From The Mag

The Nylon Ninjas: Jimmy Scarpelli

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Originally printed in issue #99 (March 2018) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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Over the next few months Performance Designs is giving you a closer look into the research and development department by interviewing team members, digging into the history and uncovering some of the magic. Last month we heard from Amanda Festi, R&D Project Lead, who talked us through her work on the Horizon, the R&D teamwork and how she turned a six-month temporary position into a 10-year dream job. Next up: Jimmy Scarpelli, R&D Project Lead. Jimmy started at PD in January 2011. Before that, he had joined the skydiving club at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University while studying aeronautical science, intending to pursue an aerospace engineering career once he graduated. At a job fair, he saw that Performance Designs had a booth and walked over.

“Kappie [head of engineering] was talking about PD to a group of students. At the time I was addicted to the skydiving scene and was living and working at the DZ while finishing school. I had about 600 jumps. Kappie was talking to students about some cool drop tests they had just done. It turns out my work duties at the DZ included helping to coordinate the aircraft for those tests. So, I said from the back of this group of kids, ‘Oh you’re talking about this thing you did in Palatka,’ and Kappie said, ‘How on Earth did you know about that—who are you?’”

After further conversation, Kappie encouraged him to submit his application. “So, with that and the references I had around here, it just worked out that when I was graduating there was a perfect opening at PD for me.”

When Jimmy wasn’t at school or skydiving, he was spending time with friends on an island in the Intracoastal, drinking beer and exploring the island, where they managed to build a fully sustainable tree house and even tried to introduce chickens to the island (P.S. Raccoons can swim.). Next up for Jimmy, he’s getting married on St. Patrick’s Day to his fiancée Sara. “She actually grew up at Skydive Palatka but pursued music as a professional flute player. In contrast, when I was growing up my mom wanted me to play music and read books and I just wanted to jump off things. So, it’s a good balance that we have, yin and yang.”

I was interested to know how Jimmy’s background in aviation tied into his work at PD. “Performance Designs has always been a seat-of-the-pants feel kind of development process. That it’s not done ‘til it’s done and it’s done whenever we feel confident that it’s an intuitive canopy that people are going to be happy with. At Embry-Riddle, there was a lot of ‘how to keep things coordinated and flying within the prescribed envelope of whatever aircraft you’re flying.’ With R&D, we sit down with the marketing team and get a scope of a wing we should provide to the community. That gives us the envelope and then through iterations of seeing how it feels and making changes, seeing how it flies, we create a canopy that’s in the middle of that envelope.”

Jimmy also feels that the procedures drilled into them at school made a big impact on how he works at PD. “At Riddle it’s not just about how well you fly, it’s even more about how well you fly to the procedures, to safety standards. That comes in handy for the R&D job because if you try to wing it you’re going to get buried under a pile of notes, scribbles and drawings. The more closely you follow the procedure, the more neat, tidy and quickly your projects and drop tests go.”

One of those projects. Photo by Robert Justin Carmody.

At PD we hear about drop tests a lot but for those who might be less familiar with what they are and how they are carried out: “The primary purpose of drop tests is to satisfy the TSO for reserves. However, we go very much above and beyond that, making sure we have iron clad data collected to prove that our drops were successful and that they meet our standards.” That doesn’t mean they’re not having fun out there. “The fun part about drop tests are the random things that get filled in when we’re going out for TSO satisfaction and we drop test something else we’ve been working on. One of the coolest ones was drop testing the Proxy. Putting those things into drop tests is cool as it’s like one adventure leads to another adventure.”

As a side note, I would recommend this video on YouTube to get a good understanding of what drop tests are like: “R&D Department at Performance Designs Test Dropping Canopies.”

Proxy drop test. Photo by Robert Justin Carmody.

During these drop tests, Jimmy says sometimes it didn’t even matter if the canopies were passing or failing. If things are going well, if it’s planned well and the series is cogging, that’s where a huge amount of satisfaction comes from. “We have riggers in the hangar packing, people prepping the packed containers onto weight stacks or dummies, loading them into the airplane. The airplane doing quick drops, people in the field on dirt bikes recovering the canopies, disconnecting the canopies from the payload and bringing them back to the riggers as quickly as possible so that circle can continue. And all of this is being recorded and collected for data purposes.”

Now that Jimmy works in the industry full-time I wanted to know if he was still out jumping every weekend. “I make the time to stay current and I have fun flying a lot of canopies. If I haven’t been out to jump in the last week then I’ll find a reason to jump for work. I do more freeflying, fun jumps and hop & pops these days. I did a CRW camp earlier this year, and that was awesome.” When Jimmy isn’t test jumping he has a Velocity 111 in his rig. “I love my Velo. I love swooping smaller 9 cells, like a Sabre2 or Katana in the 120-150 range. It’s so much fun to get a powerful landing on those.”

Jimmy under his beloved. Photo by Faith McKeen.

Since Jimmy started at PD he’s worked on updates to the Sigma Tandem canopy and his sport-canopy project is still in development (a higher performance main than the current intermediate canopies) which he is super excited about. Shhh.

What makes the PD R&D different from other companies for Jimmy is the fact that we’re the most professional little garage-shop operation. “At the end of the day we’re a team having fun, making parachutes for our friends. But I think it’s our procedures that make us different. It doesn’t look like it would be that much work to get a wing out except for this one part in our procedure that says ‘Send canopy to test; does it meet the canopy characteristics scope, yes or no. No: we modify the wing, build new ones, send to test and then again does it meet the scope?’ It goes back to what I was saying at the beginning about knowing what it feels like to fly within the design parameters of a product. Our procedures are clean and our teamwork is very effective. If there’s one little hiccup on a test jump, like, ‘oh that was kind of weird,’ it’s not in our nature to brush it off. We’ll spend a lot of time and extend the project to check out that hiccup and see if it’s going to show its head again, every 100, 1000, 10,000 jumps on the product. We really want to have a good understanding of the entire scope of a wing before we put it out. I would say what sets us apart is our roots in seat-of-the-pants flying. There’s the idea of how something should fly based on aerodynamic principles but we’re talking about nylon that can stretch, shrink, warp, inflate and under inflate. Aerodynamic principles are outer-level guidelines at that point. We put our faith in our test jumpers and the feedback that we receive rather than thinking that it should fly this way, therefore it is flying this way. We say maybe it’s going to fly that way and we wait ‘til the confidence is there to say, ‘it is flying this way.’”

Photo by Denis Zhurakov.

As a last note Jimmy mentioned how much he likes the competition in the community. “I’ve really enjoyed R&D since other companies have come into the market. It’s made people very excited around here. I like working in that excitement. But even with that new shape (shuman type, inflatable wing tips) that some people perceive as being such a giant breakthrough—remember to look back at the results from the world swoop meets from when the Peregrine and competitor prototypes were first being flown in competition. And you’ll see that Curt Bartholomew won the world meet on a regular Comp Velocity. With all this new technology, new design, new CFD, all this word play that has gone into this new generation shape. If you take the old generation canopy and put it in the right person’s hands who’s dedicated enough to know how to fly something well, the results are amazing, the performance they get out of our wings. And then they want more. It’s the community and us, the manufacturers, pushing things forward together.”

Keep an eye out for more PD R&D stories next month!

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