"Aren't you afraid your 'chute won't open?!"
I get this comment from non-skydivers often, and it illustrates the common misconception of the dangers of skydiving. We all know that really, on a logistical level, malfunctions are fairly simple to deal with: cutaway and pull your reserve. We train students for this possibility and rightly put a great deal of attention on it, especially practice so that muscle memory takes over. However, we can't say they will have a malfunction on every jump, but they WILL have a LANDING on every jump... Shouldn't we devote at least as much attention to this important contact with the ground as we do Emergency Procedures?
I hear instructors advise students, "You flared too high," or "You flared too late." This gives students the idea that they need to pick the exact right altitude for flare, and if they do that, all will be well. I don't use those terms unless it is extreme. The flare we teach starts in tandem phase: the common & popular "One... two... three..." technique. However, for solo students, we add the idea of playing Simon Says, so they can respond to the way their canopy is reacting in the flare. "One" starts around 15 feet as usual, but because you only pull down to about your ears, there is built in flexibility in case you start a bit early. At this point, you immediately assess the descent and react by copying what you see. For example, if you see the ground coming up at the same rate as you did before "one", then you pull down to "two" (hips) at the same speed, somewhat smoothly, not fast. If, however, you see your descent stop, you stop pulling down. You continue to "two" when you see the descent resume. If, however, you see your descent increase, then you increase by pulling down faster to "two."
What's 15 feet?
How do you know what 15 feet is? How can you know where to start with "one"? Some instructors and coaches advise students to use buildings or trees to judge their height. While this might be a solid reference, having the student look away from their intended touch down point at such a low altitude sets them up for potential injury. If you make this suggestion, temper it with caution: use your peripheral vision to "see" the building. Also, trees can be different heights, so they are not a valid reference. In addition, while this might work for one landing area, if they visit another dz, this reference will not be there.
But, how can you get your student acclimated to seeing a height only by talking at them? As in any teaching situation, it's the coach's job to give the student a realistic setting, involving them in practice as closely simulating the real experience as possible. I have our students stand on the stairs at the back of the hangar, picking the step where they might start their flare. Using that as a starting point, we also discuss how temperature and wind speed might affect how effective the flare is and where we can adjust the starting point.
Where you look for the information about how your descent in the flare is progressing is important. For example: have your student stand in the hangar or landing area, and place an object on the ground about 2 feet in front of you. Tell them to look down, with their head down at that object. Now, using only peripheral vision, have them describe what they can see. They might be able to see a person quite a distance away even. Now, have them look out, about 100 feet or more, whatever is available for the space you are in. Have them describe what they can see, and point out how much more information is available to them based on the location of their focus. This translates to looking out more towards the horizon on landing instead of straight down.
The distance-speed illusion
Let's say you're driving in your car on the highway in the country, and you see in the distance off to your left a big barn in a field approximately a quarter of a mile away. It seems to barely move, but the weeds in the ditch right next to the highway are racing by. This is the distance-speed illusion that sometimes confusing students on landing. The ground seems to be accelerating as you get closer, but in reality, your descent is the same rate. Simply understanding this can help a student be calmer and react more relaxed and aware during the flare.
Back to our flare... we've started the flare and pulled down to "one." Then we play Simon Says to judge when and how fast to proceed to "two." But we still have "three" to go. This last final finish to the flare can be the difference between a sweet landing or one requiring a PLF. If you have the power of the last few inches of flare, you can have just enough flare left to save yourself from a drop in a descent that stops a few feet off the ground, OR you can slam down the last part to save yourself from a flare that wasn't reacting as quickly as you expected. In addition, if you have a slight crosswind you can also keep your heading straight by steering slightly in "three." Flying your canopy all the way to the ground is the key. No longer is it valid to teach a student to just flare at 15 feet and take what they get. The actual flare lasts a few seconds, and we can use those seconds and control the canopy that entire time.
Only one chance to practice?
You only get one landing per jump. But that doesn't mean you only get one chance to practice the flare. I hear coaches and instructors suggest to a student to "practice the flare up high" in their playground, but give no suggestions beyond this about what they should be looking for and exactly what to practice! Are they just to pull down on the toggles so they know how to pull down? They can easily do that in a harness. To get full use of practice in the air, give your students more ideas about what to look for: specifically, have them fly the canopy in deep brakes, sort of in the "two" position. Then steer left and right down from there, getting sense of how quickly the canopy responds and how far it turns. That drill is especially helpful for dealing with crosswind. Another idea is to practice going from "one" to "two" at different speeds, again getting a sense of how the canopy responds. Using the sound of the slider as an airspeed indicator can be helpful in determining a flare's responsiveness. Go slowly from "one" to "two" and listen. Then pull down quickly from "one" to "two". Or, hold at "one" for a while before going to "two" and hear how the speed settles in. Another hint could be starting from a brake turn to get a sense of how much flare you might have if you were avoiding obstacles at a low altitude. As always, practicing flaring with rear risers is also a good backup for those "what if" situations.
While the Simon Says technique for teaching flare may not be mainstream, it has worked very well for many of our solo students, resulting in nicer landings, faster learning curve, and less worry for the dzo! The great part is, you can put emphasis on landing and flare without spending a large amount of time.