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In 1982 Bill Coe founded Performance Designs. You could say the PD research and development department started right then, with Bill building canopies in a spare bedroom of a friend’s house in Cutler Ridge, Florida. Our R&D department today is a mysterious place where mad geniuses have come up with everything from the Valkyrie, Horizon, Comp Velocity, Sabre2 and everything in between. Over the following months we’ll give you a closer look into the R&D department by interviewing different people, digging into the history and uncovering some of the magic.
First up: Gilles Dutrisac, R&D team lead. He looks after R&D project leads, the engineering sewers and interfaces with DeLand Research Corp (DRC), the company created by PD to handle all test jumping. When I asked Gilles when he started at PD, he surprised me by not remembering just the year or month but also the day. “It was November 25, 2006. I remember that date precisely as it was such a huge move for us to uproot and come all the way down here [from Canada] and make the big leagues.”
The R&D department essentially operates on a big cycle. As Gilles explains, “A concept, an idea or a market need comes to us via whatever route (usually customer feedback) or some of our own observations in the field. We identify the need for a new canopy. From there we put our thoughts on the table, create a project and try to figure out exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve out of this wing.”
They first design it in their 3D parametric modeling CAD program that was created in-house by company owner Bill Coe in 1993. With numerous updates since then, the program allows PD to quickly and efficiently design a canopy. However, Gilles was quick to remind me of the importance of humans in the process. “Most of what we’ve learned doesn’t come from the computer. It comes from evolution. No matter how much the computer tries to do a good job of getting it right, there’s nothing that will tell you if you like a parachute or not—other than jumping it.”
After designing it they build the parachute in their own department. From there, Gilles explains, it becomes a decisions branch. “If it fits the bill or not, whether it flies, or opens or performs like it should. If it’s a yes, we’re done (which never happens on the first shot). If it’s a no, we continue the quest by trying new ideas based on what we have learned. We often do this by designing and building a completely new prototype that incorporates those ideas. Sometimes it involves simply adjusting something on the current prototype. As the project continues, we often have prototypes in many different versions being jumped simultaneously, until we get exactly what we want. It just works.”
Test jumping is a huge part of the PD process. “We have a lot of test jumpers; we log everything we do and we have a lot of human interaction from logging comments and just factual information of what the parachute is doing. Also our gut feel and first raw impressions.” Gilles pointed out that John LeBlanc, the R&D chief designer (and company vice president) “really thrives on this, catching the person’s emotions right after they land. There’s a lot to be said for computers but again we’re humans.”
Gilles has worked on the Comp Velocity, Zero, Pulse, Peregrine, Valkyrie and Hybrid Valkyrie. His favorite? “Now, a mother would tell you that they love their kids equally but let’s be honest here, there’s always a favorite. Off the top of my head I love them all for sure, but one that I felt we really knocked out of the park was the Pulse. It just gave me this ultimate sense of, ‘Wow we really nailed this one.’ And it came out of the gates with so much steam—it was so popular. The Valkyrie came out all the rage too, but we kind of expected that. With the Pulse, it was like, ‘Wow, where did you come from?’”
Once a canopy is completed and out there in the community, there’s always going to be feedback and hopefully, praise. I was curious to know how this affects Gilles and the R&D department. “We try to stay focused but we’re all skydivers and the locals get to know and the word gets around. We try to stay humble but it’s still a lot of fun when you go out there and get introduced as the project lead for the Pulse, Valkyrie or the Zero. It’s seeing the fruits of your labor, that good feeling you get when you put your heart and soul into it and you get something out of it.”
Gilles started skydiving June 9, 1990 (he’s clearly excellent with dates). When asked which canopy he jumped (“What canopy don’t I jump?”) he said that he recently upsized from a Valkyrie 71 to a 79. He assured me it wasn’t an age thing but that, “a lot of the time the 71 on a bad 4-way spot was a pain in the butt to get back with.”
A project that stands out for Gilles: “Working with the smokejumpers [firefighters who parachute into remote areas to combat wildfires] and seeing their world. Having to study it, to see what they do, what they need out of our products, and developing something specifically for their needs. Then seeing them succeed with it and go on live missions is satisfying.” While working with the smokejumpers he couldn’t quite believe how they got skydivers to jump into these situations, to which they replied, “We don’t hire skydivers because they would know better than to jump into there. We hire firemen and train them to skydive.”
As a closing note, I wanted to know the one thing Gilles felt the community didn’t know about the R&D department. “We start working on stuff long before it gets released and long before anyone knows about it. That’s our own doing as well. We lead a little bit of a secret life here and designing, building and testing a canopy takes time. But getting it right is more important than getting it done fast or first. So when we finally come out with a new canopy, sometimes we get accused of being copycats. That’s probably the only thing that’s a little bit hurtful to me, because it’s a public misconception. We work hard and take pride in our work. Sometimes I wish I could tell people, I wish I could say we’re working on this great thing. It’s probably going to come out in two years from now. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that inside for so long. But then I guess when you finally do release a great canopy that stands the test of time, it feels so much better.”
Keep an eye out for more PD R&D stories next month!
Correction: An earlier version of this online reprint stated Nik Danielson was the pilot of Gilles’ baby, the Pulse. It’s actually Brianne Thompson flying the canopy, Nik Daniels who took the photo and one undercaffeinated editor.
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