Julian Barthel argues that, if you’re always pushing to get the next canopy, you’re not getting the most from your current model.
You’re on a ROAD to NOWHERE
There are few things that are as devastating as watching someone hurt themselves under canopy
It is not the actual impact that is the worst part, even though it is horrible to watch and I hope you never have to witness it. It is also not the moment of getting to the crash site and seeing the person hurt. The worst part is the seconds leading up to the accident, when that terrible cocktail of helplessness, horror and nausea hits you square in the stomach as you witness the incident unfold in slow-motion and you know exactly what is about to happen…
I wouldn’t wish this experience upon my worst enemies. So here I am to call attention to the tragic flaw which we as a community pay the price for all so often with a blood sacrifice to the canopy gods.
What I mean by that is the hurried, aimless and uninformed decision to advance to a smaller parachute without having put the work in to control our current wing.
The downsizing decision
Motivations range from wanting to skip a size to fit the main in the new smaller container, being bored with the current wing or simply wanting to go faster without learning the correct techniques, or even worse impress others. All of this of course without the right guidance or preparation.
When we fly a canopy that is too advanced for our skill level and are in over our head, we expose ourselves to acute stress, which has been shown to have a detrimental effect on our attention1 as well as our cognitive performance2 (thinking, reasoning and remembering).
So, not only do we run out of altitude faster on smaller, more aggressive wings, but we also stack the odds against us even further by limiting our attention and decision making if we are not equipped with the correct knowledge and techniques.
Effectively, we are becoming that Guy everyone knows is just an accident waiting to happen. We are stirring up the recipe for someone to feel that terrible sensation in the groove of their stomach.
If our decision to downsize is fueled by the want to go faster, chances are we aren’t even close to getting the full performance envelope out of our parachute. ‘Progressing’ to a smaller wing without learning the correct technique is just going to make us another bad canopy pilot on too small a parachute. Eventually we will run into the limitations of bad technique and will have to invest in coaching to unlearn bad muscle memory.
Some NACs choose to take the downsizing decision out of your hands
Unfortunately, there has been enough concern regarding unsafe canopy piloting that some national federations like the French and the English have put new regulations into effect which highly restrict downsizing by controlling permitted wing loading for jump experience.
Let me restate that so it sinks in:
Enough people have shown bad decision making with canopy choices that federations deem it necessary to regulate everyone’s ability to choose what wing they can fly.
That is not a good place to be.
Don’t get me wrong, a smaller canopy or higher wing loading comes with benefits such as better wind penetration and increased responsiveness. I love flying small, highly loaded parachutes because it is challenging and lots of fun, so I understand the appeal. But like all things worthwhile, good canopy piloting skills take work and dedication.
Improving your canopy piloting skills
Skydivers, including myself, throw vast amounts of money, time and energy at learning to fly their body in the sky and in the tunnel, but in a lot of cases, when it comes to learning to pilot and land our wing safely we have reservations.
If you want it or not, piloting our parachute is a necessity on every jump and the ugly truth is that human error under perfectly functional wings is still the leading cause for injury and fatalities to date in our sport. All you have to do is browse the USPA Incident Reports3, and it becomes blatantly obvious.
The good news is that more people are seeing the value in canopy piloting education. What I enjoy the most about teaching canopy courses is to witness how people fall in love with flying their wing and discover that there is a whole other discipline to be enjoyed after the free fall is over.
The most obvious reason to learn at least the basics in canopy piloting is to gain confidence and trust in your ability to fly and land your parachute safely in any condition, making the airspace safer for yourself and others.
For some people that is enough, and that is absolutely ok.
What we need to move away from is the idea that we have to downsize for downsizing’s sake. There is an inherent attitude that because you are experienced, you should jump a small canopy, and skydivers that do not fit in to that idea get a weird look as if there’s something wrong. If you find a wing that you feel comfortable landing in all conditions and you are happy with its openings and performance envelope, stay on it. You would be surprised how much time it takes to truly dominate a wing. I don’t remember where I heard it, but I agree with the statement that “It takes 500 jumps to get to know a canopy, and another 500 jumps to master its performance envelope.”
And if you want more, there is so much more to discover:
- Maybe you are an instructor and want to become a more capable canopy pilot to be a better role model for your students.
- You might be intrigued by the challenge of learning to pilot your wing as an extension of yourself and develop an intuitive connection with it.
- You might want to learn swoop freestyle or maybe you want to be a competitive canopy pilot and dominate the podium. You don’t have to start on a small canopy, start by improving your skills on your current wing.
- Maybe you want to discover canopy flocking and fly your parachute with a group of friends above amazing locations, such as the mountains in Norway or the Maldives.
The beautiful thing is that unless you want to go into competitive swooping or do XRW, you do not have to have a high wing loading or a small parachute to have fun or do any of the above listed things. I personally enjoy jumping 150sqft+ wings and always learn something when I do.
All of these are great motivators and attainable with the correct guidance, knowledge and training. If one of them resonates with you and inspires you to become a better canopy pilot, I am here to tell you that starting the journey is worth it.
The proper canopy progression steps
So, how do we gain direction, skills and make better choices in our canopy progression?
The most important question you can ask yourself is:
“What do I want to achieve in my canopy progression and why?”
When you have those answers clear, the next steps are the following:
- Proper guidance is imperative. Find an experienced canopy pilot to guide you and have an honest conversation about your short- and long-term goals and ambitions.
- Take a Flight-1 course to equip yourself with the correct techniques and instill good habits. On top of that, we are coming out of winter and lockdown and are all un-current. We all need to regain confidence and refresh our skills and procedures.
- Risk Assessment – Find out where you stand with your skills and currency in the Canopy Risk Quotient4.
- Research – If you are someone like me that is intrigued by the technical details and psychology, I highly recommend reading “The Parachute and its Pilot” by Brian Germain. It gives great insight into canopy design, basic understanding of technique and the psychology affecting us as canopy pilots.
- Ask qualified advice – If you are thinking of downsizing, make sure you speak to an experienced canopy pilot or a canopy coach about your current skills. Discuss what size and model you are currently jumping and what you plan to jump next and why. If you’re unsure which wing to get, demo as many canopies as you can before deciding. The guys and girls over at Performance Designs Demo Program are super helpful and friendly.
- Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature reviews neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.
- Kivimäki, M., & Lusa, S. (1994). Stress and cognitive performance of fire fighters during smoke-diving. Stress Medicine, 10(1), 63-68.
- USPA Incident Reports
- USPA Canopy Risk Quotient
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Other Articles Written by Julian Barthel
Land perfectly in all conditions… Did you know that the speed at which you fly over the ground has very little to do with how much potential energy for the flare is in your parachute?
- What is the Canopy Hard Deck?
- What is the Decide and Act Altitude?
- Why a clearly defined Decide and Act Altitude is a good idea
- Factors you need to consider when choosing your Altitudes
- The Road to NOWHERE - 18th March 2021
- Flare technique and airspeed - 11th December 2020
- What is your Decide and Act Altitude? - 27th April 2020
- Mutant Review - 6th December 2019
- Malfunction Flowchart - 18th December 2018
- The Canopy Collision Cone - 2nd August 2017