be the low person, do not plan to use staggered openings as a substitute for horizontal separation. Those using winged sit suits will find that they can track more effectively if they turn the backs of their hands towards the ground.

Just before opening, you'll want to flare with a gentle reverse arch to bleed off any excess speed you may have.

On solo dives during which you typically do not track for breaking-off, it is particularly important to remember to flare with a nice reverse arch to avoid any hard openings. You may want to try flaring with your elbows bent with the hands closer to your shoulders. This way, the torque that the strong airflow exerts against your shoulders will be less and more controllable. With your elbows bent and hands closer to your elbows, you are physically stronger against the force of the airflow and the airflow will not grab your arms yanking them behind you by surprise. Tracking away from the formation significantly reduces your fallrate. (The author recommends deploying while face to wind. Attempting to deploy from other fancy positions and moves can be extremely dangerous.)

Once you're open, be prepared to use the rear risers to avoid a canopy collision just immediately after opening.

Group Size

Beginning freeflyers should work in a 2-way format until they have developed sufficient skills to allow safe participation in larger groups. In order to safely participate in any group larger than two, a freeflyer, whether flying head-up or head-down, must be able to:
--maintain balance and to be able to recover lost balance without slowing his fallrate relative to the group
--control the proximity
--control the level
--always be able to stay level with the other members of the group and especially be level with the other group members for break-off

Concentrating on basic skills in the 2-way format until all the basic skills are learned will effectively prepare you for more rewarding dives in bigger groups. Once these initial skills (basic flying stance, proximity control, and fallrate control) are well learned, the group size should be increased gradually. New skills should not be introduced if the group size is larger than two.

Starting with your very first freefly dives, you must get into the habit of maintaining your fallrate. While learning to standup or to fly head-down, there will be times when you lose your balance. When you feel the loss of your balance you should immediately tuck and roll right over immediately into another attempt to be standing or head-down. This tucking and rolling, often referred to as emergency rolls, helps you to keep your fallrate fast and constant. Going flat as a result of losing balance causes you to also abruptly slow your fallrate. When flying in a group, this is dangerous and can result in a high speed collision. For this reason, it is extremely important that you get into the habit of performing an emergency roll when you lose your balance starting with your very first freeflying training jumps. If you have not established this habit, it is not safe for you to participate in a 3-way or bigger or in a 2-way with another inexperienced flyer. If you participate in larger groups before you have refined your skills in recovering any lost balance without slowing your fallrate, a lose of balance may cause a high speed freefall collision especially if you are below one of your fellow divers. Experienced freeflyers are able to perform emergency rolls without losing eye contact with their partners.

Beginning participation in larger groups too early can actually slow your learning curve and result in disappointing dives as big groups provide little opportunity for learning basic skills. While flying in big groups without adequate skills among all the group participants, you can very easily lose track of one another in the large 3-dimensional airspace of freefall and the resulting large vertical separation with little or no horizontal separation between group members can cause confusion at break-off. At pull time, a series of events (such as breaking-off low combined with confusion about which way to track, etc.) can become overwhelming and lead to an accident such as one deploying into the airspace of another, etc. If, by any chance, there are large differences in level at break-off, those people that are high should insure that no-one is above them and open high. Those people that are low may wish to go a little lower than normal to open. If you are above anyone during tracking/breaking-off, remember that the low man has right away-immediately veer off at a right angle to his tracking direction or, maybe, you want to verify that no one is above you and deploy a little high.

Making Contact and Docking

Beginning freeflyers should first practice no contact drills and learn the basic relative movements well before attempting skills which involve making contact with one another. Trying skills involving contact too early can result in collisions, accidentally kicked rigs, and the chances of having containers kicked open.

Night 3-D Flying

Doing freestyle on night jumps can be a real joy. However, you must prepare and know what to expect. Before making your first night freestyle jump, analyze what you use for references. In other words, you must already have freestyle experience on day jumps. Some references include the horizon, sensation of the relative wind on the body, or the illusion of a grid on the ground. (Depending on where you jump, the land may or may not exhibit a grid-like pattern.) Next, consider which of your references are present and not present at night. For example, seeing the horizon at night can be difficult whereas the relative wind provides the same reference as it does during the daytime. If there are enough lights on the ground, you still may be able to make out some sort of imagined grid on the ground to gauge your heading on. Finally, determine what adaptations you will need to make.

Disorientation is more likely at night, you must pay important attention to the aspects of safe freestyle. Always keep your altitude awareness.

While you are spinning and tumbling, the lights on the ground can blur and become an unreliable confusing reference point. If the lights on the ground are extremely sparse, you are more likely to experience vertigo during the execution of fast maneuvers. Your keen awareness and your ability to pay attention to the relative wind will help reduce vertigo to some extent. Vertigo is more likely at night during fast maneuvers because the perception of a stable ground as a reference is lost. The few sparse lights become more like figures providing an unreliable reference. Time is insufficient for you to identify the stable ground as a stable reliable reference point (through examining the sparse lights). During slow rotations, your perception has sufficient time to identify a stable ground by scanning across the sparse lights.

Jumping at night will more than likely alter your awareness of your freestyle routine. Your altered awareness can provide new learning experiences. For example, a single small town near the DZ that appears as an obvious cluster of lights at night can become an easy obvious indicator of your heading control during fast maneuvers. Depending on where you jump, such obvious land marks for heading awareness may be rarely available during the daytime. (Beach jumps or jumps at a DZ within clear sight of a large body of water can provide similar easy to see land marks for heading awareness.)

Freeflying at night presents additional challenges and hazards. Because vertical and horizontal separation can develop instantly in freeflying, one should try night freeflying only after mastering the basics (flying stance, and proximity and fallrate control) to a very high degree of proficiency. Additionally, the use of lighting on jumpers should be carefully planned. It is important to be able to see your partner's body position therefore, rather than or in addition to using a glow stick which can make his body invisible to your vision at night, freeflyers may break open their glow sticks spreading the glowing chemical onto the legs and arms of the suit. Under moonlight or over a good sized, nearby town, wearing a white suit will increase the visibility of your body to your partners.

Have Fun!!

By using common sense and knowing your limits, you can enjoy safe 3-D flying dives. Do not worry if you can't remember all these tips off hand. Underline the most important tips and as you gain experience you'll learn to adopt more safe strategies in your dive plans. When engaged in safe practice, you can enjoy the creative opportunities of movement in freefall.

Cloud Dancer
© Copyright 1997, Tamara Koyn. All Rights Reserved.