12/11/2008

Wikipedia Will Kill You

Before I get into this screed, I should disclaim that I love the Wikimedia foundation. They are on their way to fundamentally changing the way we learn. Their flagship project, Wikipedia is an important staple of the internet that has empowered individuals, expanded public discourse and generally done the noble work of making people smarter.

That having been said, beware what you find on Wiki's.

On WikiHow today I found THIS ARTICLE* on what to do if one's parachute fails to open.

The information contained herein is incorrect. Not just mistaken, no, it is absolutely and completely, from top to bottom, outright, bass-ackwards wrong and attempting the, supposedly lifesaving, technique explained here would likely kill not only you but whoever was dumb enough to try it with you.

This piece was clearly not written by a skydiver. Any of us who've been through a day one jump course knows better than this. Whoever wrote this has spent more time watching poorly researched movies about skydiving than they ever have spent researching the sport, itself.

The technique explained, essentially bear-hugging another jumper through their harness and having them deploy their canopy for both people, is unnecessary, impractical and dangerous, probably more dangerous than the chute malfunction that might prompt someone to attempt it in the first place.

First, skydivers break off our formation well above their deployment altitude. We track away from each other, ideally until there is more than one hundred feet between any two jumpers, before pitching our pilot chutes. If, at that time, one of us realized that we were having a catastrophic malfunction, we would likely not have time to track back to and dock with another jumper before both became meat waffles.

Second, even if one could accomplish the dock and the other jumper was able to deploy one shoot for both, the reduced drag profile and increased weight of two people falling together would mean that the pair were falling much faster than normal. Deploying a canopy at high speeds, while carrying double the usual weight is likely to snap the suspension lines or tear the nylon, collapsing the canopy and landing both people in a more precarious situation than.

Third, supposing, just for the sake of argument that one could pull all of this off, whoever managed to do it would have to be a highly experienced skydiver. No novice could manage it. More advanced jumpers tend to use canopies that are smaller in relation to their weight, often much smaller, than those used by their less experienced compatriots. We call this comparison between weight and size of canopy "wingloading" and I'm not going to go into any detail but, suffice to say, the smaller the parachute and the more weight suspended beneath it, the faster it travels, faster down and faster forward. Additionally, though a rig laden with two jumpers would go faster, it won't break any harder so the jumper piloting the canopy would have less steerability. Even if a pair of jumpers could deploy and get to the ground safely, they would have to land going twice as fast than if either of them was alone and with less control over the canopy.

Fourth, by FAA mandate, all civilian skydiving rigs are equipped with a second, reserve canopy. It is spring-loaded and packed in a manner intended to reduce or eliminate malfunctions. This canopy is, by law, inspected, maintained and repacked by an FAA certified parachute rigger no less than every 160 days. Reserve parachutes are some of the most well designed, extensively tested and reliable pieces of safety equipment on the planet and they make stunts like this absolutely unnecessary.

Finally, and this is the reason that I'm writing a diatribe on my blog rather than a hotly worded letter sent in triplicate to the FAA, FIA and USPA. Anybody who's had a first day's jump course, anyone who's had the tiniest bit of training, knows better than to try something so ridiculous. Sure, there are hugely experienced demo and stunt divers with thousands of jumps who have done exactly this maneuver but they do it as a stunt, not as a life saving enterprise. In either case, these are extremely advanced jumpers that aren't going to be getting survival advice from WikiHow.

The real point being, Wiki's can be edited by anyone. Generally, this means that they are self-regulating, with the best and most correct ideas gaining the most traction. At other times, though, they can be outright wrong, perhaps dangerously so.

Reader beware.


* I actually added to the article in both the Tips and in the Warnings sections to try and impress upon readers how unrealistic this article is.






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3 comments:

JA said...

Great post. But why not just go ahead and rewrite the article, make it accurate? Sounds like you know what you are talking about.

Thomas said...

As I mentioned, I did add to the article. I considered rewriting it but I chose to leave it there as an example.

nursemyra said...

I won't be skydiving in the near future but thanks for the advice