Game Changers

After World War II, skydiving took off when returning veterans, many of whom served in airborne units and related fields, yearned to once again feel the rush of adrenaline as they exited an airplane. The passion they experienced while making static-line-deployed jumps made them hunger for more excitement. These early skydivers used modified military surplus equipment to participate in the blossoming sport. In the 1950s and ’60s, military B-4 containers, C-9 round canopies, 24-foot twill reserve canopies, pilot chutes, ripcords, helmets and boots saw heavy use at drop zones around the nation. Many jumpers didn’t particularly like military surplus equipment because it was bulky and uncomfortable, so a few started designing new equipment just for recreational skydivers. The equipment revolution began diminishing every aspect of military influence and changed skydiving forever. Here are some of the most original and dynamic inventions since that time.



In 1961 at the Orange Parachute Center in Massachusetts, Pioneer Parachute Company unveiled a major game-changer called the Para-Commander (commonly known as the “PC”). What a sensation it caused! It had a pulled-down apex that forced air through a variety of vents, which drove it forward at a speed of about 10-12 mph. The jumper could slow the canopy or even stall it out. Landings were easy. The PC turned quickly, had a moderate opening shock and could turn a bad spot into a dead center. With conventional round canopies, landing in a 50-foot circle took a lot of effort. The Para-Commander turned average accuracy jumpers into dead-center hounds. Within a few short years, just about every jumper used a PC, and accuracy competitions came to be measured in centimeters rather than meters. By 1966, all accuracy competitors at the USPA Nationals used the PC. The first Para-Commanders were red, white and blue. In short order, the company started offering multi-colored designs known by names such as Tel-Star and Church Window. Custom canopies graced every drop zone. Skydiving was on its way.



In early 1964, Security Parachute Company introduced the Crossbow harness-and-container system. This was the first “piggyback” parachute system, in which the reserve parachute mounted on the jumper’s back rather than belly. Soon, skydivers began adjusting to back-mounted main and reserve canopies, and the advantages were gigantic. The new rigs were more comfortable and convenient and looked fabulous in bright colors. Relative workers (now called formation skydivers) loved the freedom and the ability to move easily in freefall. By the end of the 1970s, the majority of formation skydivers used piggyback rigs manufactured by various equipment companies. By the late 1980s, even most of the competitors in the traditional style and accuracy events had switched to piggyback systems. Now, every recreational skydiver—whether student, fun jumper or competitor—uses a piggyback system.



The military began regularly using automatic activation devices (then called “automatic opening devices”) long before sport skydivers. Some drop zones began modifying and using early models such as the Skymaster F1AB15 and the Soviet-era KAP-3, but there was no great love for them. Enter Steve Snyder, aeronautical engineer and designer. In early 1959, he marketed the Sentinel automatic opener. Despite some early problems, this opener paved the way for acceptance and use of automatic activation devices. In 1969, he introduced the Sentinel Mk 2000, which saved many, many lives and established a reputation for reliability in the general skydiving community. Throughout the years, other AADs took advantage of advancing technology and manufacturing techniques and came onto the market, and it all started with Steve Snyder’s vision for a safer skydiving community.



Engineer and designer Bill Booth—one of skydiving’s most gifted people—introduced the hand-deployed pilot chute on his Wonderhog container in 1975. He realized that the traditional military ripcord-released pilot chutes, which consisted of heavy metal springs covered in nylon and reinforcement webbing, were awkward to pack and unnecessarily heavy. They were also prone to pilot chute hesitations since they deployed into jumpers’ burbles, which caused much anxiety. The hand-deployed pilot chute solved all these problems. Using Booth’s simple invention, a jumper would pull the lightweight pilot chute from a pouch attached to a bellyband and release it directly into the airstream, which avoided hesitations and allowed for a quick deployment.



For years, jumpers used the Capewell canopy release system that originated in the military. Although these entirely metal systems could do the job, they required a high level of training to use proficiently, and one would occasionally stick and fail to release. Booth addressed this problem in 1976 by introducing the 3-ring release system and began marketing it on his Wonderhog container in 1977. The response to and acceptance of this simple but innovative system was phenomenal. Skydivers immediately loved this invention because it was quick and easy to use, lightweight and relatively inexpensive and it greatly reduced the amount of force necessary to cut away. By the early 1980s, every harness-and-container manufacturer installed it on their systems, and 99 percent of skydivers worldwide used it. It is likely to be the primary release system for the foreseeable future.



In the late 1960s, California instructor Perry Stevens produced the Stevens Cutaway System. Once a jumper pulled the cutaway handle and released the main risers, a lanyard attached to the reserve ripcord would launch a spring-loaded pilot chute to begin deployment of the reserve canopy. Since then, this invention, now known as the reserve static line, has greatly reduced fatalities caused by jumpers cutting away and either not deploying their reserve parachutes or not deploying them soon enough to save their lives. Originally thought of as a backup safety device just for students, the RSL has steadily grown in popularity with all jumpers. With adjustments to the original design (including Booth’s SkyHook, which uses the main canopy to extract the reserve freebag from the container), the RSL has stood the test of time and is still saving lives to this day.



In the 1960s, parachute designers tried to engineer a parachute with a lower rate of descent and improved forward speed without much success. Following the achievements of the Para-Commander, experimentation continued, and in 1962, Jalbert Aerology Laboratory introduced a self-inflating, multi-cell, ram-air, triangular canopy. In 1964, the company introduced a similar (but rectangular) ram-air design, the Para-Foil. These and other early ram-air canopies had a high forward speed and great controllability but harsh openings.

Although the ram-air canopies had a lot going for them, their popularity did not surge until the early 1970s when Pioneer Parachute Company experimented with a reefing system—a fabric rectangle with four sewn-on D-rings that slid down the suspension lines—to contain the severity of the hard openings. Installed with these “sliders,” ram-air canopies became tame. Soon, most manufacturers began installing sliders on their designs, and ram-air canopies became popular beyond compare.

Ram-air parachutes initially had five cells, but through the years, manufacturers developed the seven- and nine-cell versions that eventually became the standard. Accuracy jumpers became so good that electronic scoring pads were invented to accurately tabulate extremely close strikes. Canopy relative work, now known as canopy formation skydiving, developed as a result, became very popular and soon stood alone as its own brand of competition. Ram-air canopies were such high performers they forced the gradual elimination of Para-Commanders to the dustbins of history.



In 1983, Ted Strong and Bill Booth’s companies, Strong Enterprises and the Relative Workshop, independently devised gear that allowed two jumpers to make a skydive under one parachute. They soon began working together to refine their products, receive Federal Aviation Administration approval and bring their tandem skydiving systems to market. The original tandem systems used large ram-air main canopies capable of supporting two skydivers and were drogueless. Unless the tandem pair deployed right out of the door, the opening shock caused by the high freefall speeds could destroy even the largest canopy. To solve this problem, Strong developed and began using a drogue system, which allowed canopies to open reliably and softly.

By 1984, drop zones across the U.S. were purchasing tandem rigs, and instructors began using the new systems. Tandem skydives minimized the fear and performance anxiety that kept many potential first-time jumpers away from skydiving and are now the primary method of introducing new jumpers to the sport.



Canadian Jean St. Germain first patented the “levitationairum” in 1979. In 1982, Flyaway used this technology to open the first recreational wind tunnels, one in Las Vegas and another in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Primarily conceived as tourist attractions, these tunnels soon began attracting skydivers. By 1998, vertical wind tunnel technology had improved, and when SkyVenture opened an Orlando, Florida, tunnel with wall-to-wall airflow, tunnel flying took off as a skydiver training tool.

Marketed as indoor skydiving, wind tunnels give newcomers an adventure that’s the next best thing to an actual skydive and have drawn many new jumpers into the sport. Additionally, vertical wind tunnels have rapidly revolutionized training for new skydivers, competition teams and military jumpers. During just a few minutes in a tunnel, skydivers can learn freefall skills that take dozens of skydives to master. Most top competitors in the freefall disciplines train for hours in wind tunnels in addition to making skydives. Some believe that wind tunnels are the single greatest skydiving training device ever developed.



Since the earliest days of the sport, parachutists have modified their jumpsuits to help them extend their time in freefall. In the 1930s, performers known as birdmen traveled in barnstorming troupes and entertained spectators by flying suits outfitted with wings made from silk, cloth, whalebone and wood. Extremely hazardous (most early birdmen died plying their trade), wingsuit flying soon faded away in the public’s imagination, and for many decades, skydivers saw wingsuit flight as a mere stunt.

This all changed in the early 1990s, when jumpers such as France’s Patrick de Gayardon began experimenting with new, all-fabric jumpsuit designs featuring wings that inflated in the manner of a ram-air canopy. Unfortunately, in 1998 de Gayardon died due to a rigging error while making a wingsuit flight and did not live to see the rise of the discipline he helped popularize. However, many companies drew inspiration from his designs, and in 1999, Birdman, a company founded by Robert Pecnik from Croatia and Jari Kuosma from Finland, became the first company to make wingsuits commercially available. Wingsuit flying is now the fastest growing discipline in skydiving, and winged flight has once again captured the attention of the general public.

About the Authors
FEATURE201411-10Mike Horan, D-881, has always been fascinated by batwing jumping (and now wingsuit flying) and wrote about early batwing jumpers in his book “Parachuting Folklore.”


Post new comment

Please provide your full name. We will not post responses from anonymous sources.
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.