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The age-old “go to” canopy safety question is: Are you capable of landing your canopy in a tight congested space? While well intended, this is not actually the best question to ask. A much better question would be: “Can you land your canopy in a backyard when everything around you is going wrong? But this still is only half of the story…”
In a controlled environment, say a dedicated hop ‘n’ pop, many skydivers are capable of landing their canopies in 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 ideal 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.
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:
1. 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 canopy in potential worst case scenarios?
2. Am I capable of landing my RESERVE safely in the same 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 an 84sqft cross-braced 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 canopy choices.
The most common mistake however, is that skydivers 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 array of equipment and canopy choices.
Skydivers 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
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 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 varied 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 different fabrics and lines out there too. It used be just low permeability fabric, ( “F-111”). 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. 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.
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” parachute 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.
While there are certainly a number of general canopy design ranges, it is critical to ask, for both your main and your reserve:
Are my main and reserve canopy designs and sizes appropriate for my
• skill level, and
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 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 another question to start the search for canopy knowledge..
What is the difference between a seven cell and nine cell parachute?
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.
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 in 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 that we have the appropriate size and shape parachutes in our containers for the disciplines we pursue and the worst-case aerial scenarios, then we will have peace of mind in knowing 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; transitioning to more appropriate gear, and/or seeking additional training to improve our skill set.
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 skydiving universe, the gear is quite advanced. While it is not malfunction-free, there are not a lot of gear-related incidents these days based on the large number of skydives made. The truth is, 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 pilot was not on the same level with the performance of the parachute to land safely. If all parachutists made an honest assessment of the wings over their heads, versus their experience level and disciplines, many of us would find that we could reduce the likelihood of injury by making sure we have the correct wing over our head and appropriate skill level at our fingertips.
The only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask
“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 skydiving locations? 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 100 feet as you’re passing through a tree line into a backyard and finding out only then, that the answer is “No”!