Choosing a canopy

This article is reprinted from USPA's Parachutist (June 1998 edition). The article was written by Kevin Gibson.

Although most parachutes are made in America there are Australian models available and Australian manufacturers and dealers will be happy to help you decide on what will suit you. This article will help with some background information and general advice. As it says in the article, please be advised by your instructors, they have the clearest awareness of your abilities.

America: the land of choice. Canopy shopping, however, can be like going to a restaurant with too many items on the menu. In one skydiving equipment catalogue alone, a first time buyer may face more than 150 models and sizes of canopy from perhaps a dozen manufacturers. It's a little intimidating until you know a few basics.

First, there's comfort in knowing that test jumpers test parachutes. A design generally has some track record and reputation before it makes it into a catalogue. In general, canopies sold through the usual channels provide a similar degree of dependability from the skydiver's point of view. On the few occasions where a canopy came to the market with a problem, the word travelled fast.

Whether the fault of the designer, the distributor or the jumper, canopies with quirky behaviour get everyone's attention quickly. But a canopy that requires special effort from the jumper during packing, opening, flying or landing isn't necessarily a bad canopy. It just may not be right for you. Not all canopies are good for all jumpers.

Spending $500 (used) to nearly $2,000 (new) on a canopy makes choosing one a big decision. Jumpers looking for their third or fourth canopies generally know what to get. Novices and intermediate-level jumpers need good, reliable information. It's out there, but so is a lot of the other kind.

Contents

How We Got Here

Nothing seems to change faster than canopy design. The question, "How long does a canopy last?" can almost be answered by, "Until it is obsolete." A recent genesis of ram-airs illustrates this point and provides background for those shopping for new or used canopies. In 1985, jumpers could choose among the major brands for either five-, seven or nine-cell canopies, made from "F-111," skydiver slang for a brand name of a nylon ripstop fabric that resists air permeation.

Most manufacturers used braided polyester lines called Dacron after DuPont's trade name. In 1986, Performance Designs, then in Miami, introduced "Microline", a marketing term for Allied Signals Spectra braid. Smaller than Dacron but with the same strength, it greatly reduced the pack volume and cut air resistance in flight on the company's line of PD nine-cells.

Then in 1988, PD introduced the Excalibur, a seven-cell with an additional 14 diagonal and seven vertical ribs to flatten and stabilize the wing surfaces. It packed fat and opened hard. Openings got better as the F-111 broke in, but then performance deteriorated. An Excalibur cost 20-30 percent more than contemporary canopies. Not surprisingly, nobody copied it. Initially brisk sales fizzled out.

At the same time, Parachutes de France unveiled the first "elliptical" (tapered wing) canopy, the Bluetrac. Constructed of the first zero-permeability fabric, it promised like-new performance almost indefinitely.

Then in 1989, PD introduced its own crisper, more slippery version of zero-P fabric on its new Sabre line of nine-cells. The market responded hungrily. Within a year, other manufacturers found sources for zero-P fabric and redesigned their products to accommodate its different characteristics. Landing areas became swooping galleries, and packing areas became wrestling rings as skydivers learned to jump and pack the new, "high-performance" zero-P canopies.

The new technology also had some bugs. Occasionally, the combination of zero-P, no-stretch microline and traditional loose line stows caused very hard openings. More noticeably, injuries and deaths from high-performance landings on highly loaded zero-P canopies caused jumpers to associate the new materials and designs with increased risk.

To address the packing problem (any air captured inside can escape only through the stitch holes), Para-Flite, Inc., of Pennsauken, New Jersey, redesigned its F-111 Evolution with a zero-P top skin only. The company followed with its seven cell Robo-Z in 1992.

Then came a wave of all-zero-P ellipticals: PD introduced its tapered Stiletto in 1993, with other canopy manufacturers close behind – notably Air Time Designs, a Zephyrhills, Florida, jumpsuit manufacturer with its Jonathan.

Meanwhile the same year, Aerodyne Research of Tampa introduced a versatile seven-cell design built from zero-P fabric. The Triathlon had a conventional, rectangular wing and drew great reviews.

Air Time's redesign, the Jedei, included the innovation of air locks in the leading edge to keep the canopy rigid. Soon afterward, Air Time sold its canopy-related assets to PD and quit the canopy business.

PD licensed its Excalibur cross-braced design to New Zealand Aerosports to use on a tapered-wing canopy called the Icarus Extreme FX. Ultra-experienced skydivers could now comfortably jump canopies smaller than 100 square feet. Precision Aerodynamics, of Dunlap, Tennessee, imported the canopies for sale in the US (under agreement with PD), beginning in 1998.

Broad Range of Choice

Within ten years, canopies evolved from F-111 fabric, Dacron lines and rectangular shape to zero-P fabric, Spectra lines and tapered shape. They can also have leading-edge airlocks, multiple-rib design or some other unique construction. New designs arrive faster than old ones can be discontinued, leaving a lot of choices. And innovation continues.

PD steers its first-time buyers toward its 1997 zero-P top skin model, the Silhouette, which also has a slight taper to improve turn performance over a rectangular PD Sabre of the same size.

PD and Precision both offer tapered seven-cells to compete with the rectangular Triathlon, for more experienced jumpers. All three may appeal to the most experienced jumpers looking for reduced pack volume and landing performance, but who are simply shy about the skittishness of a high-aspect ratio, tapered, nine-cell wing.

Exhibition and fun jumpers interested in casual accuracy and occasional canopy formations like these smaller seven cells, according to both manufacturers. Flight Concepts International of Atlanta has one on the drawing board.

What About Me?

To start hacking through the jungle of canopy offerings, first classify your own needs. If you call the manufacturers or major equipment dealers, expect a brief interview to determine what kind of jumper you are and want to be. You can do it yourself by truthfully answering the following questions: How many jumps do you have?

Red Payne, president of Flight Concepts, said that student jumps don't count in his mind, because student canopies provide only one perspective on canopy flying. Ian Bellis, marketing director for Performance Designs, said even programs that provide smaller canopies for students to step down to don't necessarily provide the broad experience needed to make a good choice: "Twenty-five jumps in a learning mode by no means gives them the skill set to fly [smaller zero-P canopies] in less-than-ideal conditions."

How often do you jump?

Payne added that, in his mind, someone with 200 jumps over four years is the same as someone with 50 jumps.

What have you been jumping?

Some jumpers experience zero-P canopies on the first jump, for example at Skydive Chicago. Smaller DZs that have less to invest in canopies put most of their students on the big, F-111 canopies.

Once a novice, a jumper can borrow different models and sizes of canopies from friends. Smart jumpers will lend their gear to novices in only ideal conditions.

Intermediate jumpers with their own equipment who plan to upgrade often have more opportunities. They can borrow a wider array of gear or try canopies at events where manufacturers bring samples.

Kate Cooper, co-owner of Square One Parachute Sales and Service in Perris, California, says she runs across two types of callers looking for their first canopies. The first is fresh from a student training program and still renting equipment. The second is the jumper with 100 jumps or more who already knows what to get – or at least thinks so.

A jumper, impressed by one or two jumps on a small, zero-P elliptical presents her biggest challenge, she said. "If they appear to have their minds made up, I try to see if they're nudgeable. Maybe I'll mention that the canopy they want is prone to violent malfunctions in inexperienced hands and ask if they've ever had to cut away." Cooper finds that about 80 percent of the jumpers who choose a good canopy for the wrong reasons are "nudgeable."

How much do you weigh?

"The canopy is the wing, and the jumper's weight is the engine that drives it," says Flight Concepts' Payne, who asks the jumper's weight first. When considering your weight for buying a canopy, you need to consider your exit weight.

Exit weight is you, plus your gear (including the main canopy itself), plus all accessories, including your weight vest. Manufacturers base their square footage recommendations on exit weight.

How old are you?

"We start jumpers on Stilettos at 20 jumps. We've had a 100 percent success rate," says Roger Nelson, owner of Skydive Chicago. "We consider age, agility, previous performance, then weight." Nelson says the drop zone has no injuries attributed to zero-P canopies, a claim that indicates his enthusiasm for the program.

Older people don't heal as quickly, and people's reactions slow over time. Jumpers would be wise to admit that.

Where do you jump?

Precision's Galloway says that often, he or someone in his company knows the buyer's drop zone. Geography – field elevation, terrain, wind strength and consistency and other associated attributes – also helps narrow down the options after determining the jumper's experience. Galloway remarked that any single answer provides only a "point in space" and that number of jumps, frequency of jumping or weight paint only part of the overall picture. "I can tell a lot by what they say and what they fail to say," says Galloway.

Norman Girdwood, in sales and marketing for Aerodyne Research, said that his company enters the responses into a database to get a profile. He says he understands the customer's desire to get the most performance he or she can safely handle. "I help them with the decision, unless they're being ridiculous. You try to be conservative without being motherly."

First-time canopy buyers are usually best guided by their instructors, who know their abilities and aptitudes best.

Second Opinion The manufacturer has to be concerned with liability, so one might suspect a recommendation on the docile side. The shopper often seeks a second source of information. But whom?

Says Cooper (who represents no single manufacturer), "I ask what their instructor has recommended. If a lighter jumper says he's been told to get a 210 [square-foot canopy], I want to know why. It might be that he's never been able to stand up." Manufacturer Galloway agrees that first-time canopy buyers are usually best guided by their instructors, who know their abilities and aptitudes best.

Most of the manufacturers said they provide their dealers with a lot of information to advise customers. PD's Bellis said that the dealer still must take the time to read, understand and apply the knowledge.

"Not a good source is a highly-experienced jumper," says Bellis. They have lost the perspective on being novices, he says, and their high-performance canopies no longer seem so fast and unforgiving to them as they once did. Bellis has heard sponsored team competitors recommend Stiletto 120s to "C" license level skydivers. Advice from a top competitor would be hard to ignore. After all, that's why they're sponsored.

Where to Buy

Many DZs have their own equipment sales facilities or franchises. Buying at your home DZ helps keep the profits local. DZ dealers usually sell one or two brands that provide the most general customer satisfaction.

The term "car trunk dealer" refers to smaller independent companies or individuals who sell regionally or even at one DZ. Some perform a good service by providing a face with the information and following up with service and training. Others lack the business resources and experience. They come and go, but some are future big companies in their infancies.

Bigger companies, the ones who advertise nationally each month, stock a lot of gear and offer consistent discounts. Buying a stock canopy may require some minor compromise in color or options, but all canopies come with an airfoil, lines, a slider and links. Specialty features aside, canopy options are generally limited to lines and slider grommets – brass or the more durable (and expensive) stainless steel.

Some of the big distribution houses sell nearly every type of equipment, while others specialize in a few favourite brands. Look for one with active jumpers on staff who jump the products and can speak first-hand. Of course, these companies may have an agenda where one brand provides better profit or is overstocked or where a better choice is under stocked or sold out for now.

Most manufacturers sell direct, but more and more, they will advise a potential customer on the canopy and then refer the sale to a local dealer. Square One's Cooper says to watch for deep discounters requiring large deposits. They may lack the business experience to stay afloat at such a low margin, and the buyer could lose the deposit when the seller disappears.

Novices should travel the main roads and go with the retailer who can provide the best customer support. That includes assembly, packing instruction, briefings for new procedures and perhaps even instruction on how to fly the canopy.

Accuracy, canopy formation and exhibition specialists can often rely on their coaches or team captains for advice on specialized equipment and where to get it.

For recreational, non-specialized jumpers, the big questions are number of cells, size, shape, canopy fabric and lines.

What to Get

For recreational, non-specialized jumpers, the big questions are number of cells, size, shape, canopy fabric and lines.

First, determine your desired wing loading.

Think about your true skill level, remembering that this is the canopy that will teach you how to fly correctly, not the one you will wind up with 500 jumps from now.

Once you've qualified yourself as a serious canopy-handling student, look at the manufacturer's recommended and maximum exit weights for their various canopies. The catalogue distributed by the AeroStore Corp., in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, contains size and weight charts for more currently-sold canopies than any other, but is still not completely comprehensive. Para-Gear Equipment Co. in Skokie, Illinois, updates its catalogue regularly. Square One also offers an excellent catalogue. There are others.

Here's the tricky part where you need to show discipline and restraint: Anything beyond the middle of the manufacturer's recommended range is more of a risk than you might take if you were fully informed.

People will say, "Don't get a canopy that big, or you will be tired of it in a few months."

It's true: If you plan to perform only straight-in landings on calm days at your home DZ with the big field, you'll soon be bored.

However, if you follow a canopy handling skills development program, in a few months, you will just be discovering the canopy's full range of performance. The canopies out today, even loaded within the recommended weight range – can still scare you if you don't know what you're doing.

Overloaded, they're lethal in the wrong hands, as the sport has seen.

Rectangular or tapered?

Yes, it's true that many of the bad accidents occur on canopies with tapered wings (ellipticals). But the same might be said for canopies with microline or neon colours.

Tapering a wing changes its performance characteristics, compared with its rectangular counterpart of the same number of cells and square footage. Whether the change is good or bad depends on the intent. Many tandem canopies have tapered wings. One nine-cell and one seven-cell canopy currently marketed to first-time buyers both have a tapered shape.

PD's Bellis explains that the taper allows the canopy to react better to control input in turns without compromising landing safety. Comparing the company's nine-cell Silhouettes to one of its nine-cell Sabres of the same size, the Silhouette will respond to any toggle input more quickly, he says. Precision hopes its new tapered seven-cell Icarus Omega series will even interest student training program buyers.

Some jumpers will prefer the innate stability of a rectangular wing in turbulence. Others may like their firmer, quicker openings. Beezy Shaw, Precision's marketing director, says that softening the openings on a zero-P rectangular nine-cell is something nobody's figured out yet. Those who have gotten used to them may find the snively openings typical of a tapered wing unnerving.

What kind of material?

Zero-permeability fabric commands the market. Some still prefer the docile, low-permeability "F-111" type of fabric for student use. Several designs use it on the bottom skin and ribs to make packing easier. Canopies made from zero-P cost more initially, but retain their value. Consider the overall amount you expect to lose if buying a new canopy and selling it later. The actual dollar loss may be about the same with F-111 as with zero-P, although the money tied up in your gear will be more with zero-P. It's also getting harder and harder to sell a used F-111 canopy.

The frustration of packing a new zero-P canopy lasts almost 100 jumps. If you're not ready to deal with that, consider the hybrids: zero-P on top and F-111 on the bottom. However, the few canopies made this way differ greatly from one another. So decide what type of canopy you want first and then see if it's available in a hybrid construction.

What kind of lines?

Most manufacturers offer a choice of Dacron or microline. Microline usually comes optional for an extra charge. Experienced jumpers prefer microlines because they pack smaller and offer less air resistance. For novices, microlines make little sense.

Braided Dacron, the DuPont trade name for polyester, offers good strength for its size and resists abrasion very well. It stretches, which reduces opening shock. The line lengths remain consistent over the life of the canopy.

Microline has excellent strength for its size. However, the connector links must be covered to protect the lines from the slider grommets, and you must keep the lines away from the hook portion of any Velcro. Microlines doesn't stretch, which contributes to a harder opening shock. After 300-500 jumps, some of the lines will shrink more than others and may need replacing. The best stow bands are the small rubber bands, which break more often than the standard ones suitable for larger lines.

Kevlar lines arc seen less often, but show up on used canopies occasionally. They are tan or yellow in color and resemble twine. They are very strong for their size, resist burns – but not abrasion – and they don't stretch or shrink.

Not So Hard

That's about it. First, you decide what kind of jumper you arc. 'Then you decide on the relative amount of risk you want to take. Next, you look at the finer points of the different overall designs. Finally, you decide on the construction materials available for your canopy choice.

With so many good canopies out there, you need only a rudimentary understanding of what different canopies do and knowledge of the manufacturer's recommendations on wing loading. Then you begin training yourself for that canopy until you know its every characteristic. After that, the answer to which canopy is best comes easy: "The one on my back."

The Australian Parachute Federation promotes education for canopy handling through the use of training exercises and by making manuals on canopy handling available to all members.

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