Building Castles in the Air—An Overview of Canopy Formation

Canopy formation (CF) skydiving, also known as canopy relative work (CRW or “crew”), is a discipline of technical ability that is largely misunderstood. Some perceive the discipline as being extremely dangerous, but the small, dedicated group of jumpers who practice it are rewarded by becoming better, safer canopy pilots. CF jumpers generally channel their interest in one of two directions: recreational CF (which includes parabatics) or competition. CF is also the only remaining discipline for which USPA offers performance-based awards—the 4-Stack, 8-Stack and Canopy Crest Soloist (for docking eighth or later on a formation) Awards.

Competition is a great way to get involved with CF. In most competitions, including USPA Nationals, jumpers may compete in 2- or 4-way sequential (in which canopy pilots complete as many formations as possible during the stipulated working time), 4-way rotations (judged by how many times the top jumper in a canopy formation can rotate to the bottom in a designated working time) and 8-way speed (how quickly a pre-determined 8-way canopy formation can be built). The 8-way speed competition seems to be on the wane, and international competitions no longer include it. The CF community is also experimenting with a 2-way pro-am event, in which an experienced CF jumper pairs with an amateur. Experienced CF jumpers hope that this format will encourage newer CF jumpers to begin competing in the discipline.

Parabatics, often seen during demo jumps, is the part of CF that attracts many jumpers to the discipline. Downplanes, drag-planes, side-by-sides and tri-by-sides are dramatic and exciting to watch. These types of formations require a solid foundation of basic skills along with more advanced training.

Getting Started
It is critical for new CF jumpers to start learning the discipline with an experienced, knowledgeable CF mentor. This allows the jumper to methodically and safely learn some of the more technical aspects of CF without re-pioneering the discipline. Skydiver’s Information Manual (SIM)Section 6-6 contains safety information and the recommended qualifications for skydivers interested in learning CF. It states, “Initial training should be conducted with two jumpers—the beginner and a canopy formation specialist—and include lessons in basic docking, break-off procedures and emergency procedures.”

Although opinions vary on what skills a jumper should have before entering the discipline, most agree that a beginner should have more than 100 jumps. A CF novice should be confident under canopy, be able to demonstrate the ability to land accurately and have a thorough knowledge of canopy flight characteristics, including maneuvering with riser input. Since CF jumpers often use specialized equipment, including custom brake and riser configuration, it is unusual for a new CF jumper to have extensive practice under a CF canopy before starting. But in general, experience with a 7-cell canopy is better for CF than experience under a 9-cell.

Although CF equipment is similar to standard skydiving gear, there are some important differences, particularly with the canopy. For this reason, most jumpers who are just starting to explore the world of CF borrow gear from an experienced CF flyer for their initial jumps. Jumpers may fly canopies that have been modified for CF, and a number of canopies on the market are specifically made for CF purposes. CF canopies generally have a mesh slider; a pilot-chute-bridle-retraction system; a tail pocket or alternate system for stowing lines that allows them to release more quickly than stowing them in a deployment bag; and Dacron® lines, which are thicker and abrade less than micro-lines. Generally speaking, CF canopies usually have the center and outside A-lines marked in red, and those lines will not have cascades.


Fortunately, most container and reserve systems work for CF jumps with little if any permanent modification, though CF risers usually have “blocks” on them (a fabric-wrapped protrusion for the jumper to grab) and stiffened toggles that will stay open. It goes without saying that no jumper, particularly a newer one, should modify his gear without the advice and assistance of a certified parachute rigger.

A new CF jumper should also invest in a good hook knife, tackified gloves and a helmet that allows him to hear while under canopy, all of which are relatively inexpensive.

The Basics
Jumpers should learn the following basic CF skills—exiting, running back and center docking—under the tutelage of an experienced mentor. Typically, the new CF jumper will dock on the mentor first, with the mentor“catching.”

  • ExitFEATURE20106-23
    Exiting properly is important for achieving a good, on-heading opening. The proper position is poised and head high (like an AFF student). The jumper throws the pilot chute two to three seconds after exit. The idea is to be stable and square to the prop blast on opening, so as not to turn, possibly causing an off-heading opening and collision with another jumper. It’s also important to stay head high to avoid the chance of legs entangling with the risers or lines.
  • Run backFEATURE20106-25
    After the main canopy opens and the new CF jumper performs a controllability check, he will look for his mentor. The mentor, who exited first, should be behind and lower than the student. The student CF jumper then turns around and flies back to the first jumper so that he ends up beside him, at the same altitude and facing in the same direction.
  • Center dockFEATURE20106-22
    The first dock most CF jumpers learn, and the safest to try, is the stacked center dock. This dock requires the new CF jumper to fly his canopy so that the center cell is level with the other jumper’s main pack tray. This placement allows the top jumper accepting the dock, or “catching,” to release his toggles (usually attaching them to the risers with Velcro®), grab the docking canopy with his hands and look for the correct foot placement in the center lines.
    The top person then has the responsibility to observe and keep the correct heading so that both jumpers in the formation can make it back to the landing area.

Once a new CF jumper has this procedure dialed in, the CF mentor will usually teach him to rotate from the top of the stack to the bottom. Soon, the new jumper will be able to add more basic formations to his repertoire, again under the supervision of an experienced CF mentor.

A skilled CF jumper instinctively uses his canopy to fly his body to the slot. The fastest way to learn this skill is to jump with a videographer who can provide a good debriefing video. This will help the novice jumper see how different canopy inputs change his position relative to other jumpers. Filming CF is challenging, and a CF videographer needs to know how to fly relative to a formation in order to deliver good footage. If a videographer is not available, watching footage of other CF jumps will help, particularly when trying to visualize a new skill.

Emergency Procedures
Many emergency procedures are unique to CF, which is an additional reason for new CF jumpers to enlist a good CF mentor. SIM Section 6-6 discusses some of these procedures and lists suggestions for CF jumpers to avoid problems to begin with.

When CF jumpers refer to canopy problems, they’ll often refer to them as whirligigs, wraps or entanglements. Participants need to be familiar with the varying responses that each type of malfunction requires.

A “whirligig” occurs when two canopies collide but do not entangle, flinging the jumpers apart from one another. The canopies involved in whirligigs usually fix themselves. A malfunction is called a “wrap” when one canopy is wrapped around another jumper’s body. A malfunction is called an “entanglement” if a jumper is entangled in or has passed through the lines of another’s canopy.

Since no two wraps or entanglements are the same, CF jumpers need to think on their feet, assess the situation quickly and calmly, and communicate with one another using short, positive commands. During a thorough pre-jump briefing, jumpers should discuss potential emergency situations and who should cut away first given various scenarios. Additionally, CF jumpers should have a hook knife and should train to use it.

CF skydivers use the same fundamental flying and docking procedures as jumpers in other formation skydiving disciplines: Approach the slot from above, without momentum, and keep flying once docked. Using these principles, CF is no more or less dangerous than any other skydiving discipline—just different.

Jumpers who are interested in learning more about CF but don’t know any experienced local CF jumpers can get involved by arranging coaching at one of the more well-known CF DZs such as Jumptown in Orange, Massachusetts; Skydive Arizona in Eloy; Skydive City in Zephyrhills, Florida; and Skydive Elsinore in California. Oftentimes, CF mentors will also be happy to travel to your DZ and bring the specialized equipment necessary to host a beginner CF camp. Potential CF flyers can also check out the event listings in Parachutist or online forums such as the “Canopy Relative Work” section on to find experienced CF jumpers and camps.

With the proper training and mindset, CF can be one of the most fun and rewarding experiences in skydiving. Besides, with the rising cost of jump tickets, you’ll get more air time for your jumping dollar!

About the Author
FEATURE20106-20Damien Ristaino, D-28504 and Canopy Crest Soloist 1270, has logged more than 1,500 jumps during his nine years in the sport, 900 of which are CF jumps. He is a USPA Tandem Instructor and PRO rating holder and an FAA Senior Rigger. He competes nationally in CF, runs a CF demonstration team and was a member of the CF world record 100-way.




Why Fly CF?

Many people (even other skydivers) think CF jumpers are crazy for what they do. But most CF jumpers migrated from other areas of skydiving over to CF, sometimes because they mastered other disciplines and were looking for a challenge. CF is a unique form of skydiving. More aptly put, it is “parachuting” in its truest form. And the skydive lasts 10 minutes or more, versus the two or three minutes of a freefall jump—more bang for your buck!
CF jumpers exit near their deployment altitude, taking a short freefall delay before opening their parachutes. Then the skydivers do what they were trained not to do—collide with one another under canopy. Well, they collide in a very controlled manner. Just as in other skydiving disciplines there are correct and incorrect ways to build a formation.
Myths and mysteries about CF abound—many people think that it’s the most dangerous form of skydiving. But there are tradeoffs. In CF, if a jumper has a malfunction at pull time, he has more than a minute to deal with the situation; freefall skydivers have only seconds. CF jumpers constantly use all the controls of their parachutes, so they are well versed with how different input affects their canopy in relation to other jumpers (and the ground). CF flyers are used to flying in close proximity to other canopies and tend to be aware and confident landing around other jumpers.
The CF community is close-knit but welcoming and tends to be very willing to help novices, as well as those who are more experienced. So if you ever wanted to try CF but were afraid to ask, don’t be! If you know or even just spot someone who does CF, ask them what it’s all about. The CF community is small enough that even if that person is not qualified to instruct, he will certainly be able to tell you who is. Just about any CF jumper can get you the gear that you might need, or at least they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. Simply put, CF is a blast—everyone should give it a try at least once.

—Kirk Van Zandt | D-16642
Panama City, Florida


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Bill Butler
Sat, 08/13/2011 - 19:08

Great article. I am a newbie when it comes to CReW, but that is the reason I even got into skydiving in the first place. I have been more than welcomed by Brian into training to be a CReW competitor. The CReW people I have met are fantastic people and very friendly. I hope to be on the next World Record CRW jump with the help and support of my new skydiving family.
Blue Skies All!
Bill Butler

Neil Ursulesku
Sat, 07/02/2016 - 17:51

Great article. Very good information for new and seasoned jumpers.
I'm a CF enthusiast and am looking to connect with others interested in rubbing some nylon.
I live in the great white north, eh! No one up interested in CRW so hopefully I can find some others I the Pacific NW.
Please feel free to contact me by email.
Blue skies
NCCS 221 Neil Ursulesku

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 06:15

Gents I am cf guy who has made quiet a lot of cf jumps, most of them are competional jumps such as 4W Rot., 4W SQ and 2W SQ. I'm interested to learn the aerobatic parts of CF, Can someone advise me to built a 3by side formation, and also how to dive a 3 by side formation, please also advise the web strap to hold a 3 by side formation. Ani advice is very much appreciated.

Feriansyah A

Fri, 05/19/2017 - 10:33

Feriansyah, USPA does not provide advice or coaching in parabatics. You should seek out a competent coach from within the CF community.

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