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Interview with John Le Blanc
As you may have seen in the last few months, PD is celebrating the production of over 20,000 Sabre2 canopies. To truly understand what this milestone means for Performance Designs we sat down with the man who designed it, John LeBlanc, to find out the background of the canopy and understand how it’s retained its place in the sport all these years..
To talk about the Sabre2, we’ll have to start with the original Sabre. What was the community like back then?
When the original Sabre was designed in the late 1980s the community was very different from today. There was virtually zero discussion on improving canopy control technique, and virtually no canopy coaching. Over-flaring and then dropping in hard was a very common error, as was uneven flaring. The skydiving hot shots in my weight range were jumping PD nine cells in the 170-190 range, which were thought to be quite small and fast for the time. Of course, they didn’t have as much flare power as our more modern canopy designs. Virtually all canopies including the PD-nine cell were 100% F-111 canopies so, as the fabric permeability increased with use, the landings would get more and more difficult, especially with less than ideal technique. Many people were excited about the evolution in canopies and wanted even more performance, but most of the community really wasn’t ready for it. Discussions on how to improve flare technique were taboo. Something had to change.
How did that influence your design?
With that picture in mind, our idea for the original Sabre was to give the community something that would have much more flare power and be less sensitive to poor flaring technique, especially in the areas of over flaring and uneven flaring. So we did a lot of work on improving the airfoil, inlet design, and surface shaping to increase flare power. Because over-flaring was so common, we wanted to design a longer control range into the canopy from the start. Since permeability increases on F-111 fabric were unavoidable, we designed and developed a new zero-P fabric in-house. We did most of our prototype work on this fabric, later sharing our zero-p “recipe” with our US fabric manufacturer. Our collaboration resulted in the release of a production-friendly version of that fabric to us, and later to the rest of the manufacturing community. We saw this new canopy as a vastly improved PD 9-cell, with zero-P fabric being only one part of the solution… but we decided to give it a name: Sabre!
the high-performance canopy for the masses
The longer control range and more stall-resistant design, combined with more flare power and less sensitivity to uneven flaring, allowed people to get much better landings in a given canopy size. One well-known dealer often called it “the high-performance canopy for the masses’“. You could get really good performance in a comparatively much smaller size than you would typically jump. We’re proud of the original Sabre, which changed the world of skydiving in the early 1990s.
Fast-forwarding to the Sabre2, what had changed in the community?
A couple of years after the Sabre came out, we introduced the Stiletto, seen at that time as a 'hotter' canopy. There were also other companies bringing out zero-p canopies that were similar in concept. Many people tried the Stiletto and these other canopies on the market, and some people just didn’t like them. They preferred the more powerful flare of the Sabre and trusted the rock-solid stability of the canopy. We were happy that people were putting more foresight into canopy choice, wherever that would lead. Some people feared that we would focus only on pushing the limits of performance for all the hotshots while ignoring the needs of the majority of jumpers. So there were jumpers begging us to not stop making the Sabre.
As much as we wanted to continue making Sabres for those that loved them, we also acknowledged that the sport had changed greatly, and the Sabre had not. For example, the Sabre was designed to have only a short snivel when deployed at the slower freefall speeds of the late 80s. (Deploying at two grand was common in those days, as silly as that sounds now!) The transition to tighter jumpsuits was only just beginning to spread, and folks started jumping with weight vests. As freefall speeds increased, most people at the time noticed their parachutes would open faster, and occasionally harder. So the leaders of the 'tight suit crowd' were doing a big reverse arch at pull time, slowing down as much as we could and just dealing with it. Also at this time, Tube Stoes came in, and lines were frequently not stowed tight enough. And for whatever reason, some rig manufacturers started building larger pilot chutes. All these things went right in the face of good openings on the original Sabre, which was designed for a different era. Skydivers now wanted the slower openings of the Stiletto and Spectre, but they preferred the flight characteristics of their trusty Sabre.
How did the Sabre2 come onto the market?
In 1992, discussions on canopy control were becoming more widely accepted. In response to this evolution in the community, we designed a new canopy which was to be more responsive than the original Sabre, and open softer and slower, while being easier to control on heading than the Stiletto. It would be more conservative than the Stiletto in some ways, though we wanted it to be a touch steeper on the glide and a longer control range, more like the original Sabre in those respects.
So we named the new canopy Sabre2; to kind of have our cake and eat it too. Even though it is a totally different canopy, we wanted people to somehow understand we believed this new canopy would have as wide an appeal as the original Sabre. The name communicated that well. Only the basic materials and the number of cells were unchanged but everything else was different.
we named the new canopy Sabre2; to kind of have our cake and eat it too.
The planform is what we would now call elliptical, though back then we avoided that term. The community had all these false beliefs that “elliptical” meant line twists, the need for a high wing loading for proper performance, the need to swoop it to get a good landing, for experts only and so on. It’s surprising to hear now but people would specifically ask us to verify that the canopy was NOT elliptical before they were willing to try it. So we called the Sabre2 'semi-elliptical', which made people more open to trying it. That specific shape of the Sabre2 was chosen for improved efficiency and so we’d get just the right response in the toggles, though this is a blend of many other things too.
we could have just as easily called it the Stiletto2
For the Sabre2 we could have just as easily called it the Stiletto2. It was a little steeper, it has a powerful flare and the front riser pressure is a little softer. We chose the Sabre2 as we felt that the name spoke to the right market for it.
The Sabre2 was what people were asking for but one thing differentiated it from other intermediate canopies – even more flare power. Nothing on the market for intermediate jumpers had that much flare power, so we knew that it would be a bit hit. Like it or not, we saw that people were being encouraged to downsize aggressively and since many intermediate canopies weren’t rectangular anymore, they were a lot more responsive. So that’s why we felt that more flare power was an absolute must. The Sabre2 surpassed the others in that respect.
Can you talk through some of the key characteristics of the Sabre2?
Sure – I have mentioned the slightly steeper glide and powerful flare. It’s also actually more elliptical than most people think, and folks get caught up in terms like semi-elliptical, fully elliptical and so on. The “ellipticalness” of a wing is only one small but important part of what makes a canopy what it is. Other things like airfoil advancements, trim, canopy arc, and surface shaping also play a huge part in the way the canopy flies. There’s a ton of magic stuff that goes into a wing, but it’s not always easy to get these points across to the community. They begin to make sense of it all when they fly one…
We made the largest Sabre2 a 260, with the smallest (still) a 97. Well, regardless of your wing loading, I can tell you that a 97 is a very different parachute to a 260, no matter what. There’s a lot of different personality traits in the Sabre2. Some of these are lying dormant in the larger sizes, with other traits inoperative in the smaller sizes. Finding these traits is influenced by a person’s weight and experience. So this makes it difficult to say what the parachute is because it’s not one parachute, it’s ten!
It’s also good to remember that before PD came along, for the most part, each size of the canopy in a range had a different name. The reputation in the marketplace of one size was therefore different from the other sizes. But can you imagine having 10 different names for the Sabre2? It wouldn’t work, which does make it challenging when Marketing says to Engineering; “so tell us about this new canopy that comes in a 97 to 260 size range: What does it handle like?”.. well it depends.
it's difficult to say what the Sabre2 is because it’s not one parachute, it’s ten
Looking back, are you happy with naming it the Sabre2?
I think we may have undersold the canopy by calling it the Sabre2 because it does have a lot of performance, it is very responsive, had more dive and a more powerful flare than some canopies that claim to be for more experienced jumpers. But in terms of what the other companies were claiming their canopies could do, in the sizes they thought were appropriate for intermediate jumpers, we knew that the Sabre2 would be more forgiving and have a better performance for landing sweetly and safely.
So, while the original Sabre was the canopy for the nineties (we made 19,560 original Sabres), the 2000s were the decade for the Sabre2, and it has pretty much ruled the next decade also. There have been a lot of other good parachutes with a variety of characteristics that have entered the market — from our company and others. But there’s something about the Sabre2 that appeals to a wide variety of people – and, for most of these, it’s not just reputation or cool factor. It’s that they’ve tried other canopies on the market and they’ve decided rationally that the Sabre2 is the one for them.
What does the success of the Sabre2 mean to you?
We’re very pleased to have made this contribution as a company, and also there’s a lot of personal satisfaction. It was a lot of fun to develop and test. We put a lot of work into it. To me, the Sabre2 means that the huge amount of effort we put into canopies, the time we take to get it just right; well that really pays off in the long run.
There’s a host of parachutes that are built for the intermediate jumper. Many have come and gone. It’s a busy market and the Sabre2 is still doing really well. People love this parachute, they just love it. Me too! If I go out to make a fun jump after working on prototypes and I'm concerned about being in an Otter load full of unfamiliar people, I grab a Sabre2 150 and it does everything I want it to.
I do believe that some of our competitors really wonder why the Sabre2 has been so well-loved for so long. They might think it's fantastic marketing from PD. I think our Marketing and Customer Service is great, it’s responsible. But it’s really about the parachute itself, and the people who have fallen in love with it. It’s a groundswell of inspired people who said “Wow, this thing does what I want it to do.”