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Cut-away is a skydiving term referring to disconnecting the main parachute from the harness-container in case of a malfunction in preparation for opening the reserve parachute. The 3-ring release system on parachutes allows a rapid cut-away in the event of an emergency.
Modern skydiving harness-containers have two containers; one for the main parachute, and another one for the reserve. These containers are built into a single "backpack", with the reserve container above the main. In case the main parachute malfunctions, it is necessary to jettison the main before deploying the reserve to avoid a main-reserve entanglement. This act of jettisoning the main is called a "cut-away".
Over the years, several different devices have been designed for cutting away the main. Among the most popular were variations of the Capewell release system, until in the 1970s, Bill Booth invented the 3-ring release. Variations of the 3-ring release can now be found on practically all sport and military free fall parachutes.
Cutting away with the 3-ring release is done by pulling a handle placed on the main lift web of the harness. In some cases, parts of the malfunctioning main parachute may be tangled with the skydiver, in which case it may be necessary to use a hook knife to literally cut away the main.
"Mountain Dew" Incident
An accident during the filming of the Mountain Dew "007" commercial directed by David Kellogg and recorded by Janusz Kamiński resulted in the death of noted skysurfer Rob Harris in 1995. The incident was due to an error made during an attempt to film an "intentional cut-away" (where a skydiver intentionally releases, and falls away from his primary parachute). Harris was wearing a modern sport parachute harness containing two parachutes (a "main" and a "reserve") which was modified so that a third parachute could be externally attached to the risers of his main parachute and be released in-flight via an extra "cut-away" release handle (attached to his harness near the standard main parachute release handle). It was the intention of the stunt to film Harris releasing his open "main" parachute, dropping into freefall, and deploying his "reserve" parachute (which would have actually been his real main parachute, the one he intended to land), while still having a reserve parachute in case it was required. Skydivers are required by law to always jump with one more parachute than they intend to deploy on any given jump—and it is good common sense. Since Harris planned to deploy two parachutes on this jump, he required a third.
It was decided the third parachute would be attached to the risers of his main parachute (risers are the webbing which connects a parachute's suspension lines to a jumper's harness and are exposed on a jumper's shoulders while the actual canopy fabric and lines are packed securely in the container on the jumpers back). In sport parachuting, a jumper typically has just two handles on his chest (in addition to a third handle which deploys the main parachute and is located elsewhere). Usually on one's right side is the main parachute release handle (or "cut-away"). On the left is the reserve parachute ripcord, which deploys the emergency parachute. Due to the special nature of Harris' jump, a second release handle was attached to his harness near the usual one. Harris was to jump and immediately deploy the third parachute, and then be filmed releasing that parachute, entering freefall, and deploying his normal main parachute (completing his skydive in the usual manner).
Due to either an operator or rigging error, the wrong parachute was released when Harris attempted to cut-away. The parachute that was disconnected was the main parachute still packed on his back (which he had intended to deploy and land after the cut-away). Since the third parachute was connected to the risers of the main parachute (which had just been released) and not any part of Harris' harness, it began to quickly extract the main parachute from its container in a disorderly, out-of-sequence manner. Neither parachute could now be used to land Harris safely, and unfortunately Harris was unable to disentangle himself from the two partially open parachutes. Lacking clean air to deploy his reserve parachute, he was eventually forced to risk deploying it with the others still attached, and the reserve also entangled. His resulting fall-rate was not survivable.
The advertisement was aired, with the consent of his family, though the final jump was not included; Harris's appearance in the commercial uses film shot several days prior to his death.