Unnecessary Risk Factor
So there you are, standing on the
DZ, shooting the breeze with your bud,
when suddenly you hear that rush of
wind through lines, that distinctive
sound. The sound that is ONLY made
by a high-speed canopy. Your mouth
stops moving, and you and the DZ lookup,
as one, just in time to see the tail
end of the pilots ‘hook’.
It’s ‘Bullet Johnson’ and
he is Ballistic! Toes in the grass,
vapour trails from his fingertips he’s
so fast. 75 meters later, Bullet applies
some brake; his canopy raises 4 feet
and stops. He drops the toggles and
steps down. Looks at you, smiles, picks
up his canopy and walks away into the
hanger. The Babes swoon, one of them
stands up, and goes after him. Close
to you someone walks by with a “No
Fear” shirt. On the back it says:
- Pain is Temporary
- Glory is Forever!
The mind starts to go,
“Coorr, Wicked Swoop……I
know he has a Icarus or Xaos, it’s
a 98…… so small, must be
Hmmm. My Hornet 170 is so boring now,
hey man, I’ve GOT 250 jumps! It’s
time for a new one! Yeah, new gear, small
main, small reserve, I should be able
to get it in one of those new “Tiny
Icons”. Then I’ll be able
to swoop like that….. Glory & Babes
forever! Where’s that credit
Right, lets get back to reality,
because that’s where we ARE
ladies and gents, REALITY! The real
We have just seen “Bullet” swoop.
Way COOL. Wow. OK so you have guessed “Bullet” is
fictitious (based on a real person,
name changed to protect The King).
Who is Bullet? He is one of the jumpers
on your DZ. He has been in the sport,
at least as long as you have. He probably
works in it for his living. He has
lots of jumps; he must have, because
he is jumping ALL the time. When you
watch him you probably see the same “Hook” every
time, and the landings are always immense.
Bullet IS the dude, the one
you would like to be. Bullet
has honed his skills, on many different
canopies, over many landings, on many
different DZ’s. Skills
he has developed on canopies from Coe-D
and Predator, through Pin Tail, Heat
Wave, and Stiletto to Icarus. He made
some bad mistakes in the first one
or two thousand swoops. Mistakes that
we ALL make, HAVE made or WILL make.
When he made them, it was on canopies
that are now scoffed at, no cool dude
would be seen under one today, they
just don’t have enough performance.
But they ‘Were’ the cool
wing at the time; anyway they were
enough to keep him from jumping for
2 – 3 days after a mistake. Now
he rarely makes an error, only scaring
himself maybe once every 250 – 500
swoops. BUT he still makes them! He
only gets scared and not hurt, because
he detects the error immediately and
instinctively takes the necessary action
to sort it out. What allows him to
detect this error so quickly? Is it
luck? No, it’s experience!
One thousand swoops plus experience.
Not 1000 jumps, 1000+ swoops!
So how has Bullet got this knowledge
and not ended up in a wheelchair? Because
he was cool, and learnt his skills
slowly and progressively. He knew the
risks. The consequences of a mistake
could range from time off jumping,
life in a wheelchair…..or worse.
They say you can’t run before
you walk, and Bullet has crawled. He
knows that the swoop is not everything.
He knows that if he has to walk a little
further, coz he can’t get back,
then that’s OK. He knows he can’t
swoop safely in a congested airspace,
so doesn’t. He lands safely somewhere
else and walks back. He knows not to
swoop hard on the first jump of the
day or over a new DZ, or if he is feeling
rough (hung over), he’s seen
too many get carried away like this.
When he is open, and has stashed his
slider, loosened his chest strap and
sorted all his stuff out, he is planning
his landing, checking out the
airspace. From opening onwards,
he is setting up for his swoop. Aiming
to place himself, over the chosen landing
place, at the correct height and facing
in the correct direction to commence
his 180, 270 or whatever degree descent
to the ground. He is checking out ALL
the canopies, flying on brakes to get
into ‘His’ slot in the
pattern. The lower he gets, the more
focused he becomes. When he starts
the swoop, you can be sure he knows
were ALL the canopies in the air are,
their predicted flight path and landing
place. He has concluded that they will
not be put in jeopardy during his swoop.
If someone flies into his path, thus
destroying his setup, then he will
land normally, rather than take an
unplanned, tight swoop.
Finally he swoops because HE gets
a rush from it. The rush is having
his toes in the grass, canopy travelling
horizontally, for the longest time.
The fact that it looks good is a bonus. He
swoops for Bullet, not the babes.
Let’s look at what it takes
to get EXPERIENCE. Someone with a 100
jumps has maybe spent 8 hrs under canopy.
This is not enough time for someone
to get a drivers license let alone
a pilot’s license. You need a
minimum of 50 hrs to get a pilots license,
this equates to 620 jumps. This gives
you an idea of how long it can take
to get experience under canopy. Experience
is also attained not only when all
goes well, but when it goes wrong.
This is when we learn the most valuable
lessons and are able to get experience
out of a situation that can scare the
hell out of us.
The general standard of canopy flying
is excellent and the stress under canopy
generally not high. But step outside
of our rules and regulations and the
game changes radically. Some of the
canopy flying seen really opens your
eyes. At boogies, pilots can do anything,
land with the wind, across it, down
wind. In an apposing way to their mate,
but all at the same time and of course
as near to the packing area as possible.
It can be and often is a ZOO on finals,
very busy. A Couple of years ago at
a boogie overseas 1 jumper died, 1
got resuscitated and 2 more ended up
in hospital, all because they made
stupid decisions, and were oblivious
to the consequences of their actions,
otherwise they would not have been
flying the way they did!
Dude on a large canopy, flies over
landing area at 200ft going down wind,
turns 45degrees onto short finals forcing
2 jumpers to go onto deep brakes to
let him in. The guy (I won’t
call him a dude any more, because he
obviously wasn’t) then hooks
with the left toggle the rest of the
way. He hit hard at 45 degrees to the
ground at the same time his canopy
did. Hospital. The airspace was congested,
40 on a pass and then everyone trying
to land in the same place at the same
A video guy with about 250 jumps,
on a Stiletto 120, opened on a deep
spot. Ran down wind all the way back.
Made a 180 degree toggle turn, at 60
ft and hit horizontal. He got badly
smashed up, hospital (maybe he didn't
want to walk…)
Two canopies were flying at about
250 ft into wind. They then collided,
one into the back of the other. The ‘canopy
then flat spun’ for three and
a half revolutions and stopped facing
down wind with no loss of altitude!
The pilot then spun with the energy
that was in him from the spin. The
canopy then spiralled into a field
over the runway.
A guy pulled in the basement, at about
1000 ft (this had been happening all
boogie, for no reason) and has a toggle
come undone on opening, he did not
deal with this and the canopy wound
up. The choice, cutaway or die! He
chopped at less than 700 ft and the
reserve deployed with twisted lines.
He kicked hard to get out of them (bet
he wished he was at 2000 ft), the reserve
then wound up and he impacted hard
on the DZ. Jumping there was definitely
in the Unnecessary risk category. Some
jumpers even left.
So what went on there? Well it was
a relatively large DZ, but the ‘cool’ place
to land was about a rugby field size.
The aircraft was a herc, with 80 on
board, 40 out on a pass. With 20+ canopies
on finals at the same time, it became
very tight and congested. This congestion
makes for a very high workload for
the canopy pilots. Lots to watch out
for, many instant decisions to be made.
Really you need eyes in the back of
Another factor was inexperience
of ‘FAST CANOPIES’ in
crowded airspace. It was obvious
that these people had no idea of
what would happen to them if they
had a collision on final approach,
or any other time for that matter.
What happened here is frightening.
So you want to get a new faster canopy.
OK that’s cool but YOU must
objectively look at all the options
on the way to making your decision.
There are 3 main types of canopies
and I group these into:-
ASPIRATED” (NA – non ZP
CHARGED” (TC-ZP, rectangular,
semi Elliptical to 1st ellipticals)
CHARGED” (SC-ZP, elliptical)
They all do the same job of halting
the free fall, but are radically different
These are the canopies that we all
started skydiving on. Slow flying (maybe
25 km/h), slow turning, with slow reactions
to the pilot’s commands. Jumpers
with 4000+ skydives, probably used
one of these NA canopies as a main
for 400 odd jumps. The alternate was
a round. Even with these docile canopies,
many people were badly hurt or even
killed attempting ‘Low Hook Turns’.
- PRO’s ---- Docile, slow,
very forgiving, easy to handle
- CONS ---- None! The alternate was
- Minimum “Risk Factor”
These started to appear around the
late 80’s, early 90’s and
they were made of ‘New’ Fabric
that did not let air through. They
were radical parachutes. They were
fast through the air, turned quick
and had a good flare. Because the material
was more efficient, the airfoil was
more rigid, which enabled thinner,
quicker sections to be used. Parachutes
de France made the move to an ‘Elliptical’ shape.
Performance Designs released the Sabre.
Pisa brought out the Conquest and elliptical
Pin Tail. Based on proven designs in
ZP fabric. Now we were starting to
get somewhere. Speeds rose to 50+ km/h.
Turns became fast, but openings started
to be harder go ‘Off Heading.
We now started to experience an increase
in canopy collisions on opening. Some
pilots were now very proficient at
swooping the canopies on the front
risers, a new technique, with a lot
more margin for error, than the full-blown
toggle hook. Landing speed was now
very fast, “Swooping” was
born and longer landing “run
off” became necessary. We started
to see an increase in the number of
serious injuries and fatalities caused
by radical turns, made very close to
the ground and ‘finals’ canopy
- PRO’s ---- Speed & glide
ratio, low toggle pressure, surfing,
longer lasting canopies
- CONS ---- Inconsistent openings,
high speed rotating malfunctions.
- Medium ‘Risk Factor’
These hit the streets in the mid 90,s
and have continually advanced with
the latest rocket’s to appear
in the last couple of years, heat waves,
stiletto to Icarus and Xaos being examples.
New airfoils, smaller canopies, cross
bracing giving new characteristics
and very, very high speeds and super
long swoops. The hard openings have
been sorted by such a degree that they
can take up to 1000 ft to open. The
canopy now reacts instantly to the
pilots command. Turns are so radically
fast, that a hard right, hard left,
hard right turn can put twists into
the lines, rendering the canopy out
of the pilot’s control. When
a toggle is depressed the canopy will
turn and dive, pull a front riser hard
and they will fall out of the sky at
up to 90 ft a second! A skilled pilot
can swoop the canopy in, level it out
and swoop for 60 meters and more. The
swoop does not have to be straight
either, and it is possible to touch
the end cell on the ground and then
stand it up! All of this is possible
because of the high speed that these
canopies are capable of. Manufacturers
even put experience limits on these
canopies when first released but this
fell by the wayside and only lately
has limits been put in place by Safety
and Training but still limited (up
to 100 jumps) It then falls to instructors
on the DZ’s to dispense advice
which is not always taken.
- PRO’s ---- Very fast. Radical
- CONS ---- Inconsistent openings,
High speed rotating malfunctions.
Self induced Malfunctions, increased
pilot workload. Greater potential
for canopy collisions.
- High ‘Risk Factor’
What comes with these canopies, along
with performance is the RISK FACTOR.
High performance will always be a trade
off. A trade off between performance
A Polo will get you from A to B, but
won’t go around a corner as fast
as a Ferrari. In the wet, the Polo
is a lot easier to drive, look at the
throttle in the Ferrari and the back
end is hanging out. In inexperienced
hands, which one kills quickest? (There
is one more problem, money! Polo 90
K Ferrari 3 mil. Baby Schumacher’s
rarely have the dough; unfortunately
this is not the case with Bullet Wannabe’s ….)
So the trade off in this instance is,
more speed, handling and style with
less space (2 seats), a harder ride
(stiff suspension) and more expense.
So what’s the trade off between “SC” and “TC”? RISK
FACTOR! That’s all!
With “SC” for the swoop,
you get a higher risk of everything,
Pain, Injury, Death, balanced against
those long, landings, if of course,
you have the skill to extract them….
Let’s look at these new rockets.
They are at the current “Cutting
Edge” of canopy technology and
the canopy that every ‘Wannabe’ and
his sidekick are buying. Zero porosity,
elliptical platforms can be a nightmare
to pack (especially when new), turn
in a heartbeat and are very, very fast
through the air! These are not “intelligent” canopies,
they are stupid. They will blindly
go where they are pointed, following
the pilot’s instructions, with
no thought for his safety. When the
pilot depresses the toggle, they turn,
as far and as radical as the toggle
was pushed, with NO REGARD to the consequences.
These canopies require a high calibre
pilot, who is on the ball, focused
and thinks ahead. To the truly capable,
this is the canopy with which to obtain
a fast and long landing. In
inexperienced hands, it can become
a weapon with which to KILL & MAIM
yourself or others.
When it comes to choice of choice
of canopies, cost is a very small factor.
Most can be purchased for about R 9000.
Most skydivers can find this sort of
cash. I’ve seen lots of people
changing their mains quite often. It
is apparent from their landings that
they do not get all the performance
available from their current canopy,
but they still have to have that new
one that they saw at the last meet.
They want those awesome landings, and
they conclude that it is only the canopy
that delivers. Make no mistake; it
is more the pilot, than the canopy! If
you want proof, then lend your gear
to your local ‘bullet’ and
watch the swoop that he can obtain,
if your landings are as good, then
it is time for a change. This will
probably demonstrate the vast amount
of unused performance you have yet
to find in your own canopy.
In the mid 90’s 43% of all fatalities
were due to no pull or low pull. 57
% were due to something else. If not
impact then they must have been under
a full canopy for at least 2 min. With
the advent of AAD’s these no
pull or low pull figures have dropped
dramatically but this is not the case
where open canopies are concerned.
The trend shows us that still more
of us will be killed and maimed due
to canopy collisions and landings.
Let’s try to make sure that WE
don’t become one of them.
Changing your canopy to one of the
new breed of “Supercharged” canopies
will bring with it a higher risk due
to canopy collisions and landing incidents.
In either of these two cases the injuries
sustained will be more severe, due
to the increase of speed. A malfunctioning
of the canopy on opening or beyond
will rotate faster and be more violent.
Cutting away from this may not be easy,
due to the malfunction putting twists
in the lines and risers. A slight touch
of another canopy on one of these is
likely to have disastrous consequences.
If you want more speed, start with
the canopy you have. Make sure you
have a collapsible pilot chute fitted.
After opening, collapse and stow your
slider. Loosen your chest strap. This
can give you up to 10% more performance
from your canopy. It won’t break
the bank and will not increase the
risk factor by much. Get some instruction
from ‘Bullet’ and explore
the untapped potential your
current canopy has. Remember
the more you practice, the luckier
RISK FACTOR is something you MUST
consider when looking at a new canopy.
Risk factor comes with sport skydiving.
Don’t kid yourself; this sport
will kill you in a heartbeat. The ground
is very patient and unforgiving.
Skydiving is dangerous, but we reduce
this risk to an acceptable level, one
that we are happy with. Make sure you
make decisions about a new parachute
with your eyes wide open. Be honest
with yourself about your own skill
level. Weigh this up with what you
require and want. We skydive because
it’s the most fun we can have.
Nice DZ’s, friends, aircraft,
good gear, soft openings and soft landings.
But, it gets HARD in an instant. When
it all goes pear shaped, it usually
happens fast and the results are often
catastrophic. YOU MUST understand
the consequences of your decision,
make it, be happy making it and then
go forward slowly and carefully. Don’t
be afraid to ask for advice, but be
prepared to at least consider it or
it is just a waste of time.
Take it easy out there
views and opinions expressed in
this article are strictly those
of the author and do not necessarily
express or reflect the views and
/ or opinions of national safety