Confessions of a Canopy Coach
Exiting from 5,000 feet, Stuart Schoenfeld clears the aircraft and pitches his pilot chute. After checking his canopy, he pulls his leg straps down to his thighs and pulls his chest strap loose until it reaches the very end.
Before releasing his brakes, Schoenfeld grabs two lines weaved into the front and back of his slider and pulls. The slider, attached by a cable cutaway system, releases from the suspension lines. The pilot chute and deployment bag attached to the slider are streaming in the wind directly behind him. Schoenfeld pulls in the bridle and bunches it up in his hand. He places his quickly folded slider, bridle and deployment bag in a pocket on the back of the right leg of his Capri-length swoop pants that were designed for this very purpose.
Flying his canopy to his entry point over the swoop pond, Schoenfeld seems to stop traveling, suspended in mid-air, as he quietly sits in quarter brakes until just the right altitude and point over the ground.
With his canopy facing away from the pond, Schoenfeld lets up on his brakes. He takes a deep breath and grabs both front risers. Exhaling, he pulls the risers down to his chest, lowers his chin, pulls up his knees and contracts his stomach muscles. The front of his canopy dives forward for several moments. Keeping both front risers close to his chest, he slowly leans to the left in his harness. The slow turn picks up speed as Schoenfeld leans harder. Continuing a 450-degree diving turn, Schoenfeld’s canopy picks up so much speed that the wind streaming through his suspension lines causes a hauntingly high whistle as he whips around at 70 mph.
Completing the 450, Schoenfeld lets up evenly on both front risers. He and the canopy dive almost vertically, leveling out right at the front edge of the pond. With the canopy flying smooth and level over his head, Schoenfeld sits completely still in his harness, left leg forward, right leg folded back. His trailing right leg lowers with the smallest movement to skim the pond. He skims the entire length of the pond with the canopy flying completely straight and level, the canopy and lines rumbling and whistling as he speeds by at about 60 mph.
A group of skydivers and canopy course participants who are taking Schoenfeld’s weekend canopy class had gathered at the edge of the pond to watch. Cameras flash and the skydivers erupt in cheers for the powerful swoop. Schoenfeld shuts down his canopy, flaring hard and running out his landing. It’s a clean but fast landing. His canopy is only 79 square feet.
Stu Schoenfeld is a professional competitive swooper, and as most pro swoopers do, he also works as a canopy coach. Canopy coaches educate skydivers of every level, from beginners working on accuracy to advanced semi-pros and elite military personnel. Being a good swooper is not enough to work as a coach, though. Today, canopy coaches must understand the science and physics of equipment and canopy flight and must be able to answer technical questions.
Stu Schoenfeld by Ori Kuper
Stu Schoenfeld - It’s Not Just the Landing
A successful swoop, traveling across the ground at freeway speeds under canopy, is exhilarating for the canopy pilot, exciting for other jumpers to watch and baffling for non-jumpers seeing it for the first time. But there’s one big problem: It’s extremely dangerous. At this point, swooping is the most dangerous discipline in skydiving. And there is another side to swooping that most jumpers don’t hear about from their canopy coaches...
Last year, Schoenfeld geared up and climbed aboard the airplane at his home drop zone for a practice jump. Little did he know as he sat in the airplane that this would be one of the most dangerous jumps of his life.
Schoenfeld exited from 5,000 feet above ground level. Whether it’s from full altitude or a lower altitude, Schoenfeld only makes hop ’n’ pops when using his specialty competition swoop gear. His removable slider, pilot chute and deployment bag are not the issue; it’s the razor-thin 300-pound HMA (high modulus aramid) suspension lines, which are half the size and half the strength of regular lines. These extra-thin lines, used to minimize drag, cannot repeatedly take the impact of deployment at terminal velocity.
When Schoenfeld looked up to watch his canopy open, he felt what he thought was the set of risers detaching from his shoulder. Immediately, he was in a violent spin. The distorted canopy was swinging him around and around with his back to earth. Schoenfeld was jumping a 71-square-foot Performance Designs Velocity with 15 pounds of additional weight. His wing loading was about 3:1.
I learned when you’re jumping a small canopy, if things go wrong, they go very wrong very fast.
Schoenfeld could hear himself involuntarily grunting and straining against horrific G-forces. His right hand shook and trembled as he fought to reach up to the cutaway handle. Immediately, his vision narrowed to one pinpoint of light. With severe difficulty, Schoenfeld reached his cutaway handle and pulled. His spin was so hard that he was flung across the sky after cutting away. Schoenfeld doesn’t clearly remember pulling his reserve, but he must have, since he wasn’t using a reserve static line or automatic activation device.
Schoenfeld flew back to the drop zone under his reserve with only one eye open to compensate for his blurred and distorted vision. Once on the ground, he collapsed, violently ill.
As the drop zone staff ran to his aid, they were shocked to see Schoenfeld’s eyes bulging, and his face was turning purple and blue. He was rushed to the hospital. The hospital staff recognized that serious damage had occurred, but they had never seen anything like it and called NASA for help.
It was determined that Schoenfeld had experienced gravitational acceleration of negative four and that the blood vessels in his eyes and upper head had burst. A human body can tolerate far fewer negative Gs, which force blood to the head, than positive Gs, which force blood to the feet. Fortunately, Schoenfeld stabilized and the hospital released him within a couple of hours. However, for the following weeks, Schoenfeld’s eyes looked as if they were heavily lined with thick, black eyeliner on the inside of his eyelids, and the whites of his eyes were dark red from pooled blood.
What did he learn from this experience? “I learned when you’re jumping a small canopy, if things go wrong, they go very wrong very fast.” Shaking his head, Shoenfeld says, “People jumping small canopies think the landings are the only thing to worry about.”
Now, Schoenfeld says, he practices his emergency cutaway and deployment procedures every single day. “Now, when I exit, my right hand goes right to that cutaway handle. It’s right there, just in case.” Schoenfeld adds, “One of the most common misconceptions about swooping is people think you have to have a small canopy to swoop. That just isn’t true.”
Schoenfeld explains that setting up a solid pattern that allows him to get to his entry point is 70 percent of swooping. With a proper setup, a jumper can tell if he is too high or too low way before he begins his diving turn. The remaining 30 percent of the swoop is the turn, “And that absolutely can be done with a moderate-sized canopy,” he says.
Luke Aikins by Othar Lawrence
Luke Aikins - Swooping Like a Rock Star
Luke Aikins is also a pro swooper, a canopy coach and a pioneer of the sport of swooping. He is a member of the Red Bull Air Force skydiving team, jumping into large public sporting events around the country. Team members sport identical Red Bull helmets, jerseys, black pants or sometimes white wingsuits with the company logo. Swooping into loud, cheering crowds, Aikins and his teammates work the crowd like rock stars, pose for photographs and give autographs and handshakes.
Aikins and his teammates arrive at demo locations the day before the event, conduct a safety meeting and discuss canopy flight plans. They use cross-braced nine-cell canopies to swoop into events. For wingsuit jumps, larger seven-cell canopies are mandatory to ensure more predictable, on-heading openings. But despite the preparations, demonstration jumps are not just another jump on a familiar drop zone...
It was in June of this year that Aikins and two fellow Red Bull teammates were jumping into a beach party on the Maryland shore to celebrate the first day of practice for staff and participants of the Ocean City (Maryland) Air Show. There was one small, clear area on the beach among the countless hotels and restaurants and the boardwalk. This was the landing area, about 12-feet deep and 100-feet wide. The spectators—patrons at a sports bar—were held back by a rope. The only safe “out” was the bay.
Being able to make a safe ‘forced recovery’ is an essential skill for any skydiver, no matter the skill level.
Aikins was the last to exit from the aircraft at 5,000 feet over the ocean and activated a smoke canister strapped to his ankle. After a six-second delay, he deployed his Precision Aerodynamics Xaos 101, which he was loading at 2.5:1. He activated a second smoke canister, since they last only 60 seconds, and flew his canopy over the bay near the landing area. Since he was the last one to land, all eyes were on him in the sky under his white Red Bull canopy with white smoke streaming behind him.
Setting up for a 270-degree right front-riser turn over the water about 150 yards from the beach, Aikins slowed his canopy by going into half-brakes. He then reached up and pulled both front risers down to his chest. Leaning to the right, he initiated a harness turn while simultaneously letting up on the left front riser. One hundred and eighty degrees into his turn, things weren’t right. He was dangerously low.
There were about 300 people at the private party, but the beach was crowded with thousands of people. His teammates, who had landed moments before, stood in the sand, still as statues, their eyes fixed on Aikins.
With his canopy nearly vertical over the water and dangerously low, Aikins smoothly let up his right front riser, finishing the turn in brakes, transitioning to more of a flat turn by pulling down both toggles to slow the canopy’s descent and bring it back over his head. At this point, if Aikins were to pull down both toggles too hard to correct, he would over-correct, pop back up in the air and land in the bay. If he didn’t correct for his low turn, he would impact the water at a high speed.
However, Aikins was now flying his canopy level with the water, with just enough brake input to maintain level flight. He lowered his right foot to skim the ocean water. He landed on the sand, right in front of his teammates and right in front of an excited, cheering crowd.
So what does Aikins say after an experience like this? He thinks for a moment before saying, “Practicing bailout procedures for swooping pays off.”
“For every landing, wherever we are jumping, we always have a downwind, base and final approach,” explains Aikins. “On that jump, I already knew I was low on my final approach. I was a little behind the power curve because the wind was stronger than I anticipated and it took longer to get to my setup point.”
Aikins was not taken by surprise at being too low. He knew it ahead of time and executed his turn accordingly.
Aikins also explains that aborting a swoop should be practiced up high, repeatedly, until it becomes second nature. He equates it to a go-around in an airplane landing.
“There have been countless times where I’ve had to abort a swoop,” he says. “There have been lots of times where something suddenly appears in our way, like another canopy, an obstacle or a random spectator.”
He adds, “People should understand that one of the first things you need to learn when swooping is how and when to bail out of a turn. That skill will not only save your life, but also others around you.” He concludes, “Being able to make a safe ‘forced recovery’ is an essential skill for any skydiver, no matter the skill level.”
Aikins did not execute a textbook-perfect 270-degree diving turn for that audience. But, he says, “I finished the landing, dragging water with my foot, and I landed right where I wanted to. The only ones who knew what happened were me and my teammates. And the only one hurt,” he confides with a self-deprecating grin, “was my pride.”
Kaz Sheekey by Laszlo Andacs
Kaz Sheekey - It Pays to be in Shape
Kaz Sheekey also is a competitive swooper who has competed in events around the world. She, too, travels the United States coaching canopy pilots of all levels. Understanding the risks of swooping, Sheekey’s approach has been to always progress in small steps to avoid accidents and injuries. But sometimes situations arise that could never, ever be anticipated...
Several years ago, Sheekey was working on the freestyle swooping move “Nac Nac Switchblade,” one foot in front of her and the other in back, both skimming water, while transferring both toggles to one hand and back. The practice swoop seemed to go fine, though she was traveling faster than normal because of a downwind landing. She was jumping a Velocity 79 and wearing about 12 pounds of lead; her wing loading was about 2.1:1.
She flared to shut down her canopy and land, but before she could even take the first few steps to run out her landing on the muddy grass, her foot caught a divot. Sheekey fell full-force on her chest. The momentum of her speed and the canopy continuing to fly above her threw her legs up her back and literally up to her head. A group of jumpers watching gasped in shock. The contorted body position was like nothing they’d ever seen before.
Before anyone could get to her side, Sheekey got to her hands and knees and stood up. Covered in mud and grass, she let out a big laugh, leaving her skydiver friends puzzled.
What did Sheekey learn from this experience? “That my years of yoga really paid off!”
Today, almost all pro swoopers work out and stretch for competition. But Sheekey has been diligently practicing yoga for years, at least three times a week, long before it was fashionable. She admits that when she hit the ground she was definitely winded. However, she knows that her yoga has prevented many injuries and has helped her recover when injuries did occur.
When I need to relax and focus, I can go back to that place that I’m in when I quietly mediate alone on the beach.
As Shoenfeld, Sheekey’s friend and fellow Slipstream teammate, says, “If you’re swooping, it’s not if but when you’ll hit the ground. You will hit the ground at some point.”
Swooping is hardly a quiet and calming exercise, but calm nerves in competition and clear judgment are critical. There is very little room for error. Sheekey also incorporates meditation and breathing techniques into her training and has the advantage of years of practice.
Meditation trains a person to strip away distracting thoughts. Meditation may also make a person less prone to being excessively excitable, but usually only after many months of practice.
Rather than just hoping she will stay calm and focused during a competition, Sheekey can easily fall into that frame of mind, saying, “When I need to relax and focus, I can go back to that place that I’m in when I quietly mediate alone on the beach.”
Indeed, clear thinking and decision making are crucial for canopy pilots. One other point that’s perfectly clear is that these canopy pilots and coaches are the innovators of today. Each day, they get back up, dust themselves off and go back at it again. Just as importantly, they are more than happy to take the time to share their wisdom and knowledge with others.
The skydivers who participated in Schoenfeld’s canopy course had never met their instructor and, truthfully, did not know what to expect. However, the participants, especially the swoopers, found the course absolutely worthwhile, saving them countless trial-and-error jumps and clarifying many misconceptions about canopy flight.
About the Author
Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, has been jumping since 1992 and has a Bachelor of Arts in social sciences. She lives in Vancouver, Washington.
Canopy coaches hold courses at their home drop zones or travel to drop zones for weekend seminars. Most coaches are themselves pro swoopers and coach beginners to advanced semi-pros. The following is a list of some of the most well-known skydivers or organizations that provide courses:
USPA has not evaluated, and therefore cannot specifically endorse, the content of these courses.
Canopy coaching for beginner, intermediate and pro civilian swoopers and the military by Red Bull Air Force skydivers.
Telephone: (253) 686-1247
Flight-1 Canopy Flight Team
Canopy courses and coaching for all levels of civilian and military jumpers by members of the Performance Designs Factory Team.
Telephone: (386) 748-4757
If you are a canopy coach, DZ manager or event organizer and would like your canopy courses included in USPA’s events listings in Parachutist magazine and online, please click here and fill out the simple form located at the bottom of the page.