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In 1986, a German skydiver named Freddy Leising died on a big-way jump, unable to deploy a reserve in time to save his life. This fatality would forever change skydiving as we know it.
Freddy’s grieving friend, Helmut Cloth, had had enough. He’d witnessed several AAD misfires and lost many friends; Freddy’s death would drive Cloth to create a solution the industry needed desperately. A successful entrepreneur who had started and sold two businesses, the time was right for this soft-spoken, quiet engineer to create the CYbernetic Parachute Release System—or, as we know it, the CYPRES.
Cloth’s endeavor to create a device with 100-percent reliability would require a melding of science and engineering that had never been seen before. Aside from the technical challenges that lay ahead, Cloth would need to delve into a reserve of unending patience to manage the emotional swings that come with trying to create a device no one was sure could be created.
Cloth began the project logically and identified everything wrong with the AADs of that time. With that information, he created a specific list of 13 requirements the CYPRES would have to meet. The device would need to be perfect in the many weather variants a skydiver could jump in—from the arid desert of Arizona to the damp and cold environs found in European skydiving—and it would take four years, thousands of hours of testing and working with specialists in aerodynamics, thermodynamics, machinists, physicists, electronic and software engineers before the device with the simple red button would be available for the first skydiver to purchase. What Cloth hadn’t realized was just how much would be entailed to create thousands of units, all of which had to be perfect for an industry in need of a solution.
By now, we know the outcome. 25 years after launching CYPRES, more than 3,000 lives have been saved. Helmut Cloth has received every major award for his technical achievements. In 2015 he was inducted into the Skydiving Hall of Fame, earning him a place in skydiving history among the greats who have created the many innovations that have permitted skydiving to be a much safer sport.
Today, the 65-year-old works as tirelessly as he did in the early days. He still skydives regularly and continues to lead his team toward more innovation as the company receives major projects beyond the realm of skydiving that the general public never learns about. At the recent British Parachute Association AGM in January, Cloth was at the CYPRES booth speaking with people passionately about his device. It was there that I requested an interview, which he willingly agreed to.
An Interview with CYPRES creator Helmut Cloth
James La Barrie: How did you get involved in skydiving?
Helmut Cloth: I was fortunate to have been born in Paderborn, Germany, which was located only 8 kilometers away from an active and full-time DZ. My curiosity of seeing people parachuting and enjoying themselves appealed to me and I knew I would become a skydiver.
The loss of your friend Freddy Leising affected you greatly and redirected your entire life path. Tell me about your relationship with Freddy.
Freddy and I were very good friends. We jumped together regularly at DZs around Germany and in countries around the world. Through our travels and time spent around many DZ bonfires, we were bonded by the love of the sport in the heyday of formation skydiving. In 1986, we were part of a group that wanted to organize a German and possible European big-way 60-way record. On the first day of qualifying, Freddy was killed.
Following Freddy’s death, you dedicated yourself to creating a reliable AAD. It’s been documented that you decided 13 requirements would be needed for it to be a success. Of the 13 requirements, what was the most difficult to achieve?
One of our biggest challenges was to figure out how the device would measure altitude accurately while being small, compact and not need[ing] an overabundance of power to operate. We needed to look at every possibility, so we experimented with radar and even sonar! Each of these systems failed as a result of being too big, too expensive, too imprecise (we built a sonar system that wasn’t accurate enough) or a device that required too much electric consumption. Finally, we narrowed it down to air pressure and built the first ever digital altimeter. We were so excited about our new creation because we felt we were so close to having a solution. Further research and development revealed we were still a long way off. Through testing, we discovered that the altimeter’s position in freefall would yield different air pressures on the leeward and windward side of the device thus giving inaccurate altitude readings. We continued to try and solve this problem for more than a year and just as we were giving up hope that the CYPRES was attainable, we figured it out.
It took more than four years to create the CYPRES. Was there a breakthrough moment that told you it was possible?
The breakthrough moment only came at the very end when the final requirement was met. Our standards were precise in that we couldn’t compromise on any detail. We had to produce a perfect device. If any requirements couldn’t be met, then the project would be over. There were already too many devices on the market that didn’t work with 100-percent reliability.
Our challenges only grew as we got deeper into the project. Because our specifications were so precise, it required us to create solutions that we hadn’t anticipated in order to meet those high standards. As we worked through each solution, the aspect of failure was always apparent because there was never a guarantee that we could solve the demands of the next requirement. We were truly working in uncharted territory and were drawing the map as we progressed from one step to the next.
Helmut’s 13 Requirements for an AAD, circa 1986
The AAD to be designed should:
- never show incorrect activation
- be absolutely reliable when required
- be extremely accurate
- not restrict the parachutist, whatever he does
- have an autonomous container opening system
- only require minimal attention
- be simple to operate
- not be detectable from outside the rig
- require only little maintenance
- be small
- be lightweight
- withstand all outside influences while parachuting, packing or transiting
- be easily installed in existing rigs.
In the end, were you able to complete all 13 of the requirements?
No. We completed 12.5 of the 13. Our original idea was that the user would never need to touch the device. We wanted it to work with no inputs and we discovered that this wasn’t possible. We determined that the jumper would need to start the device before the first jump of the day to allow it to calibrate accurately. I felt that this one area could be compromised for us to move forward with the production. As long as the jumper correctly turned it on, it should work.
After those four years of developing the device, were there any other challenges that would come which you hadn’t expected?
Yes. Though we had created a device we knew would work, the real challenge would be producing them in volume. When creating a device that must work 100 percent of the time in order to save a life, failure is not an option. Ensuring top quality and creating a process to create a reliable product every time would be the biggest challenge and the area that caused the most stress. Many say that nothing man-made can be perfect. In our 25 years, we have never been complacent, as we feel the pressure to live up to 100-percent reliability every day that we produce a device. It’s easy to see why I have so much gray hair!
So how were you able to scale and produce so many?
This presented its own unique set of challenges because there was no prerequisite for an assembly line that wasn’t permitted to make an error. We had to create all the production and quality control systems ourselves and also pull together people with a very specialized set of skills to produce each component of the device. Once we had the plans in place we also realized we needed much more space. In the beginning we were renting out half a building. Today, we completely occupy the entire building we started in plus two-thirds of the building next to us.
It sounds as if there have been many challenging and stressful days in your career. Is there a particularly stressful day that stands out?
I remember this day well. It was a Sunday in August of 1989. We were scheduled to make a test drop using a dummy with the goal of having a reserve deploy at only 80 meters (262 feet). With a captive audience at the DZ, everyone watched as the dummy left the plane. It seemed to fall forever. It fell and fell and it looked as if it would go in. My heart was beating out of my chest as I didn’t want the device to fail in front of so many people. News travels fast in skydiving and we needed it to work! At what seemed to be the last moment, the reserve deployed at 80 meters! It was a stressful day, as much was riding on this test, but it was a huge victory knowing that the device was working exactly as planned.
Once you started to sell the CYPRES, did it take time for jumpers to embrace this new technology?
Yes. Up to that point everyone was so skeptical of automatic openers (as they were called at that time). So many people were afraid of them because of the many unintentional activations which were hurting or even killing skydivers. There was an incident of an unintentional activation occurring on exit, causing the reserve to wrap around the tail of the aircraft. It was a very scary time and because of the reputation they had, sales were slow to come until people started to see that our product was much different.
How did you feel when you learned of the first life a CYPRES unit saved?
Very, very well. We sold our first device on Jan. 10, 1991. By April 22, we had our very first save. I remember it vividly. I was traveling back from Vienna, having been invited to give a talk about how we created the device. When I was at the train station I called home and learned that in Dortmund, Germany, a girl had been saved by her CYPRES. I felt so justified knowing all the hard work we’d put in was worth it! It felt fantastic!
To date, there have been more than 3,000 saves with the CYPRES. Has this exceeded even your expectations?
Yes. As a skydiver, I couldn’t have conceived that there would be so many lives saved. When we launched the product, I only imagined that the device would save a fraction of those lives saved. I am really proud of this achievement. On Jan. 10 we celebrated our 25th year in business. The units have now been on more than 120 million jumps and have never failed to activate and have never failed to sever the reserve loop. This is an unbelievable outcome and one I am proud about. The effort has been worth it!
Since CYPRES’ inception, more competitors have come on the market. New competitors offer a longer life span of their units with no maintenance checks. CYPRES requires maintenance checks every four years. Does this concern you and do you plan to change the maintenance schedule of the CYPRES?
At CYPRES, we have one priority: 100-percent reliability. Because a device is exposed to many different conditions and variables, maintenance is required for reliability. We don’t wish to be in a position where we hope the device will work when it is needed most. We hope the skydiving community will make the best choice knowing that our priority is reliability over convenience. Our 25-year record without a failed device proves this. We like to think the record speaks for itself.
CYPRES was used for the Red Bull Stratos project. Can you share any insights about that project and creating a unique device suited for the demands of such an extraordinary jump with major pressure changes and high speeds.
Yes, the Red Bull Stratos project was a real challenge that we enjoyed being part of. What made it so challenging was the incredible altitude (39 km, or 24 miles, up), the speed (exceeding the speed of sound creates strange effects), the temperature and the cosmic conditions. For example, cosmic radiation can destroy electronic components. We were heavily involved with this project for four years.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
Skydiving and having a beer after the last lift with my friends.
In 2015, you were inducted into the Skydiving Hall of Fame. You have won nearly every award there is to win. How do you stay motivated to continue pushing CYPRES forward after all of these years?
Creating a device designed to save lives keeps me motivated. I am still in love with the sport, the community and the industry. It’s easy to get up and go to work every day when you do something you love: Developing a product that helps the sport you love.