Deciphering the weather for skydiving is a huge part of the sport. Skydivers often sign off by saying, “Blue Skies.” This is more than just a way of saying goodbye; it is a way of sharing the hope that the weather will be in your favor the next time you head out into the skies. Every skydiver has a story of a jump canceled due to unexpected weather. Experienced skydivers take it in stride, knowing that it’s for the best, but beginners can feel deflated. Let’s explore how the weather affects skydivers, so your next cancellation feels less like a bummer and more like a dodged bullet.
The app I use to check the weather is Windy. You also can download it to your smartphone or check the wind forecast on their website.
The same fog that makes a morning stroll along a shoreline or country road look romantic can turn a routine skydive into a dangerous situation. Fog is essentially a cloud that clings close to the ground, but if you can’t see 20 feet ahead imagine what that means from the sky. Not being able to locate the landing area or treelines is a major skydiving weather issue. One good thing about fog is that it usually burns off quickly, so if you wait an hour or so you may get the go-ahead.
Remember that fog brings humidity. It’s very possible that you will have a slippery landing area.
Those fluffy clouds or overcast skies are just like fog, only higher and less likely to clear out quickly. Most clouds are high enough up that they pose no threat to skydivers, but low cloud ceilings are a different story. Clouds that obscure the view of the ground from the plane are a major skydiving weather problem. If the pilot can’t see the ground, then everyone is going to have to stay earthbound until conditions change.
Low clouds can create many different hazard situations. The one that scares me the most is when we can’t see where we are going; we can’t see the landing area before the jump. Second scariest is the break off, if it starts in a massive cloud, it’s hard to see other skydivers. This condition can increase the chances of opening too close or result in a collision between two or more skydivers (be careful with other groups as well). Third worst, if the clouds are below 3,000 feet, we might not be able to see other divers’ canopies. All these situations can create a fatal accident.
Even if you don’t mind a little rain when you’re on the ground, that changes dramatically when your body is moving 120 miles per hour or more. Every drop feels like a needle on the end of a piece of gravel when it hits you. In other words: it’s torture. Sounds like a waste of a perfectly good skydiving experience, honestly. Better to wait for gentler skies. Trust me, I have had this real-life experience. It happened with me on my jump number 5. Even more terrible: I did it with an open-face helmet.
I saved the most serious weather conditions for last. The wind is funny, because it’s invisible to the naked eye, but has such a dramatic affect on skydivers. If there is no wind, skydivers are able to maneuver freely in any direction–one of the reasons why “blue skies” are the ideal. A little wind will change your trajectory when you jump, pushing you in a certain direction like water currents move swimmers.
Experienced skydivers learn how to work with the wind, using something called spotting. This is where they find the best location to jump from so that they will end up at the landing zone. They do this by using National Weather Service data, observing cloud movement, seeing how windsocks at the drop zone are behaving, or asking the airplane pilot for guidance before the first load. Wind speeds of 10 miles an hour can cause a skydivers to drift half a mile during a 3,000 foot jump, so this is clearly an important skill. Once, I jumped from 22.000 feet (Skydance Skydiving in Davis, CA) and the pilot dropped us from far away from the drop zone landing area, just because the winds were super strong and he knew it would drift us away during free fall.
Besides spotting, we also need to think about the landing. When the winds are strong and reach a faster speed than our canopy can go, we will be pushed backwards. That is not fun and another crucial point to pay attention. The advice I got from one of my mentors when I was starting was to always have my own limits in mind and to respect them. There is no shame in walking back to the hangar or landing with the plane. The wind also can push us in different direction and that is why all of us should work with canopy instructors and do as many canopy courses as possible.
Although technically a factor of wind, turbulence is its own crazy hazard. If you’ve ever passed an 18-wheeler on the highway going full speed, you’ve felt the little push of wind following the trailer. That’s a form of turbulence. When wind flows over objects like buildings and trees, it rolls over them the way water flows over obstacles. As hard as it is to believe, wind can create turbulence downwind of the object causing it–as far away as 20 times the height of the object. This can create a dangerous downdraft that can accelerate the landing, which literally no one wants. For this reason, we need to be very careful when we are landing close to obstacles.
In my case, I had to learn it from the hard way. I was in Brazil and I wanted to land close to the packing area. When I went to land in front of my packer hangar, my parachute just dropped me from almost 2 meters high. Unfortunately, the wind turbulence, the obstacle, and my inexperience put me in this situation. Gladly, I walked away with no harm done.
Keep Coming Back
Generally speaking, meteorology is a strong enough science that we can tell a day in advance what the conditions are going to be the next day. If you suspect your jump is going to be canceled, call the drop zone and check in the day before. Make some alternate plans just in case. And remember, if you don’t get to jump, it’s for your own good. There will always be a next time. In the meantime, I wish you blue skies.