It's a nightmare situation. Picture yourself more than a half a mile above the Earth, hurtling toward the ground at the thunderous speed of a roller coaster — think around 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers per hour). You pull the ripcord on your parachute, but something's wrong. The chute doesn't open. What do you do?
Don't panic, says Ron Bell of the United States Parachute Association (USPA). Most parachute malfunctions are not death sentences. Or at least, they don't have to be. But why — and how — do failures happen? And most importantly, what can you do if a parachute malfunction happens to you?
But let's start with the basics. What are the odds of your parachute even glitching in the first place?
What Are the Odds?
Over the course of 21 years, Ron Bell has made more than 13,000 jumps. A main parachute malfunction, "on average, happens about one in one thousand jumps," he says. That's a nearly perfect reflection of his own record — he's experienced 14 malfunctions to date, he says.
The vast majority of parachute mishaps can be chalked up to human error, like improper packing or wonky body position during free fall. These result in a "partial malfunction," where the main chute deploys but is somehow impeded.
One of the most common partial malfunctions is a phenomenon called line twists. This happens when the main parachute's strings spin together like the chains of a swing-set so the canopy can't fully bloom. However, this problem is relatively easy to solve. "If you kick a little bit in the direction of the turn," says Bell, "it will automatically untwist itself."
Another scenario, known as a line over, occurs when a line crosses the main canopy and prevents it from opening evenly. Sometimes line overs work themselves out; other times they need a bit of maneuvering to fix. Other partial malfunctions include tears in the canopy fabric or broken lines. These are often the result of old or faulty parachute equipment. There's not much you can do about these in the moment.
But not all malfunctions are partial. Very rarely, a parachutist may experience a "total malfunction." This is when the main chute fails to open at all. That's where the reserve parachute comes in.
The Backup Plan
All skydivers are equipped with a reserve chute. Unlike the main, which may be packed by any experienced diver, a reserve chute can be packed only by an FAA-certified operator. This extra precaution ensures that the parachute will be properly positioned. Reserves rarely fail, but when they do, it's almost always due to a manufacturing mistake or an act of God.
While a total malfunction might sound scarier than a partial, it can actually be better news. Sometimes, the reserve parachute becomes entangled with a partly deployed main; no main deployment means that the reserve can open unimpeded.
As Bell likes to remind new skydivers, the reserve chute is there for a reason. If you feel unsafe, don't be afraid to pull the ripcord. Or, in Bell's words: "When in doubt, whip it out."
The Final Failsafe
Even if you're knocked unconscious, your odds of surviving a parachuting accident are pretty good. Modern rigs are usually outfitted with an automatic activation device, or AAD, which uses computerized sensors to monitor the diver's speed and altitude. If the parachutist reaches 1,000 feet (304 meters) above ground at a speed of 78 mph (125 kilometers) or faster, the AAD will automatically deploy the backup parachute.
Devices like these, Bell says, make skydiving today considerably safer than it was even 20 years ago. In 2000, the U.S. saw 32 skydiving fatalities out of 2.7 million jumps. In 2020 that number was just 11 in 2.8 million jumps. Tandem skydiving, in which an inexperienced skydiver is tethered to an instructor, adds an extra level of safety.
So if you're seeking a thrill, contact a skydiving instructor near you. Odds are, you'll have a great time.