WestPoint Skydiving Adventures
804 -78 5-9 707

Call anytime to make a reservation

WestPoint Skydiving Adventures: Professional Skydiving Instruction - The Safest Place To Skydive In Virginia*

RSL: A Second Look

By Jim Crouch

Reprinted from November 2005 Parachutist magazine

If you spend enough time at a drop zone, you are bound to run into a jumper who insists that it’s best to avoid a reserve static line at all costs, citing the risk of entanglements. Unfortunately, there are many misinformed jumpers with this attitude, when statistics show that fatal entanglements after a cutaway are actually rare.

A relatively simple device, a reserve static line ensures that the reserve ripcord is pulled immediately after release of the main canopy. One end of the RSL connects to either the left or right main canopy riser via a releasable snap shackle, and the other end goes around the reserve ripcord. Once the jumper pulls the cutaway handle and falls away from the main canopy and risers, the RSL pulls the reserve ripcord, helping the reserve pilot chute to launch immediately. USPA’s Skydiver’s Information Manual requires that all students who have not been cleared to solo freefall are equipped with RSLs and recommends them for all other jumpers, with a few exceptions for specialized situations.

Truth Be Told

It’s hard to say why RSLs have such a bad rap among some skydivers. Statistically, jumpers are much better off with an RSL than without one. Since 1990, 30 jumpers have died after releasing a main canopy but failing to deploy the reserve in time, while only five have died after some sort of entanglement with their equipment after a cutaway. One jumper died as the result of a main-reserve entanglement due to a riser failure. The riser with the RSL broke, and the RSL deployed the reserve while the main canopy was still attached to the other side of the harness. The main and reserve canopies entangled.

According to Derek Thomas, owner of Sun Path Products, which manufactures the Javelin harness and container system, manufacturers have corrected all the riser failure problems from the early days of the first mini-risers with better engineering and construction. Riser failures are now almost unheard of, and the risers that have failed are usually very worn. In other words, almost all of the failures could have been prevented by replacing the risers before they got completely worn out. The last riser failure in the U.S. that resulted in a fatality was on a tandem system in 1997.

Jumpers who choose to jump without an RSL usually cite the same basic reason—fear of an entanglement or line twists on the reserve canopy after a cutaway. Those using smaller parachutes at moderate to high wing loadings seem to think they are more susceptible to this type of problem. According to both Thomas and Relative Workshop president Bill Booth, jumpers under higher wing loadings are actually better off with an immediate reserve deployment via an RSL after a cutaway. Booth says there are several good reasons for using an RSL or the Relative Workshop Skyhook system (see sidebar), especially at higher wing loadings:

  • Violent spinning malfunctions rapidly draw blood away from the brain, affecting coordination and thinking ability, as well as slowing down reaction times.
  • Spinning canopies lose altitude quickly, usually 100 feet or more per revolution on moderate wing loadings and several hundred feet per revolution at higher wing loadings.
  • On average, a jumper takes six to eight seconds from the time he decides to initiate a cutaway to the time he actually releases the main canopy, losing a large amount of altitude.
  • Test jumps have shown that once the main canopy is released, it takes an average of six seconds to regain a stable, belly-to-earth body position, or approximately 1,100 feet of altitude. And this is when the test jumper was prepared for the cutaway before making the jump.
  • Locating the cutaway and reserve ripcord handles while spinning rapidly is difficult during an actual emergency and nearly impossible to simulate on the ground for practice.

Thomas goes on to say that almost all jumpers will argue that they want to get stable (belly to earth) after a cutaway before pulling the reserve. But in addition to using up valuable altitude and time, says Thomas, many jumpers become less stable for several seconds following a cutaway until their air speed picks up again. They end up pulling the reserve while unstable anyway.

Booth also notes that the reserve pilot chute serves as an anchor in the sky, extracting the reserve canopy as the jumper falls away. So while deploying in a stable body position is a better option, the reserve pilot chute is designed to pull the reserve into clean air regardless of body position. In the case of a spinning malfunction, the jumper is still traveling somewhat horizontally immediately after the cutaway, creating clear air for the reserve pilot chute as his vertical speed increases. In almost every case when an RSL deploys the reserve immediately after a cutaway, it activates the reserve so quickly that there is not enough time for the jumper to entangle with the reserve bridle or parachute or for his momentum to cause any line twist on the reserve canopy.

Reserve line twists after a cutaway from a spinning malfunction and immediate reserve deployment pose another concern for many jumpers. However, USPA has not received any accident reports stemming from this. But many reports have been received of jumpers who have used an RSL to deploy the reserve after releasing from a spinning malfunction without a problem, even if the reserve had a line twist.

Some jumpers feel they do not need an RSL because they have an automatic activation device to activate the reserve after a cutaway if necessary. According to Cliff Schmucker, president of SSK Industries, the U.S. Cypres service center, they better have plenty of altitude remaining for that to happen. After some basic number crunching, he came up with 1,000 feet as the absolute minimum cutaway altitude that might allow the Expert Cypres to activate the reserve in time for it to inflate—and this assumes that the reserve deployment sequence and inflation go perfectly. Schmucker, who also serves as president of the Parachute Industry Association, further notes that an AAD is not a substitute for an RSL. “An AAD is designed to activate your reserve if you lose track of altitude or are unable to pull,” he says. “An RSL is intended to make sure that your reserve is activated immediately after a cutaway."

For those who still choose to forego an RSL, it is a good idea to adjust your deployment altitude to higher than the USPA Basic Safety Requirement minimums in case of a malfunction. The rapid loss of altitude during a spinning malfunction combined with the longer delay in freefall trying to get stable and locate the reserve handle have already caught three jumpers by surprise in 2005 with fatal results.

Not for Everyone

Keep in mind that the RSL adds complications to certain situations and is not recommended in others. Canopy formation jumpers generally do not use RSLs in case of a canopy wrap or entanglement. In either situation, the jumper will likely need to freefall away from the entangled canopies before deploying the reserve. In the event of an accidental canopy collision while using an RSL-equipped rig, a jumper should first unhook the RSL before cutting away from the entanglement and clear the other jumper before deploying the reserve. The RSL easily releases with a single pull at its shackle, but the trick is remembering that step in a stressful situation such as a canopy collision.

When jumping in high winds, it’s also a good idea to unhook the RSL once under an open canopy. This allows the jumper to cut away the main after landing if he’s getting drug backward by the still-inflated canopy. Cutting away in this situation without first disconnecting the RSL can lead to an unintentional reserve deployment.

In addition, many camera flyers don’t want to risk a reserve entanglement with a camera helmet, although there are plenty of cases of RSL-deployed reserves on camera jumps with no problems. And skysurfers usually avoid RSLs, even though their use might have prevented the last two skysurfing fatalities.

Also, according to Skydiver’s Information Manual Section 5-1, if both the main and reserve have been deployed and the jumper elects to release the main canopy, he should disconnect the RSL first. At least one harness and container system requires the RSL to be disconnected in a two-canopies-out situation if the reserve has deployed first. In this configuration, the main canopy and RSL lanyard can slide up the reserve lines and choke off the reserve canopy after a cutaway.

The bottom line is that testing and statistics show that an RSL is a good idea for most situations. This is especially true for violent spinning malfunctions, which goes against the thinking of most jumpers who are currently flying canopies at moderate to high wing loadings. Whether you decide to use an RSL or not, base your decision on the facts. And if you choose not to use one, open higher, because you’ll probably need the extra time and altitude. After all, you won’t get any help pulling your reserve.

You may also be interested in the Skyhook Relative Workshop.