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
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
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.
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 can almost be answered by, "Until it is obsolete."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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Accuracy, canopy formation and exhibition specialists can often rely on their
coaches or team captains for advice on specialized equipment and where to get
For recreational, non-specialized jumpers, the big questions are number
of cells, size, shape, canopy fabric and
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
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
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
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.