The Seven Keys to Downsizing

“The most deadly aspect of skydiving isn’t swooping or wingsuiting or big-ways or collisions or whatever you think it is. It’s lack of patience.”

An old-timer who had certainly lost more than his share of friends to the phenomenon sighed out this thought while sitting around a campfire at the Holiday Boogie at Skydive Arizona in Eloy. Truer words have never been spoken about the sport.

Arguably, nowhere is this lack of patience more evident than in many skydivers' way-abbreviated canopy downsizing schedules. Those in some circles may treat this as a matter of opinion, but "too fast" isn't all that subjective: it's a matter of dead-simple math. It takes time to acquire the skills, experience and training that smaller, faster, more advanced canopies demand. No time? No skills. A look at fatality statistics highlights the seriousness of the situation.

But hold up, now: Downsizing is not the devil. Doing it safely is a key part of the new skydiver’s learning progression. To get it right, you have to learn a few key tidbits about canopy sizing, dispel some common myths and take a deeply introspective look at yourself as a skydiving athlete. (Spoiler: The last part is the hardest of the three—and it’s the one you have to do first.)


1. Ask Yourself Why You Want a Smaller Canopy

There are great reasons to downsize. However, there are far more very bad reasons to downsize. Determine where you stand on this scale.

Perhaps you’ve been led to believe that a smaller, faster canopy will deliver better landings than those you’ve been experiencing, that the speed will give you a stronger flare.

Wrong.

Maybe you jump at a windy drop zone, and though you haven’t gone through the process of learning how to fly your current canopy, you believe that the better penetration will make you safer.

That’s wrong, too.

Maybe you’ve decided that you’re bored with your current canopy.

Hmm. Are you sure? Can you land on your feet no matter what? (The "no matter what" part is vital.) Do you always meet and exceed the accuracy requirements for the license that you currently hold?

Have you exhausted the potential of your current canopy to the point of perfection?

If not, maybe you’re not as bored as you think. Maybe you’re just being impatient.


2. Follow Your Inner Compass

Maybe you’re perfectly happy flying what you’re flying, but your drop zone buddies are pressuring you to drop a size or two. That’s the worst reason of all. (You certainly already know this, even if you’re choosing to ignore it.)

When you’re a newer skydiver, it’s easy to cave to outside pressures. It’s equally easy to misunderstand where you are in the sport relative to where you want to be. To extricate yourself from your ego, ask yourself what a really smart person would do in your shoes.

If you do that, you’ll achieve two things: You’ll put yourself in the outside perspective, and you’ll put yourself in a wiser mindset.

Case in point: In idle conversation at the drop zone, you’ll notice that many experienced jumpers have forgotten the early parts of their progressions. They aren’t being malicious; they actually don’t remember what it was like to learn to fly a ram-air. Many of these old-timers tend to cling to the notion that new skydivers can safely and quickly learn to fly a canopy with a wing loading of 1.0 and greater, when the safe zone is around 0.8.

Let ‘em talk, and rest easy in the knowledge that you’re doing what’s right for you and your healthy tenure in the sport.


3. Understand the Dynamics of Downsizing

A smaller canopy with a higher wing loading isn’t just “faster.” There are a lot of new dynamics that the downsize introduces.

A smaller canopy will check off all these boxes:

  • turns more quickly
  • loses more altitude in a turn
  • requires more flight planning
  • affords the pilot less time to react in the event of an emergency
  • requires more precise flare timing
  • makes crashing significantly more serious (and painful)

If you have workshopped your current canopy to the extent of having expertise, you may enjoy this list of new features. If your landings are currently imperfect, your landings will be worse. Invariably.

4. Don’t Look at “Maximum Exit Weight” in the Same Way You Look at a Speed Limit

Learn about what exit weight really means. If you look at a manufacturer’s maximum exit weight for any given canopy as something to meet or exceed, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

If a manufacturer has not given a minimum exit weight for a certain canopy, you are extremely unlikely to be under-loading it.


5. Take it One. Step. At. A. Time.

Work your way down only one size at a time. As you do, ensure that you have a high level of accuracy, comfort and expertise before you make the choice to downsize again.

If you enjoy the performance and comfort of a certain canopy, there’s no need to downsize. However, if the smaller canopy presents any challenges—for instance, causes harder landings and accuracy issues or gives you “butterflies” in the air—you’ve gone too quickly. Upsize before your choice bites you.

6. Learn About Your Prospective Canopy’s Special Characteristics

Smaller canopies often have lines made of different material than those of larger canopies. Different materials behave differently during opening. They may require a different maintenance schedule than you may be used to.

Also, canopies built for different purposes may have the same exit-weight recommendations that yield far different results in the field. For example: You may discover mysteriously similar exit-weight recommendations for a large, docile, square canopy and a tiny, aggressive, high-performance canopy. The former is likely due to cautious recommendations for newer jumpers. The latter? Set down by a canopy manufacturer that believes that their high-performance machines must be heavily loaded to fly according to spec. When you evaluate the data, consider the motivations of the source.


7. Put It in Perspective

Want to know a secret? At the end of the day, nobody cares how big (or small) your canopy is. They care—if they care about anything at all (which they likely don't)—how skilled and collected you look under whatever you're flying. If you look like a mess who downsized too quickly, you're not earning any points for that shrunken square footage.

I promise.

About the Author

Annette O'Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

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