So You Wannabe a Packer?

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We talk to our lovely rigger, Rezzan Shiel, who’s been a professional packer for 18 years. Rezzy is a Senior FAA Rigger/Packer and a BPA Advanced Packer/Organizer, one of a handful packers to be qualified by the FAA and the BPA.

Rezzan Aral Shiel, photo by Rob Lloyd

What do you actually do Rezzy? 

I pack parachutes; mains and reserves for both sport skydiving and military;; I organize packers for events and military training camps; help with buying and selling new and used skydiving gear and teach packing/rigging when required.

Give us a brief career history, what other jobs did you do?

I was an au pair for two years in the UK, I looked after two little kids, they were my first English teachers. 🙂

I have great memories working as a silver service waitress, serving up to 1,000 people; private cocktail parties in amazing venues such as theatres, train wagons, luxury boats. Barons’ Court tennis tournament serving top level athletes before Wimbledon, where I met Princess Diana, The Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn Fields serving barristers, Mrs Thatcher, Royal Family members including Prince Charles. 

I worked at Schroders Unit Trust for 9 years. First at the archive/registration department, then E&Os, customer service, company yearly taxes, and investigating dead-end files that had been left unanswered over the years. I love solving problems. 

Rezzy packing in the early days
Photo by Stikkos

How and why did you become a packer?

After the 9/11 attack global stock markets dropped sharply, as a result in April 2003 Schroder Investment Management Limited sold the Unit Trust part of the company, so I became unemployed. 

The then British National skydiving team XL (Pete Allum, John McIver, Steve Hamilton, Thomas Hughes and Rob Stevenson) were training for the Gap 2003 Mondial, and they needed a packer. I knew how to pack but not the way they wanted me to pack. They used to leave the half-packed canopies on the floor for me to finish up. They would come down from their jump and I would still be trying to finish the canopies from the jump before. I was thinking, I am useless. I was not helping them at all! They did not get rid of me. 🙂 I went to Italy for a month training in August 2003 with them before the Mondial, where I can say I became a team packer. I was dropped in the deep end but I am thankful for Team XL and Anne Maxwell for teaching me how to be a good team packer and for being patient.

What qualifications do you need to be a packer? What qualifications do you have?

In the British Skydiving Association, when you start packing you need to get a Packing Certificate. Each time you pack a different canopy, container or deployment type it needs to be signed and dated by the BPA rigger or an instructor. I already had this because I packed parachutes before I even jumped them – thanks to UK weather and not being able to sit still for a long time. 

In 2004 after I knew I would continue to pack, I went to get my FAA Senior Rigger rating in California. I didn’t see the point of being a packer without learning more about the equipment. I converted my FAA Senior rating to a BPA Advanced rating in 2010. All these years, my double rating [US and UK] was not really important to anyone except me, but at last year’s World Skydiving Championships in Eloy, Arizona, I had to pack all our delegations’ reserve parachutes with my FAA Senior Rigger’s rating as it was an endorsed requirement by the FAA. I was very proud to help my fellow British skydivers. 

Are you overqualified? 

Am I overqualified for what? No-one can be overqualified, I am sure. No-one has the answer to everything. But if you ask me something about rigging that I don’t know, I can assure you that I will find the correct answer. I like studying and learning new things. A rigger cannot be overqualified; skydiving equipment changes all the time, so we need to advance ourselves with updates and keep learning. 

How do riggers and packers keep their knowledge updated?

British Skydiving emails notifications to their advanced packers and riggers for any updates and safety notices. The BS Expo, the European Skydiving Symposium, and the Parachute Industry Association (PIA) Symposium are ways to keep yourself updated. During these events you meet the manufacturers, updating your knowledge. You can see and touch the new gear, and ask any questions directly to the manufacturers. As a rigger you can go to seminars and get a Parachute Rigger Continued Education. There is a lot to see and learn. You can also get updates or any service bulletin at each manufacturer’s website. I am lucky to have a close friendship with the manufacturers so I get safety notices or changes quickly. 

The Fun Flag – Stolen by the packing team!

What makes you a great packer? 

I love what I am doing, I love the people I work with, they are my friends. If they are not then they become my friends! 🙂 I care about them. I don’t jump any more but packing keeps me in the sport. I take packing seriously, it’s tiring, but fun and it’s a business. As with all businesses you need to keep your customers happy. 

What satisfaction do you get?

I love working with competitive teams, especially when I am with them for many years and see their average go up, going to National Championships and international competition with them, celebrating the results and being part of a team. So many emotions, a huge energy, so many memories, making great friends forever. Some teams will always have a place in my heart – XL, Kaizen, Fortitudo, Majik, GK4, and NFTO.

I love working at big-way events with jumpers who are trying to achieve their records. The hype, the energy! Being part of all that is fantastic. 

Also, teaching someone who wants to pack mains or reserves, and seeing their faces when they actually get it. 

Rezzy with UK National team NFTO at Queensland Australia World Meet

What are the best points?

Traveling! Going to new places, meeting new people, making new friends, collecting endless memories… and returning to those places you’ve been and seeing your friends there again. 

What are the worst points

Death! Yes, we are all going to die one day, but losing friends over skydiving accidents always brings sadness. The longer you are in the sport it seems like the more friends you lose. It’s worse when you are there at the accident. It never gets easier. 

Weather is the other downside – it can kill or make the event. It can be soul-destroying when the weather does not cooperate, watching all the jumpers with disappointment on their faces, waiting, waiting… sometimes for days. 

Rezzy and Kaizen, at the 2009 European Championships & World Cup at Prostejov, Czech Republic

How does it feel to be still surrounded by nylon when everyone else is heading to the bar? 

Wonderful!! I love busy events! If I am surrounded by nylon at the end of the day it means it has been a great day. To be honest everyone I work with always looks after me, especially at the end of the day, they always check on me. Usually I end up with loads of drinks lined up, my dinner is sorted before I even have a shower and join them. 🙂 I am loved for sure! Thank YOU! 

How do you take care of yourself?

Packing is very physical, you need to be fit, you need to look after your body and mind. 

I broke my back in 2006 and had 5 operations; it was a long, 10-year process. learned how to use my body correctly after each operation. To this date I have never had back pain because of packing or rigging. Weird, right?! Using your body correctly, not curving the spine and using gravity instead of just arm and shoulder strength is important. 

Our bodies are machines, we need to take care of them and take supplements, especially for joints. I give myself enough time in the morning to enjoy some calm before the busy day starts. Often enough I drop out of my exercise regime but I always get back to it. I feel it’s important to keep my body strong and also spend the energy I have to create more energy. I like to keep my mind active too and feed my desire for knowledge. I take online courses. There are a lot of things I want to learn. I read books, listen to books, and on and off I try learning Spanish.

Keeping fit is important for a packer

How do you manage the other packers so they pack safely? 

When I notice someone is not comfortable while packing or not sure what they are doing I will get involved, help them out and explain to them why and how they need to do what I show them to do. Sometimes I ask some packers to pack bigger sizes of parachutes only, because they are comfortable with those sizes and can control it. If they struggle to put the parachute in the D-bag over and over, I usually ask them to re-pack it and I will show them another technique on how to put the canopy into the D-bag.

Did you ever make a mistake that caused a cutaway? How did you deal with it?

To be honest I am sure there have been one or two that were my mistakes when I was still a new packer. But most of the cutaways I know are not a packing mistake. It is usually caused by lack of gear maintenance, or tension knots caused by older line sets. However, at any cutaway, I am very concerned and want to know what actually happened.

I will make sure they have the free bag, main and handles back, inspect the gear, and, if they wish, I will pack the reserve and put the gear in service as quickly as possible.

How do you feel when someone lands safely after one of your reserve packjobs? 

OMG! I don’t always hear that I have saved someone’s life. But, each time I pack a reserve I have these little butterflies, I love packing reserves. It is like meditation, but I also know that it’s someone’s last option to save their life. It’s a serious responsibility. When I actually see someone landing my reserve packjob I do feel those butterflies once again. It’s exciting! But then I have all those questions; what was the malfunction, how was the reserve opening, how do they feel, did they see where the main and free-bag landed. And the most important question, are they ok? 

Packing hangar

Could you go back to a desk job? 

How many times I have asked myself that question! I am always on the lookout for new options and horizons. I sometimes do data input/accountancy input work for my friends’ businesses. I love it. It keeps my keyboard speed current. I guess I also like it because I can do it wherever I am. So, a desk job is ok as long as I am not tied to a desk 🙂 and I can use my skills. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a packer? 

I’d really like them to think and be honest to themselves why they want to become a packer. It’s a good money-earner. It is not an easy job. You really have to love packing and be responsible. A packer should ask questions about the canopies that they are packing, be open to criticism and never give up. Take lessons from more experienced packers, and read articles and manuals regarding the canopies you are packing and their characteristics. 

Do not worry about how long you are taking to pack. The speed will come later; the most important thing is to know how to pack different canopies and keep your customers safe and happy. Look after your body, stretch regularly. Keep those fingers iced often, this will help with swollen finger joints. 😉 

Rezzy and German National team Airbus

How much does the standard of packing vary around the world? 

There are good packers around for sure, usually at bigger busier drop zones. Unfortunately, there are packers who don’t have that much knowledge. The standard of packing will only increase if you are able to see different gear often and you get to practice. When you are not able to see the product because no-one at your DZ has it, reading about it will keep informed and you will not be fully oblivious. All the information is available freely online. I see new jumpers who become seasonal packers and are not fully trained. I would love to see continued training given by the head packer or rigger at their local drop zones, covering the combinations of harness and the different canopies, what is a bad opening, hard openings, and how to eliminate them – before the season starts and they get blamed for all bad openings and cutaways. 

Has anyone blamed you for a cutaway/hard opening when you know it’s self-inflicted? 

No, no one has blamed me. Hard openings and cutaways happen, it’s a parachute. Sometimes things go wrong without your input. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care. I feel horrible when cutaways or hard openings happen.

Gear maintenance is important, don’t leave it till the last minute.  When the jumpers ignore gear maintenance, those cutaways will be inevitable. I always tell jumpers when I see their gear needs attention, like a reline, new pilot chute or a kill-line replacement.  I tell them that their openings will not be as good as they could be if they don’t show the required attention to their gear.  If the toggle keepers are loose, I tell them to be ready for a malfunction that could happen during the opening. The brake toggle can get loose from the keeper during deployment, this will cause line twists and spinning on the parachute. 

I once refused to pack a main canopy as it was not airworthy. When the owner jumped the canopy on a different dropzone, he didn’t have a great time dealing with a cutaway, due to the blown-away centre cell. 

I would love everyone to spend more time learning about their equipment, as much as they spend time to improve their flying skills. I have met a lot of experienced jumpers who did not know how to check their gear for safety, or even how to use the 3-ring system to attach new risers or who were going through the motions of gear check but not fully knowing what they are looking at. 

What do you do if you see someone on a canopy beyond their skill level?

I am not an instructor, but sometime in the hangar, a discussion can take place about the size of a canopy and from there, questions will arise, even sometimes, what do I think about it? 

I once met a guy who had 100 jumps and bought gear from another country. The good thing is, this guy asked me what I was thinking about the gear and did I think it was okay for him to jump it.  I knew it was not the right size canopy for him. I grabbed an instructor and also informed the CCI (safety officer) what was going on.  I found out the seller said “Sure he could jump with the canopy soon enough, so why not buy it now.”  The poor guy was robbed by some clever guy who wanted to make quick money from a person who knew nothing about gear. 

If you want to buy new or second-hand gear, it is always good to discuss your skill level with an instructor.  Find out what size of canopy would be suitable for you, and ask your rigger to find out the size of a container which will fit the canopy and the right reserve size to go with it. Before buying anything, make sure your rigger fully inspects the gear and make sure it fits you perfectly. 

Rezzy loves her job!
Image by Rob Lloyd

How could we appreciate our packers more?

Packing is very physical and tiring, we are humans and we can make mistakes too. When using a packer please be nice, they may be a new packer, they may be tired and thirsty but not have time to get a drink. I’d like to remind all skydivers to remember to ‘treat others as you would want to be treated.’ I’d like packers to treat customers as they would love to be treated as well. 

On the Packing Mat you feel the vibe from the inside, what is that view like?

Ahh.. the Packing Mat! You can see and feel everything if you are in tune.  The energy, stress, excitement, failure, guilt, anger, happiness, achievement, and the love of the sport! 

What would you think if someone walks onto the packing mat, and throws down their rig and helmet, their eyes are fuming and they still answer you saying they are ok? They are pissed off! Right? Something happened! 

What about someone walking into the hangar, talking loud, laughing aloud, giving high-fives, shouting “Hell  yeah!” These are very easy to notice. But more experienced jumpers will not show this kind of behaviour. They will be more subtle. 

I use my Life Coaching techniques to observe jumpers around me and read what they are not saying, understand the state of mind they are in. I try to encourage them and listen to them if they are in need to open up. We are all different and our goals are all different too. 

I also learned a lot from the world-level organizers. When they organize the groups they boost the participants’ energy levels, move to the next chapter, and forget about what happened on the last jump.  I learned a lot from observing how important this is in the competitive world of sports. I use this positive energy and cycle the energy back to the jumpers at these intense competitions and stressful big-way events. I am also always there to listen if anyone needs an agony aunt too 🙂

Gear Wisdom Series

Rezzy by Dave Head

Rezzy has written a series of easy-to-follow articles about maintaining our lifesaving equipment. Check them out and save yourself a malfunction! 😎

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Working as a jump pilot

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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.
Lesley is delighted to be sponsored by Performance Designs, Sun Path, Cypres, Cookie, Symbiosis suits and Larsen & Brusgaard

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