How Wind Tunnel training can benefit your AFF course
Instructors have used training aids when working with students ever since the beginning of the sport. Suspended harnesses, for instance, facilitate learning canopy skills and emergency responses. As in any sport, the introduction of technology creates training aids that offer students better tools to develop and improve their skills. Recently, the increasing availability of wind tunnels has encouraged more jumpers to use them as part of their skydiving curriculum. As with any training tool, tunnels can provide both good and not-so-good results, so it’s important to use them correctly to help students make the best progress possible.
In the British Skydiving AFF system, Level 1 through 3 emphasize core skills: a stable position, altitude awareness, heading maintenance and parachute deployment. The tunnel is ideal for teaching students a stable, neutral position since it is easy for the instructor to see if the student is “falling down the tube.” Getting used to the airflow also helps students overcome some of their fear and build confidence.
Tunnel flying can be particularly good for first-jump students as it helps build good muscle memory of the basic position—teaching the importance of maintaining an arched back while keeping the head up and toes pointed—which helps build a solid foundation for learning other skills. Instructors can correct the student’s position in the tunnel with hand signals, which they’ll then recognize and respond to more quickly in the air. Once the flight is over, a student can instantly view the footage for a debriefing. Additionally, since tunnel flights are generally longer than skydives, the instructor has more time to provide corrections and demonstrations.
Altitude awareness is another key skill that tunnel instructors must teach to skydiving students. Drill the student on recognizing the check-altimeter signal, and make sure that he practices checking his altitude while maintaining a stable position. Since a tunnel flight is longer than a skydive, make sure to incorporate the altimeter check often to build the habit so it becomes part of his freefall routine.
Teaching students the pull sequence (placing the hand on the main deployment handle while keeping stable and on heading) is another great confidence builder. It gives students the opportunity to make mistakes in a much more forgiving environment than freefall, and once they have grasped the concept, they can make multiple repetitions of the skill until they have mastered it. Once the students realize they can move their arms and keep stable, it helps them to relax about the entire pull sequence.
Level 4 teaches the ability to both hold a heading and turn. Many students struggle with this category due to involuntary turns or spins, and this is where you’ll find tunnel coaching useful to help them progress. The additional time available is useful, and the consequences of an uncontrolled turn in a tunnel are much less frightening, which reduces stress. Additionally, the instructor can physically help with the mechanics of the turn until the student can do so himself. Once the student takes control, he can begin to fine-tune starting and stopping turns. He can also start to recognize whether he is drifting forward or backsliding, which helps to develop further awareness of his body position while still in the early stages of the program.
Learning skills in a 12- to 14-foot wind tunnel takes great precision. Turns, for example, are much more difficult for students to perform well in the tunnel than in the sky where they have more space available. Bear in mind that a turn that looks average in a tunnel will look better in the open environment of the sky, and a turn that looks good in the tunnel will look excellent in the sky!
Some skills are difficult to replicate in the wind tunnel. For example, a track will come to an abrupt stop after approximately 14 feet! However, instructors can teach forward movement with the legs, which helps teach the tracking position in the sky.
Although front- and back-loops are very difficult in the tunnel and are better taught in the sky, the tunnel can be useful for getting students comfortable with learning barrel rolls. Students often have a great fear of getting stuck on their backs, unable to roll over. Teaching a half-barrel roll (back to belly) in the tunnel gives students a massive confidence boost when they are attempting a full roll in the sky. By giving the student the realistic experience of freefall it prepares them to understand and helps to reduce the effects of sensory overload, allowing them to perform more closely what they will have practiced on the ground.
Obviously, wind tunnel training does not help a student learn canopy skills. Therefore, instructors need to remember that a student’s performance in the sky may not translate to how well he does under canopy. The good news is that the emphasis on freefall skills in the tunnel may free up time at the drop zone to help students learn more about flying their parachutes.
If you encourage a student to get tunnel training and aren’t going to provide it yourself, make sure that the tunnel coach is also an AFF instructor. Some tunnel coaches are not even skydivers and may not drill a student to perform the same practices, body positions or hand signals that they’ll see in the sky. One non-skydiver tunnel coach even taught practice pulls with the wrong hand! Fortunately, he was an exception, not the rule, but it is worth emphasizing to students that using an experienced AFF instructor as a coach makes all the difference.
Although tunnel training may be expensive, when comparing costs with skydiving, it can actually be economical. Considering that jumps early in the student progression can cost hundreds of pounds but only provide about one minute of freefall each, making a few wind tunnel flights to prevent repeating a student jump can make sense. For this reason, wind tunnels are quickly becoming the number one training tool that students use to learn how to get stable and turn, progress quickly, build confidence and avoid repeating expensive jumps. So the question you may need to ask yourself is, “Can my students afford not to go?”
About the Author
Ally Milne is a British Skydiving Advanced Instructor, AFF, Tandem and Static-Line Instructor and an International Bodyflight Association Tunnel Coach. He is also a former member of the British Team, 10 Time World/FAI/Guinness Record holder, BPA Nationals Gold medalist with over 11,000 jumps and over 1200 hours tunnel coaching. He is only one of 2 people in the world to currently hold world records in belly, sit-fly and head-down.