Finding your perfect canopy

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Pete Allum discusses factors to consider to find your ideal canopy. He gives examples from his own canopy progression, and some other skydivers’ current choices, with their reasons…

This is Caroline, under a Sabre 170; she has metalwork in her ankle from an injury, so soft landings are imperative. Photo by Willy Boeykens

Surfboard Progression

Allow me to explain something that happened within surf culture in the 1990s: All through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s board design had been going through rapid and radical change, then in the ‘90s top competitive surfers started riding the thinnest and lightest possible boards. This was sublime if you were surfing good waves and had the requisite ability, but for most of us, these boards made it very hard to even catch a wave. Riding them felt magical for brief moments but they were generally wasted on me and I just ended up swallowing more seawater than was good for me.

I won this canopy, a Pintail 144 at the ’91 South African accuracy nationals. I loved it! Such a change in direction to many of the other canopies that were out at the time but like the Excalibur it suffered from not having the right material ready for it. I lost this canopy after taking it ground launching one too many times, it’s still in a 70’ pine tree somewhere near Gap if anyone would like it.

Canopy Progression

OK, now I’m heading back to our sport…

In the ‘70s when I started jumping, the general progression through canopies was whatever you could get your hands on, this was either a piece of garbage round canopy or something that was over 200 square feet. Then through the ‘80s and ‘90s we were slowly drip fed ever progressive wings, which never dropped below 100 square feet. At the end of the ‘90s the skydiving world was treated to the wings that heralded the start of the current trend and led us on to the VK, Leia, Petra, Peregrine etc. These canopies have been designed to deliver peak performance to well qualified pilots. 

The ideal pilot for a state-of-the-art performance wing is someone who has spent time under the larger and more docile versions and expresses a desire to push the envelope with their flying. These pilots are geeks who will happily discuss, planforms, relative air density, Fly-sight data, glide ratios and recovery arcs all night long in the thirst to improve their knowledge and performance. These skydivers will seek out coaches, attend training camps and along the way make many thousands of jumps in the pursuit of increased performance. When you look at an Instagram post from one of these pilots, you see mind-blowing images but have little idea of the work and time that has gone into getting to that level. 

So, how do we decide what wing is good for us?

you see mind-blowing images but have little idea of the work and time that has gone into getting to that level”

I have over 10,000 jumps on a Velocity [84 pictured, from 2000ish] and I have to say they were unmatched for soooo long! To this day I get my CP students to master the Velo before they even think about a Schumann wing platform, there is so much to learn from this amazing wing. I recently put my Comp Velo ’79 in my Mutant, it was a joy to fly and re-acquaint myself with.

What is your frame of reference?

How you are as a person, your character and personality? This may seem rather an esoteric question in the search for the ideal parachute but have a think about how you like to drive a car; do you drive a performance sports car to its limits or do you like to cruise comfortably along, or maybe you enjoy both? Do you see yourself as agile, or clumsy, are you an older skydiver, have you had an injury or have you recently gained or lost a lot of weight?

Now to your skydiving history, how many jumps do you have and over what period of time, on what canopies, how was your progression up to this point, have you had canopy coaching?

Are you 65 kilos or are you 125 kilos? If you are light, you may have been forced to fly wings that are too small, too soon, in the mistaken understanding that canopies scale down evenly, in fact a smaller canopy, even at the same wing loading is going to be more sensitive to many inputs.

The way that a wing works is based completely on physics and aerodynamics but we perceive its performance from behind the veil of our frame of reference, our pre-conceptions and our level of ability.


Peregrine 64, my choice for XRW or swoop competitions – Pete

What are you looking for in a canopy?

If you want to specialize in a particular discipline and you already have some experience then these choices may be a little easier. Most good canopy manufacturers offer wings for each speciality and you can look towards the leaders in your discipline to understand what the ultimate wing may be for you.  In the mean-time there are intermediate wings and wing loadings that can offer an introduction to the way a particular wing performs; a reputable coach/mentor can guide you through the maze.

Opening

When looking at different wings, many of us assume that they are all going to open smoothly and on heading, however the performance of a canopy can also have a knock-on affect with regards to its behaviour on opening. For example, a canopy that tends to roll easily will be more sensitive to an uneven body position on opening, as would a more heavily loaded smaller wing. This is the reason why the more sensible wing-suiters prefer canopies that lack the high-end performance that swoopers crave and instead opt for lighter wing loads and smaller pack volumes so that they can jump the biggest wing possible.

In any case, make sure that you pay full attention on deployment and give the wing the best platform possible. And check out this article.

VK 75, this is my everyday canopy, from big ways to flocking, to training, I have the most jumps under this canopy and feel really at home, my wing loading is 2.3 – Pete


Performance

You may be at the stage of your progression when you need to build good habits as your awareness steadily increases and you try not to be a danger to others (a lifetime’s work!).

Your descent rate or wing loading should be manageable for you to plan your approach and landing, giving you sufficient time on each leg to notice what is happening, relative to your target, plus you also need time to react to other traffic. 

Jumping a smaller wing is only going to exacerbate the problem giving you less time under canopy”

One concern for newer skydivers that are jumping a wing at 1.0 or lighter, is that they may not be able to jump in certain wind conditions. If you are uncomfortable jumping under a lighter wing load as the wind increases then you should probably be on the ground. Jumping a smaller wing is only going to exacerbate the problem giving you less time under canopy and just wait until you get that thing going downwind! There is nothing to say that you cannot jump a lightly loaded wing in high winds, you just need to understand how and where to fly the canopy. As your experience increases on these canopies you will learn how to fly in varying conditions. 

This is Allegra, who jumps into remote, small landing areas all over the world. She chose the Sabre 2 -150 based on conversations with canopy coaches, for its all-round performance and excellent flare.. I was also jumping a Sabre 150. I often jump Sabre2s – 135, 150, 170 & 190 depending upon what my air to air student is jumping.

Pitch, roll and yaw

Pitch, roll and yaw… Your wing loading and the type of canopy that you fly will give you very different performance in all of these axes.

Pitch

Pitch, is the change of angle in a straight line, e.g. flaring for landing or using the front risers to dive. This is a symmetrical input. Some canopies have a steeper angle and maintain a dive for longer, some recover more quickly. 

Roll

Roll, is the change of bank angle e.g. a toggle turn. Some canopies roll easier than others and feel easier to steer with the harness.

Yaw

Yaw, is the change of heading e.g. a flat turn. Some canopies are easy enough to make flat turns with, some are more challenging to keep them from rolling.

Remember with any change in the roll and yaw axis you also get a change in pitch.

Although we all start steering the canopy with the toggles, you very quickly learn to use other inputs e.g. body and risers. If you can learn this control on a more lightly loaded wing you are forced to fully explore the correct techniques in order to make the canopy fly efficiently. If you downsize too quickly, the canopy can run away from you and you can easily find yourself close to the ground or in traffic with more speed and descent rate than you are able to handle.

If you are looking to increase or change the performance of your wing, you should try the other type of wing at the same or a lighter wing loading, the basic rule is to never downsize and change the type of wing in one step. 

never downsize and change the type of wing in one step

Here is a photo of Navdeep and I, both on Sabre 2 120s. He chose this because he really wants to learn to become a competition canopy pilot in the future, the Sabre 2 with its flight characteristics is a good step in the learning process before getting onto something like a Katana.

Landing

Yes, some canopies are easier to land than others, however with correct technique you can make all of them work (nowadays anyway – this was not always the case). We are not born with this ability, it is a skill and some folk just learn quicker than others. Do not let people tell you that you lack the ability to land a canopy correctly, sometimes you just lack the training and experience.

Rig sizes

Many people tell me that the reason they are looking to downsize is that they want to jump a smaller or lighter rig. Do not make this the deciding factor, for example if you wanted to go scuba diving you probably wouldn’t take less air because it was a little less cumbersome.

Also, the difference in weight between a 190 square foot rig and a 150 square foot rig is only 1.2kilos.

There are some excellent canopies on the market that have smaller pack volumes if you are looking for a slightly smaller container, without the need to downsize.

Daniel chooses the Horizon 7-cell as it’s designed to open smoothly in a wingsuit burble, fun to fly and a small pack volume. Photo by Raymond Adams

In conclusion

If you are unable to comfortably fly and land the canopy that you are currently flying and are thinking of downsizing: Think again! First of all, ask a recognised canopy coach if it is the correct type of wing for you and then figure out if you are flying and landing it with the correct technique.

Please do not make the journey all about downsizing. Figure out, with some expert help, what kind of wing you should be jumping, then the correct wing loading for your frame of reference and your ability. 

When we learn how to drive, most of us don’t immediately try to get into the fastest thing on the road. Unless we are planning to race, we tend to drive very similar vehicles to what we learned on. Imagine an uncontrolled highway with no lanes, traffic lights, roundabouts and few rules, full of new drivers in Ferraris… Seems like a sky full of people with less than 1000 jumps on Valkyries and Leias!

This is Lesley, she loves big-way and chooses the Stiletto 120, for its on-heading openings and easy landings even downwind. It’s not ground-hungry so suits her flying style, with plenty of time to check out the canopy traffic. Photo by Andy Vernum

Article originally published on Augusto Bartelle’s blog


Useful resources

There is already a recognized process in place for down-sizing, this can be found within other articles or from your canopy coach. 

‘The Downsizing Checklist’ Bill von Novak. 

‘5 Things to ask yourself before downsizing’ Melissa Garcia and Ella Ran

And check out the ‘Canopy Risk Quotient’ from the USPA

There are some great articles on Performance Designs Resources Page

Here’s a good one from Robbie Mcmillan – ‘Feel the strings’

I had this dream that I could jump all the different PD sport canopies in one day… So I did, thanks to some solid connections at the factory I was given the opportunity to jump: Spectre (107, pictured), Stiletto, Storm, Sabre2, Pulse, Velocity and Katana, this jump was from that day. What did I learn: All canopies are fun to fly, they each have different characteristics, just like different surfboards or bikes or …. (insert your choice of fun machine).

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Meet: Pete Allum

34,000+ jumps
FS and CP national teams, world meet podium in both disciplines.
Flight-1 coach
FS indoor/outdoor coach
Baby free flyer

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