Brian Vacher on Canopy Flight

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Brian Vacher

Brian Vacher, National Canopy Piloting Champion, PDFT legacy member and Flight-1 Instructor, has been coaching canopy skills for twenty years. The last two decades have seen unprecedented and extreme development in wing technology. Brian, and Flight-1, have had to adapt to each new challenge with their education program. We caught up with him to ask how on earth they keep up…

Brian in action

Brian, tell me a little bit about Flight-1 and your role

Flight-1 is a great ‘coming together’ of original companies such as Freedom of Flight, the PD Factory Team and the Safe Flight School, inspired by early canopy coaching promoters such as Scott Miller. Our professional careers as canopy instructors started in the early 2000s although officially Flight-1 is now enjoying its 17th year of business.

I am one of the owners, a sport and military instructor for Flight-1. I manage the development of the sport and military curricula, constantly developing best practice through the content each curriculum provides.

Why do we need formal canopy education?   

Compared to other sports, skydiving is in its infancy. If we go back only two or three decades, truly high-performance canopies were only just starting to emerge. The crazy “swooper” was jumping a 190 or 170 square foot canopy. There is a divide between the speed our wings have developed and the education that is necessary to fly and land them successfully. To develop these skills, we must see ourselves as flying a wing rather than a parachute, due to the airspeeds and descent rates involved. We now need education and skill development in the same way as if we flew a fixed wing aircraft. 

There is a divide between the speed our wings have developed and the education that is necessary to fly and land them successfully

Landing together on an air-to-air coaching jump

Is there a big disparity between what skydivers pay on freefall coaching compared to canopy coaching, if so, why?

Historically investment focus had mainly been on freefall skills or specialised canopy flight such as accuracy and canopy relative work. In 2003 the world canopy piloting competitions changed this, showing what was possible with “mainstream” canopies. The necessity to shift the focus onto canopy skills was first realised by the military, as effective canopy flight was the jump profile they needed the most. Slowly this shift is being echoed in the sport world as skydivers realise the importance of a more balanced investment across both their freefall and canopy skills.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about canopy flight? 

There are lots of misunderstandings about the physics involved, which has led to many myths and false information to be circulated over the years. An example being that atmospheric wind causes the canopy to do something. With the exception of turbulence, the canopy behaves exactly the same in all conditions. This means the flare is the same every time, the altitude loss and recovery of an input is the same each time and most of all, the crosswind did not cause that uneven flare!

What’s the piece of advice about canopy control that you repeat most often? 

Trust the system and trust the correct flare technique. If you ask the canopy to do something – it will do it. If you give up flying the canopy, your body will have to deal with the result.

Flight-1 2022 Forum

How many Flight-1 instructors do you have around the world and how do you ensure they teach to the same standard? 

We have around 45 active instructors around the world. The recruitment process is extensive. Aside from minimum jump numbers, there is an interview process, a requirement to demonstrate teaching skills and then an instructor course which the candidate must pass. The first live course is evaluated and only then can you start your first two years of probation as a Flight-1 instructor. The company also employs the Continuous Instructor Training Program (CITP). Each instructor (including the old guys such as myself) is evaluated on live courses each year and feedback is given openly on a regular basis between instructors working the same course. There is a strong feeling of representation and of what it means to be a part of the F1 organisation across the cadre. We adopted this approach from the top-level military units we work with. Finally, the individual curriculum each instructor is working with guides the progression with the student.

How do you choose your Flight-1 instructors? What qualities are important to you?

We look for the complete package. The candidate needs experience, strong teaching and flying skills, honesty and integrity. Most of all they must fit within our Flight-1 five Core Values.

How have you seen canopies progress since you started jumping? 

Over the years, the development of the canopies has kept my love for the sport. Through my career as a canopy pilot, I have seen a big leap in performance every few years which has forced me to retrain and re-think. This started with my involvement in canopy piloting competitions with the first World Cup back in 2003 and the introduction of the Competition Velocity and, more recently, ultra-performance wings such as the Peregrine and the development of the Mutant harness. Exposure to the military environment where larger wings are flown (normally 300-400 square foot canopies) and their attitude and respect to smaller canopies in the 190-230 square foot range, really puts into perspective how wrong the attitude towards downsizing in the sport skydiving world can be.

Is canopy education keeping up?

We believe we are. We are constantly developing our curricula and constructing them so that it is easy for people to understand what their progression could and should be.

Why did you revisit the Flight-1 series of curricula?

Our first real look at the development of formal curricula started way back in 2009. This was a rework of combining the then-current curriculums of the Safe Flight School and the PD Factory Team. It was an extensive amount of work. This 2012 curriculum, re-worked slightly each year, provided a framework for our instructors to use for the subsequent 8-10 years. Back in 2019, we again started a complete re-vamp and new design as we consistently asked ourselves how it could be improved. Breaking it down the development of the pilot into more manageable steps We also wanted to take advantage of new 3D modelling technology, from which Joe Jumper was born.

Joe Jumper

Who or what is ‘Joe Jumper’?

Joe is a technically correct 3D model of a pilot and a nine-cell canopy. Once created, the technology allowed us to zoom in and out of the system, rotating it so it could be viewed from any aspect. We can zoom in on Joe’s shoelace or line attachment point or zoom out to view the complete system from any desired angle. We can program Joe to create inputs in the exact same way as a real parachute system, showing how the canopy and pilot moves through the air. We can show the student any desired point of view of how a parachute system moves before they perform the exercises themselves.

Joe Jumper

The new curricula is separated into four series, what is the aim of each? 

We offer several series in both military and sport parachuting. Each series contains around 3 courses. The sport series are as follows:

  • 100 Series – Fundamentals of canopy flight (always a good place to start for most pilots).
  • 200 Series – Advanced canopy flight (essential information to survive for any experienced jumper).
  • 300 series – Customised canopy courses
  • 400 series – Air-to-air canopy instruction
  • 500 series – Instructor courses (including Tandem Instructor courses).
  • 600 series – Online coaching and webinars.

Should everyone start with the Flight 101 series regardless of experience level? 

We always recommend starting with the basics and regularly have skydivers with 2,000, 5,000 or well over 10,000 jumps start here. However, it is up to the individual jumper to decide where they want to enter our progression system. Our instructors will of course help with questions and point you in the right direction.

Do you see very experienced jumpers coming on the 101 Fundamentals courses and being surprised with what they learn? 

All the time. Experience in one discipline doesn’t necessarily mean experience in others. Canopy piloting is the same in that we must dedicate time and effort to become proficient, just as in any other discipline.

Can you sit 101 and 102 more than once? 

Skydivers do this all the time. Some students attend each year, others after a break from the sport or at the start of a new season of jumping.

Is the 200 series all about swooping?

The 201 and 202 courses cover situations that all jumpers experience at some point in their career when they approach the ground with a less than “ideal” airspeed. This can be both low-speed and high-speed situations. These courses do not go into “swooping” but cover the fundamentals of managing airspeed and common situations that all jumpers encounter. The 201 and 202 do however provide the fundamentals for those interested in developing speed for landings. The 203 course on high performance turns repackages our previous  “swooping” courses to introduce the student to turning approaches.

Air to air coaching

How do jumpers know what are the right courses for them?

We believe the first two courses in both the 100 series and 200 series teach the skills necessary to be a proficient canopy pilot and so these courses should be completed over time by all skydivers (101, 102, 201, 202). Then it is up to the individual how or if they want to specialise and choose the coaching environment that best suits them. For example, the air-to-air program, or personal live coaching or online coaching. The air-to-air program is a game-changer as we have seen incredible accelerated skill development with this teaching method by our military clients over the last 15 years. This is the gold standard if you want to improve at pace in the sport environment.

Brian Vacher flying the Mutant harness
Photo by Bina Maja

How about if someone wants to jump the Mutant harness?

An application to jump the Mutant has to be made to the manufacturer, United Parachute Technologies and we teach the 305 training course as a part of that process to successful candidates. Generally, this harness is limited to experienced canopy pilots or paragliding pilots. We recommend developing your personal skills until the necessary experience on a standard system is reached. The criteria for owning and flying a Mutant harness are available on the UPT website.

What about people who want to learn to flock? 

The company has extensive experience of ‘flocking’ as this is the primary format we have been using to teach our military clients over the last 15 years. The PD Factory Team have experimented extensively with more aggressive and dynamic flying techniques over the same period. Flocking is becoming more popular with sport canopies but comes with additional risk, especially without correct instruction. Flight-1 has launched flocking courses and camps to provide a safe environment to explore this new, exciting progression in our sport.

Flight-1 Flocking course run by Pete Allum
Photo by Andy Ford

Flight-1 instructors seem to jump PD canopies.  Is there a reason for that?

Not all our instructors jump PD canopies. We have some instructors using a variety of wings. Of course, Performance Designs have always supported the PD Factory Team, but their product range speaks for itself, and most instructors jump these wings out of choice.

Do you have to jump a PD canopy to join a Flight-1 course? 

Of course not. We respect and value all designs and types of parachutes and enjoy teaching students on all different types of wings from all types of manufacturers worldwide.

What if I have a group of friends that want to do a course, will you arrange one?  

Absolutely! We will work out a program and location that is best for everyone.

Thank you Brian, is there anything you would like to add? 

We look forward to helping you all with your canopy progression!

Brian Vacher by Mike McGowan


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Meet: Lesley Gale

Lesley has been in love with skydiving for 35 years. She is a multiple world and national record holder and a coach on 20 successful record events worldwide. She has over 100 competition medals spanning more than 25 years and has been on the British 8-way National team at World events. She started Skydive Mag to spread knowledge, information and passion about our amazing sport.
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