In most AFF programs, two instructors jump with the student during their first three AFF jumps, although some programs may use only one instructor. On the initial levels, the instructor(s) hold on to the student until the student deploys their own parachute. Hence, this method is classified as “Harness Hold Training.” The AFF instructors have no physical connection to the student other than their grip on the student, so once the student’s parachute is deployed the instructors fly away and deploy their own canopies.
Deployment of the main canopy for students in an AFF program is generally 6000 ft AGL (one mile or 1600 m), down to 5000ft AGL on later levels. If the student experiences trouble in the deployment of their parachute, the instructors first use hand signals to remind the student to “Pull”. If the student still experiences trouble, the instructors will assist their student by physically putting the student’s hand on the pilot chute, but if the student still has trouble, the instructor will deploy for the student. The instructor may pull the student’s main canopy at any time the student appears to be in danger. Extra “pull” handles are usually installed on student gear giving additional access for instructors.
Once the student has proven they can deploy their own parachute on the first few jumps, the student will be released on subsequent levels and will have the opportunity to prove to their instructors that they have the basic flying skills required to maneuver in free fall without assistance. Each AFF level including and after level three is called a ‘release dive’. This means that the student is briefed by the instructor that at a certain point in the free fall, the student will be released, although the instructor aims to remain nearby to assist in safety and teaching. On release skydives there is a possibility the instructor may not be able to dock and assist at pull time, so it is important that the student has already learned the skills required to activate their parachute at the safe altitude and in the right way. For this reason, students may not progress to the next level of AFF until they have completed all the targeted learning objectives of the previous level.
Instructors on all AFF levels have a hard deck where they must pull their own parachute and save their own life. If they have not been able to assist their student by this altitude, the student’s rig is equipped with an “Automatic Activation Device (AAD)” that will fire the reserve parachute if the student passes the activation altitude at freefall speeds. While it is extremely rare that a student will have an AAD activation, this final level of protection protects the student as much as possible from the consequences of being out of control or not being able to deploy their own parachute.
As the instructors freefall with the student, they are able to correct the student’s body position and other problems during freefall by communicating with the student with hand signals in freefall and debriefing the student and conducting corrective training after the jump. Later levels only require one instructor and involve the student learning to perform aerial maneuvers such as turns, forward movement, flips, and fall rate control. The purpose of the maneuvers are to prove to the student and instructor that the student can perform a disorienting maneuver causing intentional instability followed by regaining control.
The instructor(s) determine when the student has passed the requirements or “Targeted Learning Objectives (TLOs)” for each level. During the AFF jumps, the student may have radio contact with ground personnel who direct the student’s maneuvers under their parachute, however the student must have the skills for a solo landing in case the radio fails.