On the Cutting Edge
All disciplines of skydiving are fun and exciting, but canopy test piloting is in an altogether different category. Exiting a plane with a canopy that no one has ever jumped before is always an adventure.
The revolutionary ram-air parachute gained popularity in the 1970s, changing the sport and leading to the development of high-performance canopies. Today, skydivers still marvel at new designs and benefit from safer equipment that gives better performance. Canopy designers utilize their in-depth knowledge of canopy flight, aerodynamics and materials science in order to make intelligent design choices. The testing and collection of copious amounts of flight data are as much art as science and require highly specialized talent.
Some design houses perform computer-simulated aerodynamic modeling and wind-tunnel testing when vetting a new canopy. Some also "kite test" (perform a battery of tests with the canopy tethered). Others may put the canopy on a dummy outfitted with numerous recording devices (and dummy tests are required by the Federal Aviation Administration for reserve parachutes). But eventually, all canopies go to a test pilot. According to canopy manufacturer Performance Designs, "Once the mains are doing what we want, there really isn't much that can be learned from dummy testing. Our test jumpers are much smarter than our test dummies!”
The number of test jumps and prototype canopies a company makes varies greatly and depends heavily on the degree of innovation in the new canopy. If a new wing is not too different from an existing design, there may be only 15 to 20 variations tested before it is released and goes to market. More radical canopy designs may require hundreds of permutations and demand years of testing.
Ever wonder who exactly does the test jumping on canopies? Here are just a few of the skydivers who help transition new designs from the factory to the skydiving market.
Brian Germain is a parachute designer and test pilot for Aerodyne Research, maker of the A2 Tandem, Mamba, Pilot, Sensei, Solo and Triathlon canopies.
He stopped logging jumps at 7,000 but estimates he has well over 10,000. Germain, who designed the Sensei himself, routinely builds his own prototypes. “For me, virtually every jump today is a test jump," Brian explains. "I don't want to waste my time with proven equipment. I may jump a prototype as many as 100 times in different wind conditions, hot and cold temperatures, etc., and learn how the flight changes as the canopy ages."
Germain got started with test piloting in the early 1980s when he was working as a packer and rigger at the Blue Sky Ranch in Gardiner, New York. His rig was an old 1976 Cruiseair. One day, Joey Frenesco from National Parachute walked up to him and said, "I got this new zero-p parachute that has never been jumped before. You interested?" Germain thought, "How bad could it be?" and made his first test jump.
Germain stuck around for many years, eventually working at Air Time Designs, a parachute company owned by Tony Uragallo (now known for his TonySuits jumpsuits). He performed testing and mass marketing of an airlock design (which helps to keep a wing inflated) in the popular Jedei canopy. Following this success, Germain moved to Colorado and set out to build his own company, Big Air Sportz. He designed and tested numerous canopies for the sport market, including the Samurai and Lotus. Eventually, he developed the Sensei, now an Aerodyne canopy. He continues to test his own designs to this day.
John LeBlanc is the vice president and lead designer at Performance Designs. He started jumping as a 16-year-old in the Panama Canal Zone and never looked back. Skydiving has been his passion and livelihood for 34 years. He has experimented with different airfoils and design concepts, designing and test jumping some of the most popular canopies on the market, including the Competition Velocity, Katana, Sabre, Sabre 2, Silhouette, Spectre, Storm and Velocity. He's also president and owner of DeLand Research Corporation, a company that provides test-jumping services. He stopped logging jumps years ago but estimates upward of 6,000 jumps with nearly all of them test jumps.
As a 17-year-old, LeBlanc moved to Tampa, Florida, and jumped at the drop zone in Zephyrhills. Someone in Panama had given him an old non-airworthy ram-air that he was playing around with as a kite. Since he was low on cash, LeBlanc sought the advice of a local rigger who taught him how to modify and update the canopy to make it jumpable. The canopy was a Standard Paraplane, the first ram-air canopy by Para-Flite. LeBlanc went to town on the parachute, pulling off lots of reinforcing tape, replacing the lines, adding stabilizers and replacing the old "rings and ropes" deployment system with a slider. Without a second thought, he got on a load and jumped it successfully, thereby making his first canopy test jump.
With a keen interest in aviation, LeBlanc later earned a Bachelor of Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His career took off in earnest when Bill Coe started Performance Designs on the porch of a friend's house. After trading his labor for a canopy, LeBlanc got Coe to hire him, doubling the number of PD employees ... to two. It wasn't long before Coe gave LeBlanc latitude to experiment with different airfoils and design concepts. He never stopped playing with parachutes at PD to find a so-called real job. “This job is the coolest thing. I love what I do. I really do," confides LeBlanc.
A canopy test pilot since the summer of 2009, Stacey Carl is the relative newbie among the group. She's logged just shy of 5,000 jumps, with about 500 of them test jumps. She makes a living as head of the video department at Skydive Houston in Eagle Lake, Texas, and runs Feisty Air Productions. Carl freelances with Aerodyne Research as a canopy test jumper. She is more involved with the testing of products than their design.
Designers and parachute fabricators commonly use teams of independent test jumpers once a parachute design has reached a certain stage. For example, Aerodyne will send a canopy over to Carl with a note saying, "This thing opens funny. You go figure out what's wrong with it and let us know." Or they might say, "Here's a new line set for you to test. Collect as much comparative data as possible, and tell us how it goes."
Carl reveals, "I became a test pilot more by default than by serious thought. I'm good friends with Brian Germain, and when Aerodyne released the Sensei parachute in 2009, I had been jumping two of Brian's prototypes for over a year. Aerodyne was using new low-pack-volume material called ZPX, and there were complaints about its performance. They started sending me canopies made of the new stuff to make a performance comparison between the ZPX and [standard zero-porosity] material. I jumped all over the opportunity, because it was something new for me to do, and I saw it as a challenge.
"Later that fall, I received the first 71-square-foot Sensei ever built. It was during the USPA Nationals at Skydive Spaceland in Rosharon, Texas, and I was filming a 4-way [formation skydiving] team. After the competition, I did a hop-and-pop; all I kept thinking on the ride to altitude was, 'Man, I'm the first person in the world to jump the 71, and all I have to go on is, "It should be OK." ’ I was relieved when it opened. I did some basic performance and control checks and, knowing that there were several anxious spectators on the ground, I decided to do a lazy 180-degree harness turn onto final. It was a decent swoop, and everybody was thrilled. That was really when I became a test pilot. It's advantageous to be a woman in a male-dominated sport. Women fly parachutes differently than guys [since they have] different wing-loading and strength issues."
What It Takes
Carl confides that the thought, "What the hell am I doing?" frequently strikes her. She says, "One particular jump was with a prototype made of sail-cloth material. I called it 'the hippo' because it packed so huge. The instructions were to concentrate on the opening since that was a major unknown, as that particular material had never been used on a parachute. The opening was a little strange, but I had fabric over my head. When jumping something new, there is always the question of, 'Will it work?' It keeps you on your toes. In the end, I have a parachute that is designed to fly and a reserve to rely on if it doesn’t. When the main opens, there is a huge relief, and I think, 'Thank god; it didn't kill me.' It's a job, but at the same time, it's exciting and rewarding to know you are advancing the sport. I get apprehensive every time I jump something new—it's kind of sick and twisted.”
"It's best to remain not just calm but happy," explains Germain, who routinely puts himself in a relaxed state on the plane ride to altitude. He continues, "You have to leave the brain open for the new experience. With each jump, there is always a little excitement and hope for a small step forward for the sport." On the plane, Germain meditates, smiles and tries to appreciate the beauty and value of the experience. After all the calculations, design efforts and kite testing, he is convinced that any given prototype will work in the real world.
Once out the door at 13,500 feet, Germain finds it critical to stay regimented. After a three-second delay, he deploys so that he has plenty of time to go through a whole host of tricks to find out if the design is stable. He confesses, "By pulling the cutaway handle, I'm admitting I was wrong. Consequently, I’ve landed many bad parachutes and have only 11 unintentional cutaways. The biggest fear for me is that I will continue to fly a bad parachute, and it will go away below 500 feet, which is why I use a Skyhook®."
According to LeBlanc, concentration and preparation are the key elements to a successful test jump. He says, "I first take into consideration how crazy and unproven the ideas might be. I do this more as the designer, since I've designed virtually all the prototypes at PD for over 25 years, but the background in test jumping is important, too. Most canopies are pretty predictable, but some of the early iterations of wild ideas can be really awful. Based on that assessment, we decide on the best test jumper for the first jump.”
LeBlanc continues, "The weird stuff is something I usually jumped myself, but more often than ever now, I may give it to one of our other highly seasoned test jumpers. They now have years of experience that has proven to me they can keep a cool head when under a parachute that isn't stable or doesn't fly at all. There is a lot of mutual respect here in the small circle of PD test jumpers. An already well-proven parachute with minor changes may be given to a relatively junior test jumper to help build his or her experience.
"When later iterations seem to meet our design goals, we finally enlist the help of experienced jumpers from our marketing staff at PD. This final step is more of an evaluation jump than a real test jump, since the canopy has been proven to be safe and perform well. On the actual jump, you are just there in the moment, doing what you've been trained to do, decisively dealing with the unknown if it crops up. It’s really exciting ... and fun."
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Germain's worst experience under canopy—albeit not a skydiving canopy—occurred on a windy day in 1993. Germain was testing a new paraglider on Cobble Hill in Vermont. He recalls the incident and says, “Most people were smart enough to not fly off the summit and were launching low on the mountain due to the strong gusts. Of course, I went to the top and took off—that was a terrible mistake.” Jokingly, Germain says, "I was demonstrating my freedom to be a moron."
He continues, "Setting up to land, I started a turn at about 80 feet when the right wing collapsed and lost about 75 percent of its lift. I spiraled into the ground and shattered my femur. With nine screws and a big plate, the doctors turned me into the Bionic Man. I spent my downtime thinking, 'There has to be a better way.' ”
This horrible accident led Germain to come up with the idea of installing a valve on the leading edge of a wing to keep it inflated. He built a 12-square-foot prototype and, still on crutches, climbed up five floors to the top of a building and tossed it off over and over again. After a few modifications, Germain ran into Uragallo, who kited the prototype and obviously liked what he saw, offering him a job on the spot. Ironically, Germain's worst experience led to one of his greatest design ideas and a successful professional collaboration.
LeBlanc says, “My worst experience is when I'm with a highly unstable prototype that I want to get rid of, but the job requires staying with it long enough to comprehend what is wrong before cutting away. Sometimes you need to stay with the prototype and repeat the maneuver that reveals the instability. You have to discover why it misbehaves. It can be very violent and very dangerous. You can really get hurt by the opening shock when the canopy re-inflates. You can possibly fall into the lines or the canopy, which is obviously bad. We also have a responsibility to the company to not lose the canopy by cutting away at 10 grand, so you stay with it. But getting thrown around like this can really make you feel sick to your stomach! Thankfully, this is a rare experience at PD now, but in the old days ...”
According to Carl, she's not had any bad experiences yet but goes on to say, “It’s kind of like riding a motorcycle; it's not a matter of if but when." She mentions one jump she made with a new canopy made of a proprietary material, saying, "It didn't feel right and didn't respond at all the way a parachute should. I tested all of the flight parameters to make sure it handled correctly and that I could land it, but it was definitely less than desirable. I wasn't sure if I could land it and thought about cutting it away. I kept flying it rough all the way to the ground, where I had a bumpy landing, skidding it out on my butt. I got up, brushed off the mud and grass and laughed. No big deal."
Carl continues, "I've had three cutaways, none related to canopy testing. Two were from broken lines and one a tension knot. Over the years, some hard openings have taken a toll on my shoulder, though. The pain drove me to have an MRI, where the diagnosis was a torn rotator cuff. Presently, I’m recovering from the surgery and grounded for a while."
Where Will Parachute Design Be in a Decade?
Germain says, "We're not done designing parachutes. We'll see improved fabrics and lower pack volumes. Maybe we'll see the return of the airlock, a one-way valve in the leading edge of the wing that allows air in and keeps it there. Maybe we'll see active pressurization, so even in slow flight the wing is stable. We might have an accurate audible for initiating hook turns. We might even solve some of the pipe dream designs of a perfectly smooth airfoil with high aspect ratios. There will be skinnier, stronger lines. We will always have new designs, because it taps into the spirit of the human being, and we continue to evolve."
Carl feels that the evolution of parachute flight is slowing down a bit and that the community will see more incremental changes in design. She says, “As computer modeling gets more use, it will be easier and cheaper [to design parachutes], but test piloting is still needed. There is no good way to turn a tethered parachute under load, and a lot of instability comes in turns.”
Carl also says, "We need more role models for women to come into the sport. Mine was Mary SantAngelo. I hope that now I can be a role model for some of the younger women who are thinking about becoming skydivers or, just as importantly, for the young jumpers who want to stay in the sport. You can't tailor canopies for women, but you can design rigs with comfort and style for any body size and shape."
LeBlanc says that it's hard to say where parachute designs will be in 10 years and that the answer to that question will depend on the choices the skydiving community makes. He remarks, "Parachutes perform well at the moment, and we'll see continued improvements. They will become more user-friendly and more capable. There will be more designs to suit more flying styles. Some jumpers want flat glide, while others want to dive at the ground like a re-entering asteroid. We can have safer skies with good DZ procedures. We need to follow the rules to protect us from fatal accidents so the FAA doesn't step in and overregulate us."
Although the future of parachute design is unknown, one thing is certain: Parachute designs have come a long way since the introduction of the ram-air in the 1970s. The skydiving community owes a lot to the efforts of its test jumpers, who take a lot of risks but may also have the best job in the world.
About the Author
Hal Streckert, C-35945, is from Rancho Santa Fe, California, and is a frequent contributor to Parachutist. As a weekend fun jumper, he has logged more than 430 jumps and has jumped in six countries—the U.S., Australia, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand and Uruguay.