We’d all like to be ace canopy pilots… but what do we have to do to get there?
Paul Dorward describes his sobering experiences watching his hero come to grief, and what he learned about Canopy Piloting as a result…
Way back in 1999 I had been skydiving for a year and was on my way to be about as cool as you can imagine! By now I owned my own alti and a battered old Pro-Tec open-face helmet. I was seriously cool. 😉
However, I was nowhere near as cool as Steve, my Instructor. Steve was the guy at a small DZ with just over a thousand jumps – which may as well have been 10,000 as in my mind it seemed no-one could possibly do that many jumps. Steve used to fling his Stiletto 150 all over the place and it sure looked cool to a younger version of me.
One fateful day there I was standing by DZ control as Steve was jumping one of the first Performance Designs Velocities in the country. I’ll never forget his last words to me the day before. “If you thought I could swoop, wait till you see this!” Steve made an incredibly low turn on that very first jump and I watched him bounce along the ground like a rag doll. In that moment he paralysed himself from the neck down and changed my entire opinion. I felt sick.
Perfect Flight Plan
My next experience was very different, I was introduced to a guy called Dave Mitchell, he started jumping at my DZ. This guy had around 4,000 jumps and was at ‘god level’ to me, with about 100 jumps. Dave flew a Stiletto 120 and, wow, he could land it on a 2-penny piece. He was swopping it and carving it around the place and looked so slick. This guy really knew what he was doing and was inspiring to watch. I asked him a couple of times what he was doing and how he was doing it.
Dave was very cagey about passing on what he was doing as he fully understood how dangerous it was and no doubt recognised the red-blooded young lad that I was – full of testosterone and a fool!
Watching Dave fly, I immediately recognised how consistent he was. How perfect his flight plan was, and how he always landed inches away from, if not on, the spot. His party piece being, throw a football on the DZ and he would swoop it! This guy was seriously inspiring to me and I think countless others. I spent many jumps trying to emulate what Dave was doing but without really any experience and was, quite frankly, putting myself in grave danger even though I thought I was doing ok.
I wasn’t doing okay at all. Around this time, I pulled off a swoop landing in front of a taxiing plane! My one mistake, I’m humbled again every time I’m reminded of this by Brynn Chaffe! I think the saying goes, “you shag one little sheep…!”
Moving on I found myself jumping more and more in other countries, mainly the USA. I soon found myself hanging around some of the world’s best canopy pilots and pumping them for information advice and posing the magic, “what height do you turn?” question. (Which, incidentally has no one answer) What became very apparent very quickly to me was the need to plan! It doesn’t just happen. You can’t always be lucky. Looking back, I sure had been lucky.
Back in 2006 I bought my first Velocity Canopy. It was a 96 Square foot beast! My first jump in Zephryhills Florida, I was very happy to jump it, but all I could think of was Steve and what happened to him. I landed so smoothly on a straight-in approach and was seriously pleased with one thing; how restrained and disciplined I had become. I did 30 straight-in approaches in 3 days. I knew I was more than capable on the canopy, but I also knew what I had to do. I spent the next few hundred jumps measuring turn heights in brakes and in risers on every jump. I recorded some information and learnt more and more. I quickly realised that it was an endless task, a task that today is still ongoing. I also do this with every new canopy. I spend the time and effort. There is no shortcut.
That was in the old days, when canopy education was mostly limited to your AFF course and what you could learn in the bar. The joy today is that there are so many brilliant canopy schools, coaches and seminars out there, but they still rely on one major factor: YOU. Learning how to learn is vital to your survival.
I have found it’s possible to offer the best coaching; I can now draw a path direct from start-to-end goal and map it out. What I have no control over is what you are thinking, and how you approach the path; that is only available to you.
PD Learning Principles
Let me introduce the PD (Paul Dorward) learning principles. When I coach canopy pilots, I like to get them to understand the learning principles. The first principle is; stop what you are doing now and slow down. This is only a pre-requisite to actually jumping, so this is not the be-all-and-end-all. If the canopy pilot won’t adopt these principles, I do not work with them because it’s pointless. It’s a simple equation.
- Slow down
- Use reliable digital instrumentation (audibles, visuals and eyeballs)
- Record what you do in detail
- Pre Plan every flight using maps and technology (google maps etc)
- Understand wing loading and its effects
- Learn about red mist
- Learn to say NO
- ALWAYS have a reputable coach. You simply do not try this alone.
Let’s look at these in more detail…
1 Slow Down
One of the greatest pieces of information I can give to any canopy pilot, and I don’t just mean swoopers or aspiring swoopers, I mean everyone. SLOW DOWN!! You simply cannot learn how to go fast until you know how to go slowly. How to fly and land your canopy in half brakes, deep brakes, etc.
2 Use reliable digital instrumentation
It is now ludicrous to attempt any form of landing just eyeballing it. Whilst it may have been acceptable in the past, there is just no need to not use digital visual altimeters and audibles with canopy alarms. Your eyeballs also play a huge part in this process. My advice is, if any part of that chain is not working, you say NO!
3 Record what you do in detail
It is absolutely vital that you make notes. If you are doing high altitude drills learning about your canopy, I’d say you can only really remember three bits of information accurately each jump. So, write it down, in your logbook, keep accurate notes of what you did and what the effects were, paying attention to height loss.
4 Pre-Plan every flight using maps and technology
It’s now very easy to load in your DZ or landing area and work out your flight plan using the winds chart. You can very easily identify a flight plan that is predictable and easy to read for other pilots, not just yourself.
5 Understand wing loading and its effects
Wing loading is not just a number. Consider this:
- Jumper 1 has 100 jumps, exit weight is 230 lbs and flies a PD Sabre-2 230 Square foot canopy. Wing loading is 1.0.
- Jumper 2 has 100 jumps, exit weight is 135 lbs, flies a PD Sabre-2 135 sqft Canopy. Wing loading is 1.0.
Do you know the difference? Are there very light small jumpers at your DZ jumping tiny canopies with little experience due to this lack of understanding of wing loading?
6 Learn about red mist
RED MIST – this is the “I have to do it” problem. When the pilot can’t see anything but swooping, even though it may not be the best course of action. RED MIST is selfish and fatal if ignored.
7 Learning to say no
This a vital part of the training. Being up under canopy and not having all the elements lined up to make a safe swoop approach means you have to say no, and abandon your ‘epic landing’ for a more traditional approach, or maybe even an alternate area.
It goes without saying. You must never attempt any high-performance landing without speaking with your Chief Instructor and without the direct supervision of a reputable canopy coach. It can be fatal and often it is.
There is absolutely no way you can learn CP without gathering information. That means jumping, alone on dedicated canopy jumps, and measuring what you do and how you do it. Measuring to a fine degree of accuracy, in itself, takes time and discipline. Working out height rotations, speeds and flight-planning your way around cannot be learnt quickly.
Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours theory’ – that to become an expert at something can take up to 10,000 hours of practice. How many jumps would you need to do for 10,000 hours of canopy time?! Consider how much time you spend under canopy on your average jump. 2-3 minutes? You can work out the math and determine that actually we are all mostly still in the novice category, even with thousands of jumps, especially if we don’t apply the learning principles as a bare minimum.
There is also a culture of thinking it’s cool to pick up injuries and earn a T-Shirt. Really?! If that’s you, then you really should question your motivations. Have you done CPR on your friend before? It’s not pleasant. Injuries are damaging to you, your family, your DZ and the sport as a whole. If you find that you are constantly being pulled up for your canopy handling, maybe you need to have a look at yourself. If you refer back to the beginning of the article, the only way to enhance your ability is to start from the inside; change the way you think, change the way you adopt what you do, and how you do it. You have to LEARN HOW TO LEARN.
All around the world dropzones and associations have put various regulations in place to try and make canopy flight safer. When our friends are out there killing themselves trying to look cool something has to change. Sadly, as it’s almost impossible to quickly change the way that the world’s jumpers are thinking, the next best thing is to make it more a regulated activity and quite rightly so. Remember this is not about being the fun police. It’s about preventing people dying – especially those who are not attempting high-performance landings but may be victims of those who are. So, it’s important to respect the local and national rules to keep the sport safer for everyone.
I think back to early days of me on my Sabre 135 pulling on risers and trying to get cool photos of me swooping. I was so clueless and in so much danger – I just didn’t know. It turns out I was just incredibly lucky.
Don’t leave it to chance when you have all the tools at your disposal for a long and successful canopy piloting career.
Article by Flight-1 Instructor Paul Dorward
Paul’s canopy progression
- Manta 288
- Fury 220
- Sabre 210
- Sabre 190
- Sabre 170
- Sabre 150
- Sabre 135
- Sabre 2 120
- Stiletto 120
- Katana 107
- Katana 97
- PD Velocity 96
- PD Velocity 90
- PD Velocity 84
- PD Velocity 79 + 75
- PD Velocity 75
- Currently – Main: PD Valkyrie 79, PD Valkyrie 75, Velocity 75. Reserve: PD Optimum 113
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