The Road to NOWHERE

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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

Composite image – Pete Allum under his Valkyrie and Lesley Gale/RV on a Texas road

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. 

We pay the price 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.

You don’t learn to fly with this much control by rushing to a new canopy before you are a Total Master of your current wing – Photo: Pablo Hernandez of the PD Factory Team, landing on the Nyavn River, in Copenhagen, Swoop Freestyle FAI World Championships 2020

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. 

‘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

It’s important to be completely confident if doing a jump over water, not under a wing you’re on the edge of control – Image by Renald Louchart, landing perfectly on Diani beach, Kenya

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.  

Like all things worthwhile, good canopy piloting skills take work and dedication  

Maybe you’d like to take up competitive canopy piloting – Photo: Author Julian Barthel, smashing it at a CP Accuracy comp, by Emma Reynolds

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.” 

What we need to move away from is the idea that we have to downsize for  downsizing’s sake

Maybe you just enjoy freefall and are not really interested in downsizing, ignore peer pressure to downsize for downsizing’s sake – Image: Augusto Bartelle

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.  
Maybe you want open high in beautiful locations and enjoy a long canopy flight – Photo: Bruno Brokken and Derek Thomas on a sunset high pull over 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.  

“It takes 500 jumps to get to know a canopy,  and another 500 jumps to master its performance envelope” 

Maybe it might be more fun to try a new skill like flocking, than buy a new canopy and start learning your wing all over again – Image: 41-way flock at Skydive Deland, by Paul Dorwood

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: 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. Risk Assessment – Find out where you stand with your skills and currency in the Canopy Risk Quotient4
  4. 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. 
  5. 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. 
Brianne Thompson opening her Pd Sabre Nik Daniel
Brianne Thompson loving jumping her PD Sabre – Photo by Nik Daniel


  1. Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure  and function. Nature reviews neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422. 
  2. Kivimäki, M., & Lusa, S. (1994). Stress and cognitive performance of fire fighters during  smoke-diving. Stress Medicine, 10(1), 63-68. 
  3. USPA Incident Reports
  4. USPA Canopy Risk Quotient

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Meet: Julian Barthel

Julian is a full time Tunnel Coach, Freefly Coach, Load Organizer, USPA Coach Examiner and Founder of FlyinMynd.
He worked in the sport as AFF-I, TD-I and Camera Flyer for 8 years before going freelance.
Julian loves Canopy Piloting and XRW.
He was part of the current National German Head down Record (38) and the European Head down Sequential Record (3-point 24-way) as well as the current European Head Up Record (43).
Likes: Canopy Flocking, Freefly, XRW, Canopy Piloting, Dynamic Flying.
Julian is sponsored by PD, UPT, Tonfly, Alti-2 and Cypres.

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