Swooping is Not A Crime, In Fact, It’s…

… probably one of the things that will help to grow skydiving as a sport in the years to come.

Just wanted to state my position on the topic, publicly and openly, since my understanding is that there’s a group of candidates that are using the “USPA wants to ban swooping” scare tactic as a campaign strategy.  Granted, that energy is aimed more at incumbents than at fellow challengers like me, but it’s still something I wanted to speak up about.

That said, I don’t swoop, and I may never swoop.  Some of my good friends do swoop, and most of them are as concerned as anyone about doing it responsibly, and in a way that’s compatible with the mixed traffic of a busy modern dropzone.  On any given day, a load could contain wing loads from under .75 to well over 2.0; folks doing standard patterns, and folks doing high-performance landings ranging from 90s to 270s and multiples thereof.  Most responsible high-performance canopy pilots I know are aware that ending every skydive with a swoop isn’t a given – sometimes, the conditions just don’t allow it, and you have to abort.  You don’t get to swoop at all costs, traffic be damned.  But they’re also interested in figuring out the best way for all of us on the dropzone to share the sky in the safest possible way for all concerned.

Conveniently, so am I.  As one of those in the middle- to back of the pack jumpers, doing a standard pattern, what I’m looking for is a safe place to land my big boat of a semi-elliptical canopy without a lot of attention or drama.  I’d prefer not to have an immensely long walk, but the shortest walk on the dropzone is far from my highest priority.

The question then is, what is the role of USPA in all this?  What is the role of dropzones?  And what is our role, as jumpers?  Quite honestly, I think there’s only so much the USPA can (and therefore should) do.   Ultimately, it’s up to the dropzone – and when I say dropzone, I’m speaking not only of the dropzone owners/management, but also the S&TA/instructional staff, and the regulars – in other words,  the people who collectively create the culture of the dropzone – to decide enforce acceptable behavior in traffic.

It starts with the DZ having clearly specified rules that are posted and shared with all jumpers, especially visitors and new jumpers, and refreshed for regulars on Safety Day.  It continues every jumping day with reminders when something is out of the norm.   While we all know and complain about the chronic offender, the DGIT who “doesn’t listen to anyone,” there’s a lot more people at the dropzone who will listen – if a culture of safety, and looking out for each other – is created.

It means pointing out when someone spirals over the landing area, through traffic.  It means pointing out when someone does “S” turns on final and holds up the traffic behind them.  It means holding the swooper accountable who busts a 270 outside of the designated swoop lane, no matter how cool it looked.  It means talking about those near misses and close calls and taking steps to keep them from becoming actual incident reports.

I’ve been to dropzones and seen feedback doled out in a great, constructive manner, and where when pattern rules are broken, everyone has their eyes open to enforce them.  I’ve also been to dropzones where it seems everyone rolls their eyes and says “damn, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all land in the same direction for once?” but none actually step up in the loading area and discuss the pattern and give a reminder about how landing direction is set… and pattern chaos repeats itself load after load after load.

The USPA can do little to create dropzone culture.  Sure, we could take separation of high-performance from standard patterns to the level of a BSR, but I’m not sure we’ve tried hard enough at the individual dropzone level yet.  And I suppose the USPA could ban swooping, but frankly, that would be cutting off its nose to spite its face.  Swooping is one of the few parts of our sport that are truly spectator-friendly; though whuffos are impressed by almost any parachute landing (as any great demo team can tell you, bringing in a big canopy on the 50-yard line gets the crowd going as much, if not more, than a sick swoop), it is a way to publicize skydiving competition.  More positive publicity is a good thing in attracting new participants, particularly in tough economic times.

So what could USPA do that’s positive, rather than punitive?  I think that more emphasis needs to be put on canopy skills beyond what’s in the A license progression.  Frankly, what’s in there is decent for what it is, but what one learns after the A license needs an overhaul.  The accuracy requirements are great, but they only go so far at helping a jumper learn more about their canopy.  More education on pattern management and safely (and courteously) navigating among multiple canopies is critical.  We can add more education on safe and sane downsizing (not just a recommended wingloading chart, but a series of recommended steps to take prior to downsizing).   There’s probably a lot more to be added, and as part of the B & C license progressions seems like a natural place to put them in my mind – as jumpers are getting their own gear, and beginning to downsize, jump in more traffic, and jump higher-performance canopies.

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