Do You Have A Good Reserve Packer?
Writing this article is not the best way to make new friends and it could very easily annoy a lot of people who believe they do a good job of reserve packing. So, why would I put myself in this position? Well, it's quite simple really, I've spent many years as a rigger examiner teaching reserve packing and investigating incidents that have occurred that were due to bad reserve packing. I have not been idle with the knowledge that I've gained. I have written many papers for reserve packers and riggers to assist them in improving the standards.
I wrote the BPA reserve packing guide and the BPA reserve packing syllabus. I started the confidential reporting system and set up the safety information database, but I'm still not satisfied with the standard of reserve packing or the amount of incidents that keep recurring.
I am very grateful to those who have assisted me in these projects, and the BPA who have supported these projects. I believe that we have a good system in place to significantly reduce the amount of incidents caused by bad reserve packing, by educating and training good reserve packers. However, I don't believe that this is enough. It's now time to educate all skydivers in how to recognise a bad reserve repack and how to find a good reserve packer. Basically, if reserve packers start to lose customers they will soon realise that cutting corners loses them money and they'll have to improve their standards. This is the next step to try and significantly reduce equipment incidents that are so easily avoidable.
In my opinion, an equipment failure should be an extremely rare occurrence and this is the goal we should be aiming for. Before I start giving advise I would like to mention one argument that keeps cropping up from time to time.
Some people seem to be under the impression that the best reserve packers are qualified riggers. This argument exists because in the BPA we have a system that allows skydivers to train and qualify as reserve packers before they progress and become riggers (if they so choose). Rigging and reserve packing are two very different skills. A qualified rigger has exactly the same reserve packing skills as a BPA advanced packer, however, in addition to his/her reserve packing skills they are also qualified to repair any damage on the parachute system. Because the riggers qualification is higher than the advanced packers qualification some skydivers believe that this makes them better reserve packers. This is a myth created by riggers but my experience of investigating equipment incidents prove this to be a myth. It's important to look at the skill level of each individual, regardless of his/her qualification and make up your own mind based on the following tips.
The first stage in finding a good reserve packer is to get a recommendation. This needs to be impartial i.e. someone who doesn't gain from the advise they're is giving. Talk to as many skydivers as possible but careful not to judge people too quickly. It's common for people to bad mouth someone if they have a personal issue with them, or if they have something to gain from what they tell you. Always try and ask for specifics where possible so you can make your own evaluation. On the other hand, don't blindly accept a good recommendation, once again make sure you evaluate them yourself. Basically, getting recommendations is important but it's only one of the steps that you should take into account.
Currency is a very important factor when it comes to packing reserves. If someone only packs a few reserves a year then I wouldn't give them my reserve to repack. Don't be afraid to ask the reserve packer how many reserves they've packed in the last 12 months. Reserve packers who are qualified yet have very little experience should continue to pack reserves under the guidance of a very experienced reserve packer, however, I've also found that newly qualified reserve packers are much keener and more dedicated to the task as they have more time to spend on perfecting your pack job. Once again currency is a judgment call but as an owner you should know who you're dealing with.
Knowledge and experience on your particular container is very important. If you own a system that's very popular on your drop zone then it's more likely that the local reserve packer will be familiar and experienced with your container. Make sure that your reserve packer has a copy of the container and reserve owners manuals and that they have them available during the reserve repack. This is a mandatory requirement, if they don't have a copy then lend them yours. If your reserve packer isn't familiar with your equipment then he/she should be working under the guidance of someone who is?
Does your reserve packer treat you like a customer he values? If so he/she will probably be just as conscientious when working on your equipment. When you give your rig to a reserve packer that you don't know, there should be a period of consultation so the reserve packer can get to know about your rig and any concerns you have. This is just as much your responsibility as your reserve packers. Before I accept someone's reserve for a repack I want to know as much as possible about that particular rig and any concerns that the owner may have no matter how trivial they may seem. I also want to know that the owner can carry out the cutaway and reserve procedures and that they work as designed before I let the customer leave. With regular customers it's not necessary to insist on this but where possible I always ask my customers to wear the rig as if it was to be used, fully fitted, then get them to carry out their standard reserve drills. This gives me three bits of important information.
You can always ask your rigger to allow you to cutaway and pull your reserve so you can practice it for real, every skydiver should do this when they get the opportunity and the best time is just prior to a reserve repack. Try to find out where your reserve packer inspects and packs your reserve. Every reserve has to be hung in a flying configuration during the inspection process. This is best done with a canopy hoist and mandatory in the BPA. Anyone who doesn't do this is prone to making mistakes. Do they have a clean and tidy reserve packing area that is controlled in a manner that prevents obstacles or even other people affecting the repack
All reserve packers are taught to control their reserve packing environment and those that don't, are usually the ones who make mistakes. Do not trust your reserve repack to someone who can't control his working environment. Try to find out how they control their reserve packing tools. I always use a shadow board to show that all tools are present prior to and after every reserve repack. If I pack a reserve away from my rigging facility then I count ten tools before I start and always make sure I have the same ten tools after the repack. Some people use a different quantity for different rigs and write down how many they start with on the inspection check list, so they can check they have the same number after the reserve repack. The number of tools includes anything that can be left inside a reserve repack including little things like pens and pen tops or cleaning rags. If your riggers system is not obvious don't be afraid to ask. Almost every tool has been left inside a reserve and some could have been fatal, if the reserve had been used.
A post reserve repack inspection in something all owners should do after they've collected their rig. It requires only a little bit of knowledge that I believe every skydiver should have. All you have to do is learn how to do a visual inspection of some of the key components on your rig to ensure it's been properly inspected, packed and assembled. This final inspection, independent of the reserve packer, can reduce your chances of having an equipment failure. Any reserve packer who's dedicated to achieving perfection will gladly encourage and even teach you what to inspect, after they've finished your reserve repack.
When you change your rig start from scratch and learn how to inspect your new system; it will have different inspection points that you should be aware of. What works well on one system can cause a failure on another system and that's why it's important to get to know your particular system. If you ask a rigger or an instructor to show you what to inspect after a reserve repack, quite a lot will look at you in surprise and may say that it's the same as any inspection that you would do prior to jumping. It's similar but it's more in depth because you're looking for wear and tear that should have been repaired, any assembly problems and whether the reserve closure loop is in perfect condition so that you can be sure it will last for the next six months etc. Teaching someone to do a post reserve inspection takes me about fifteen minutes and this is one of the best ways to find out whether you have a good reserve packer or not.
Do a visual inspection of the finished pack job with both parachutes packed. Does it look right compared to other containers of the same type as yours. Look for flaps that don't integrate with each other properly, are there any gaps that shouldn't be there? Especially on external pilot chutes, are they correctly seated? If it can move it's not right and if you can see any material that should be inside, it's not right. Look at the reserve closure loop; is it in perfect condition, if there's any fraying then it's not right. Look at the reserve pin; is it straight? An over aggressive packer can bend your reserve pin or it can get knocked during use and even a slightly bent pin can increase the pull force.
Check the routing of your RSL, get your manual out and confirm it's correctly routed. Every system is different and RSL's have to be routed as designed for your particular system. Put your rig on and flex, stretch and see if this affects any part of the system. For example; your riser covers stay in place and your main and reserve pins shouldn't move etc. Check that your 3 ring risers are correctly assembled, compare them to your user manual and others on the drop zone, learn how to spot the potential problems. A lot of skydivers look at incorrectly assembled risers and see what they expect to see instead of what's actually assembled. Make sure your riser locking loop in not frayed and that the excess cutaway cable is long enough and free from sharp edges or burrs.
Check the velcro on your reserve and cutaway handles, are they in good condition and effective. Ask a rigger to show you how to inspect this. Are the elastic bands on your chest and leg straps in good condition? Is your spandex BOC pocket in good condition and can you easily extract your pilot chute? Is your main bridle line secure and is the velcro in good condition? If you freefly, will it still be secure during freefall? Do a visual check on all hardware and webbing for any damage or wear. If it's not perfect have it checked. Check your control toggles, are they secure so that they won't release prematurely on deployment and is there any possibility of them jamming after deployment? This is a very common problem and you should know how to check this on your own equipment. There are many different systems and they all have problems if not kept in check. Are your lower control lines in good condition, they wear much faster than your suspension lines and always seem to brake when flaring. Is your main pilot chute in good condition? If you don't know how to inspect it ask your rigger to show you. Is it the correct size and type for your main canopy? If it's collapsible, check the centre line hasn't stretched or shrunk during use.
Switch on your AAD and watch for it to correctly set itself. Inspect your main deployment bag for damage; in particular the velcro and the grommets. Ask your reserve packer if he's inspected your main parachute.This is not usually part of the inspection and reserve repack but I recommend having it inspected at the same time as your reserve or learn how to give it a thorough inspection yourself. Check your connector links and any covers. Soft links need some close inspection as they wear where you can't see them; you may have to loosen them to spot any damage. Have a good look at your reserve repack documentation. A BPA packer will give you a reserve packing card and an inspection check list. Make sure they are present and correctly filled in. Any maintenance work that's been done should be recorded with the name and qualification of the person who's done the work.
Some example maintenance notes: Replaced reserve closure loop, or replaced the main pilot chute. These jobs can be done by an advanced packer. Replaced velcro on the main bridle line, or repaired the main deployment bag. These jobs have to be done by a qualified rigger. Replaced the chest strap or repaired the reserve pilot chute. These jobs have to be done by an advanced rigger. Make sure all names and qualifications are legible as well as having a signature from the reserve packer or rigger.
If your reserve packer is not thorough with his/her documentation then why would you expect anything different with the actual inspection or repack. Your documentation shows that your reserve packer has checked and confirmed that your rig is free from any know safety notices. If your rig has previously been subjected to a safety notice then your documentation should show that it's been updated or modified accordingly to comply with the safety notice. In addition to trusting that your reserve packer has checked your rig against all known safety notices, you should also check yourself, and if you have any doubts or don't completely understand a safety notice ask your reserve packer to explain it to you.
Some examples safety notes: SN-09 Vigil Cutters - complied with, Allan Hewitt, BPA Rigger Examiner 162. SN 1-09 Skyhook Modification - The reserve pilot chute conforms to this safety notice, Allan Hewitt, BPA Rigger Examiner 162. CW03-01 Reserve Pin Test - Tested and passed, Allan Hewitt, Rigger Examiner 162.
Unfortunately this is not always the case and many safety notices do get missed. To avoid missing a vital safety notice it might be worth having a separate document showing all safety notices relevant to your particular rig and why your rig is now free from all known safety notices. Don't be afraid to ask your reserve packer about any safety notices relevant to your rig, if the reserve packers have done there job properly they will have checked and be able to discuss them with you.You can also do your own check and print out the results by logging onto www.skydive-safety.com and fill in the form with your equipment details. You can also print out and read about all safety notices that have affected your rig. It's worth keeping a copy with your equipment.
If you have a problem with your reserve packer, what can you do about it? First of all speak to your reserve packer and try to resolve the problem. If the problem is serious, in other words it could have caused an equipment failure, then you have two options: Report it officially by filling in a packing/rigging confidential report and send it to the BPA (Form.F253) This can remain confidential between the BPA and yourself or with your permission they can take it further and investigate the incident formally which then removes the confidentiality and can result in action being taken against the reserve packer. Alternatively, you can complete a confidential report on www.skydive-safety.com so that it can be used to educate others so the mistake is not made again by another reserve packer. If your reserve packer refuses to accept responsibility for any mistakes then it's probably better to insist on an investigation by the BPA riggers committee because if they have made a mistake but don't believe it then they will probably repeat it at a later date.
Finally, remember one thing, you generally get what you pay for. A reserve inspection done properly takes at least two hours and generally longer. Different reserve packers have different rates but if you give your reserve to someone who packs it for a low hourly rate then you may also get a low level of service. My experience tells me that the majority of skydivers want a good reserve inspection and repack that gives them peace of mind knowing that they can trust their equipment. When I first went into business packing reserves I had to charge £35 back in 1990 so I could make a living. My competitors were charging between £15 to £25 per repack. Within six months of educating my customers and giving them a good service I ended having no time for anything else so I had to hire other riggers to work for me. Within eighteen months I had two full time riggers working for me and our reputation was extremely good and that's why my customers were willing to pay a fair price. We could not have survived in business if I had charged the same price as my competitors. My advise to all reserve packers is to provide the best service possible and charge a fair hourly rate.
Read some of the incident that have been reported reference equipment failures that could have been prevented by a reserve packer or the owner.