Downsizing

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Will Penny, on his VK71PS, by Timothy Parrant

It’s a question that gets asked at every dropzone, every weekend…. I want to downsize… how small can I go ? …

  • Have you asked this question?
  • Do you know someone who has?
  • Is it even a taboo subject sometimes?
  • How do you know when it’s right or wrong for that matter?
  • Who do you ask?
  • How do you ask?

That’s before you get anywhere near an answer!

Downsizing can be an incredibly tricky subject; you can apply a formula but everyone’s needs, experience and desires are all different. With the right methodology and the right advice, it can be accomplished in a safe and systematic way should you wish.

Why do you want to downsize?

The first thing we need to identify is why we want to downsize. Perhaps we even make it difficult for people to even ask. Maybe we even push the issue underground or abroad, where there are fewer rules, without realising that’s what is going on.

Some of the more common reasons I come across for downsizing are set out here, but this list is not exhaustive. The aim of this article is to highlight the common reasons for downsizing, give some insights, highlight the dangers and suggest how to accomplish this in a safe and systematic manner.

“I want to go faster” – Are you ready?
Photo: PD Valkyrie by Chris Sears

I want to go faster

For many of us once we finish AFF and start building up a few jumps we suddenly get the urge to want to go faster and faster. Is this wrong? I think by design most of us are “Type A” personalities wanting to push ourselves, looking for excitement, that is why we skydive, right? The desire to go faster is certainly out there. Is there a way to do this safely?

Going fast can be fun – but are we ready for all that speed and of course the pressure it puts on us?!

More Fun

“My canopy is slow and boring, I want to have more fun. I see skydivers zipping around the sky on these smaller wings, clearly having way more fun than me. I want to do that.”

Is there any way to zip around and change how you fly your current canopy? As an example, check out this video of JC Colclasure swooping a PD Sabre2 170 – that’s right, a 170. How much more fun do you need?!

Jump in higher winds

“I’m sick of going backwards under canopy. If I downsize, I will go faster, therefore I can keep jumping when the winds are stronger.”

Is this a good idea?! Would it not be fair to say that if you are backing up under your canopy then perhaps the conditions are the issue rather than the size of your canopy? Just because other people are jumping, does that mean those conditions are suitable for you to jump? I also challenge you to find out, how fast your canopy flies. You might be surprised at the actual data rather than perceptions or beliefs around the dropzone.

Gear Lust

When we finish our training, we are usually starting to consider the possibility of buying a set of equipment. There is a vibrant second-hand market which is more accessible than ever, due to the advent of social media. You can now log in to Facebook, check for second hand kit and buy it that afternoon. A too-common occurrence is to buy a set of kit that is too advanced for you for now, with every good intention of putting it away until you’re ready. But, the rig under the bed keeps calling you and within a few weeks or so you’re sat in the plane feeling out of your depth.

The rig under the bed keeps calling you

It’s the trend

Wanting to be like the cool kids is natural but do a reality check
Image by PD

In any walk of life there are trends we follow. In skydiving we are no different. We see all those cool shots and videos of people swooping around on canopies pulling off amazing landings providing amazing content on social media. The next thing you see are up-and-coming skydivers wearing all the cool kit shades on, looking into the middle distance with the latest Model X canopy hanging over one shoulder. I visit many drop-zones all over the world and regularly see skydivers with little experience jumping tiny canopies. It’s terrifying in some instances.

Is your desire to look cool outweighing your ability?!

Do you hear that a smaller rig weighs less and therefore you won’t sink out as much? I challenge you to weigh your equipment, then weigh a smaller rig and compare the differences; you may be surprised.

I don’t know!

It always surprises me how many people don’t even know why they want to downsize, they just assume they are supposed to at some point. In that instance, is a downsize the only option? Could a change of model at the same size as you are used to flying provide you with a different experience?

A change of model could provide all the extra fun you desire
Photo: Caroline Layne on her Sabre3 97, by Norman Kent

Informed Choices

So without sounding like the Fun Police, I wanted to try and pause you guys for thought and help you take on some basic considerations and guidelines to help you make informed choices about your future in the sport.

The list here is not exhaustive, nor is it a supplement or replacement for proper formal training. There is no reason to do this alone and sneak your way down on to smaller and smaller wings. Seek help from a reputable canopy coach. Even better would be to get on a canopy course provided by Flight-1.

With the right methodology you can downsize safely and maximise your fun
Photo: Happy jumper under a Sabre3, by Griffin Hernandez

Downsizing Principles

The basic principle to follow is to adopt simple, measurable, logical procedures:

Never downsize more than 15% at any one time

Manufacturers of canopies are more than aware of this, which is why, when you look at what they offer for sale, the size differences usually fall within these parameters. This is a well thought-out process. They are not just random sizes, they are the result of decades of R and D.

Always consult with your Chief Instructor

They are often very busy keeping your dropzone safe, and will in most cases refer you to a reputable canopy coach to assist you. A canopy coach will talk to you, watch you land and refer back to the CI, to provide feedback to you both.

Can you land in all conditions?
Photo: Michael McGowan

Can you land in all conditions?

By that I mean, are you happy and confident to land in strong winds, nil winds, or crosswind and downwind approaches? I have asked this question to many canopy pilots over the years and nearly everyone says, ‘Yes’! To that end I will ask them to prove it, ‘show me in your logbook when you completed those exercises’, the room usually falls silent.

Landing in medium or high winds is fairly common to us. Do you know the feeling of nil wind landings on those awesome summer days when you arrive at the DZ and the windsock is hanging limp and the landings feel seriously fast… unnervingly so for some?! Perhaps you sit it out and wait for a “bit of wind” before you go jumping.

Crosswind and downwind landings start to present some pretty serious challenges for us. By design the complexity and nature of our flight plans have to change, so we are now talking about dedicated jumps with just you hopping and popping.

It doesn’t end there either, you also need to consult with your Chief Instructor again and make sure they are happy with this. Can you imagine on a busy Saturday full of tandems, AFF and club jumpers asking your CI if you can make a downwind or crosswind landing?! So how and when you made those jumps, I always question in depth and look for logbook endorsements rather than hearing that you “WOULD BE HAPPY TO” make a downwind or crosswind landing. ‘Would be happy to’ or ‘HAVE DONE’ – the two are poles apart.

What do people say about you?

There is so much to be gained from local knowledge. As I travel around teaching canopy courses, I am often met with, “While you’re here can you have a word with Jumper X?” Sometimes, if your peers are asking you to slow down and get help, then perhaps you’re a bit out of your comfort zone and beyond your skill level. Maybe you should listen to them.

Stand-ups or Stoofs?

Stand-ups or stoofs?
Photo by Spencer Bailey

What are your landings like?

Make an honest appraisal of your own ability. Now be honest with yourself. Do you land in the right place all of the time? Do you fall over? Do you approach landings confidently and smoothly or is it all a bit of a rush? Apply a simple question over your last 50 jumps; how many stand-ups and how many stoofs? A simple, logical question that reveals a lot about you and your skill level.

Other considerations

Some other factors to consider that are equally important to ask yourself:

What type of parachute do you fly?

Are you familiar with all of its characteristics and its flight modes? Have you explored your canopy’s full range. Do you even know how to explore its full range?

How often do you jump?

This is hugely important in your decision-making. It’s known as currency. Are you current? How do you even define current? Perhaps an AFF student will tell you that doing 5 or 10 jumps a month feels like a lot. A full-time skydiver doing upwards of 500 jumps per year will feel current. Has Covid played a part in this for us in the last 2 years?

What type of jumping do you want to do?
Photo by Andrey Slepnev: Roberta Mancino landing her PD Horizon 120, perfect for wingsuiting and landing in small areas

What type of jumping do you do?

Does your current wing deliver what you need? I jump a lot of AFF so I need to consider getting back from deep spots. What do you need to consider? If I were to jump in a big-way, would my current small wing be suitable for crowded skies? Would I need to change kit? If I do, am I current on that different wing, do I know its characteristics, etc?

What are your goals?

Do you have an actual desire to go faster? Do you understand that a downsize doesn’t massively change your canopy’s forward speed on a full flight mode, BUT it drastically changes the canopy’s vertical descent speed in a dive or a turn? You may not be planning to make diving turns for landing and are usually a conservative canopy pilot, but how about if you made a low turn to avoid someone or an object? You may suddenly find that extra vertical speed a real issue.

Are you looking to jump more or less?

A simple fact that affects most jumpers is the winter period. We tend to jump less regularly through the winter time, affecting our currency. If you’ve have been jumping less the last year or two due to weather and/or Covid for instance, would downsizing be a good idea?

Where will you be jumping?
Photo: Alethia Austin beach landing her Sabre3 89, by Javier Ortiz

Where are you jumping?

Jumping at our home DZ all the time gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling of familiarity. We know where to fly, where to land and how to get there in most conditions. What about when you need to land off in a tight area, would downsizing play a part in how you arrive there? Could you handle the extra stress and complications? What about if you jump at a different DZ with different set-ups, patterns and off-landing areas? When was the last time you checked out the land-out areas at your home DZ. Or do you just hope you find an area? Do you know that the elevation of the DZ above sea level plays a part in how the canopy handles, the same for the temperature. Jumping in Europe at sea level in the winter time, is very different to jumping at a DZ that is 3,000 feet above sea level in 30 degree heat.

What should YOU do?

Before you downsize you need to consider all of the points above and maybe more. If you still believe you’re ready to downsizing, as a bare minimum you must:

  • Consult your home DZ Chief Instructor
  • Never downsize more than 15% of your canopy size
  • Consider, in conjunction with your CI and canopy coach, setting up a day to plan and attempt crosswind landings and downwind landings. (NB, do not just go and attempt this)
  • Seek further canopy training before and after your downsize

I challenge you instead of downsizing, to UPSIZE your skill level first.

Only downsizing in small steps and learning to fly each canopy in its full control range is key to becoming an ace canopy pilot… then you can downsize your landing area too!
Photo: Maldives beach landing by Sascha Frings, on his PD Valkyrie 79PS

Article by Paul Dorward, British Skydiving Instructor Examiner, and Flight-1 Instructor

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Meet: Paul Dorward

Paul Dorward 11K jumps
Jumping since 1997
5000 AFF jumps
Loads of Belly flying
Flight-1 Instructor
Flight-1 Instructor Manager
British Skydiving Examiner
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