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Get Current: Canopy Choices – Understanding the Choices We Make

Written by Kolla

75815_10200236638615860_637452750_nTom Noonan is a professional instructor and director of the Tandem Program at UPT. Tom wears many hats on the side, including being the Dropzone Operations Coordinator at Everest Skydive, serving on the USPA Board of Directors, being a rigger and more!  On occasion he even jumps for fun. 

“Can you land your canopy in a backyard?”  

This is the age-old “go to” question.  Are you capable landing your canopy in a tight congested space?  The question, while good intended, is not actually the best question to ask though, when considering canopy choices.  A more well-rounded question would be: “Can you land your canopy in a backyard when everything around you is going wrong?
In a controlled environment, say a dedicated hop ‘n pop, many skydivers are capable of landing their canopies in a small areas, free of obstructions.  Want proof?  Observe a sunset load “land and chug” when skydivers of all experience levels and canopy sizes, land near the free beer.  All day long they landed anywhere and everywhere else on the DZ, but once you put out a free beer for accuracy, then all of a sudden, everyone becomes Magellan under canopy and navigates right to the free beers.

The real question about appropriate canopy choices and whether or not a skydiver is capable of landing in a tight area is whether or not it can be done in an uncontrolled environment.  Can a skydiver safely land off in a tight space when they are forced to make quick decisions and perform under pressure in less than idea situations?  This question can then be split again, as we jump with two parachutes, a main and a reserve, and are just as likely to have to land either one in a tight area in less than ideal conditions.  That being said, when considering canopy choices and attempting to determine if the canopies on your back are the right canopies for you (main and reserve), ask yourself two separate questions:

When things are going wrong, when I’m landing off in a tight area, maybe downwind, maybe in a parking lot, am I capable of landing my main AND my reserve in any of my potential worst case scenarios?

If you answered yes to both questions, you are in good shape in terms of canopy choices.  If you answered no to either question, it is critical to understand why the answer is no and to assess your canopy choices based on that knowledge.  You may find that as an AFF instructor working at a busy DZ in an overpopulated area, that you are more prone to land off and that 84sq ft cross brace canopy may not be the best canopy to have overhead when landing in a school parking lot on a long spot.  Or, you may find that as a Canopy Piloting competitor that while your sub-70sq ft canopy is not ideal for off landings, you have made an educated decision to jump that wing in environments that give you the best chances for keeping that canopy out of such tight spots.  In either scenario, or anywhere in between, if you are making educated decisions on the canopies you use based on the conditions you use them in, you are on your way to making good canopies choices.  The most common mistake however, is that skydivers as a general rule, tend to choose canopies based on what they need for a successful canopy flight and landing when everything goes right, not for when everything goes wrong.  This is an important concept to understand as canopy choices and skydiving gear in general have evolved greatly over the last few decades and today’s skydivers are faced with varying (almost dizzying) equipment and canopy choices.

Years ago, there was a time when skydiving was so dangerous and so exciting that after the parachute opened, a skydiver’s primary goal was simply to get to the ground safely to go skydiving again.  Not so today however, with the advent of modern parachute wings in varying shapes and sizes, numerous canopy related endeavors and disciplines have arisen over time.   From CrEW, to CP and everything in between, there are numerous areas of parachute flight interest for skydivers now amongst a varying  selection of canopy sizes and shapes.

There are also multiple canopy designs today, including “fully-elliptical”, “semi-elliptical”, “tapered”, “cross braced”, and my favorite, the “fully-unelliptical” old-school (square) parachute.  There are now different fabrics and lines out there too.  It used be just low permeability fabric, (every remembers the brand “F-111” fabric).  Then came that “ZP’ stuff that made the fabric last longer and kept the canopies more rigid.  Now there is  fabric called “sail”, “low bulk”, and so on.  The same things happened to the lines of the canopy too.  We used to have Dacron and Microline (Spectre) to choose from, now we have those choices along with Vectran, HMA, and so on.  They even come in cool colors now too.  With all of these choices, what is a skydiver to do when buying their next canopy?  How will they know which design, size, material and line to choose from?  While there is not a “single fit” answer for everyone, the important thing to remember is that skydiving has evolved both in freefall and under canopy into a large number of diverse disciplines, each of which puts the human body at different speeds and conditions.  Put simply, skydiving and canopy flight have become so specialized today, that there are “good fit” parachutes sizes and shapes for just about everything we do in freefall and under canopy.  The days of just buying a canopy to get to the ground are long gone.  There are too many sizes and designs out there to choose from.  And while there are certainly a number of general canopy design ranges, it is critical to ask, for both your main and your reserve?

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Are the canopy designs and sizes appropriate for my disciplines, my skill level and my currency level?  If you cannot answer “yes” to all three questions, then you might want to consider either changing your canopy, or improving your skill level and currency level until you can answer yes to all three questions.  Or you, may simply answer: “I don’t know”.  And that is okay too, as long as the answer is followed up with the resolution to find out.

Here’s a question to start the search for canopy knowledge.  What is the difference between a seven cell and nine cell parachute?  And no, the answer is not just “two more cells”.  There is a (general) difference in aspect ratio (cross-braced canopies aside), that can make a difference in opening characteristics, lift, flare and so on.  And a second question, based on that idea, why are modern sport reserve parachutes  seven cell wings?.

There is not a single absolute answer for any of this, as parachutes are diverse in design and function, but there is a tremendous amount of foundational information available out there, now is the time to go find it.

In conclusion, today’s modern parachutes are essentially purpose-built.  To paraphrase an old PD ad, if we all had the same tastes, we’d all fly the same wing.  The reality however in modern sport parachuting is that we have greatly varied disciplines and purposes for our parachutes.  They need to function is these highly diverse environments that we place them in, and it is true that while many parachutes are multifunctional, there is not a single parachute out there that is good for everything we are capable of doing in the sky.  That is why it is so critical to determine if we are flying with the most appropriate wings over our heads, both main and reserve canopy.   If we find through thoughtful assessment that we have the appropriate size and shape parachutes in our containers for the disciplines we pursue and the worst case aerial scenarios that we may encounter, then we will have the piece of mind in knowing on each jump that we have given ourselves the best chances for a safe, successful skydive.  If however, we find that we are not under the most ideal canopies for our disciplines, experience and worst case scenario landings, we can then set forth to correct that situation, through transitioning to more appropriate gear, or by seeking additional training to improve our skill set on our current gear.  The critical area here is that if it is determined there is a level of incompatibility in our gear and how we use it, we owe it to ourselves and those around us, to correct the situation.  In today’s modern skydiving universe, the gear we use is quite advanced, and while it is not malfunction free, there are not a lot of gear related incidents these days based on the large number of skydives we make day after day.  The truth is, that the vast majority of skydiving incidents occur today under perfectly functioning parachutes.  Many of these incidents and injuries can be traced back to end-user incompatibility and performance issues, specifically that either the canopy wasn’t the right size or shape for the landing area or more likely, the performance of the operator pilot was not on the same level with the performance of the parachute to land safely.   If every skydiver/parachutist made an honest assessment of the wings over their heads, versus, the experience level and discipline being used in, many of us would find that we have areas we can reduce the likelihood of incident or injury by ensuring we have the right wing over our head and right skill level at our fingertips as we fly our canopies to the ground.

“In the end, it’s not how appropriate your canopy is when everything is going right, it’s how appropriate your canopy is when everything is going wrong, that can be the difference between walking away from a bad landing and being driven away in an ambulance.”

To borrow from PD again, when it comes to your gear:  “Knowledge is Power”.  The information is out there, via company websites, dealers, tour reps and instructors.  Seek out the information.  Learn from it.  If you don’t agree with it all, ask questions.  The only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask.

To wrap this canopy perspective up, simply ask yourself:  Are you under the right size and model main and reserve canopy for your disciplines, experience level and drop zone location?  If you can’t answer yes to both questions, find out the answers now during your downtime.  You don’t want to be asking yourself this question at 1000ft as your passing through a tree line into a backyard and finding out only then, that the answer is “no”……..

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