If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. But if you have a bunch of different tools, you can use them to fix a bunch of stuff. Wouldn’t it be great to have a ton of tools for flying your canopy? Regardless of whether you have 5,000 jumps and fly a cross-braced canopy at a wing loading of 2.5:1 or 38 jumps and fly a large and docile canopy at a wing loading of 0.6:1, one of the most useful tools you can have is the mastery of braked flight.
Braked flight is such an important skill to master that it is included as a teaching and training exercise in the Integrated Student Program and again as one of the tasks on the Canopy Piloting Proficiency Card that jumpers must complete to receive a USPA B license. By introducing the skills early, the program gives jumpers the knowledge necessary to apply the techniques properly until they become second nature.
Before you start making braked turns, you need to know just how far you can safely pull your toggles down without completely stalling the canopy. The farther you pull the toggles, the slower the canopy will fly. As the canopy begins to stall, an aerodynamic stall occurs first. The sink rate increases and the forward speed decreases, but the canopy remains inflated, and you can still make heading changes although the canopy has technically stalled. Pull the toggles down more, and you will eventually experience a full aerodynamic stall (backward flight) as the canopy begins to fold in at the center and the back corners of the canopy come together. The larger the canopy and lighter the wing loading, the more toggle input you will have to apply to make the canopy stall. Once you know the stall point of your canopy, you can begin working on braked flight.
Flying in brakes can help you extend your glide during a long spot and help you travel farther. In some conditions, this can help you land at the drop zone when you might not make it back flying in full flight. Practice flying in brakes, and learn how it affects your glide in various wind conditions. Braked flight can come in handy during nearly every canopy flight, and in some cases, it can even help you avoid injury or death.
Before you begin any canopy exercise, carefully check your airspace to ensure you are in a clear area and not creating a traffic hazard for other canopy pilots. Working with a canopy coach using jumps dedicated solely to canopy training will make the training easier. While you can (and probably should) use a braked turn in an emergency situation near the ground, as with any new canopy maneuver, practice above 2,500 feet until you are thoroughly familiar with each task. Once you are ready, you can fly your landing pattern in brakes and perform a braked landing.
To perform a braked turn, start with your toggles pulled down evenly in braked flight. Pull them down far enough to slow the canopy speed as much as possible, but not so far that the canopy folds up in reverse flight—halfway to the stall point should be about right. From there you can turn the canopy using four different methods:
- Pull the toggle down more in the direction you intend to turn (pull right to go right).
- Let up on the toggle opposite the direction you intend to turn (let up on the left toggle to go right).
- Combine the two actions, pulling down on one side while simultaneously letting up on the opposite side (pull down on the right toggle and let up on the left toggle to go right).
- Keep both toggles pulled down evenly in a braked position, and turn by shifting your weight in the harness in the direction you want to go (shift right to turn right).
With each of the above methods, you will notice that the canopy turns smoothly with very little altitude loss compared to the same degree of turn performed in full flight. The canopy simply changes heading and won’t dive and accelerate as it would if you pulled a toggle down during full flight. Experiment with each method at various depths of braked flight. Practice flaring the canopy from a braked position, fly a landing pattern in brakes, and finish flaring the canopy for landing from the braked-flight position. If USPA has issued you an A license in the last 12 years, you will have performed braked flights and landings as one of the license requirements. But it is wise to continue to practice this maneuver and keep it fresh.
Braked flight, braked turns, braked approaches and braked landings are all great tools to keep in your skydiving-skill toolbox. When the time comes to use one of those tools, it will likely be necessary because you are working to stay above other canopy traffic, returning from a long spot, dealing with landing in a difficult spot or saving yourself from a turn started too low to the ground. Now that’s a great set of tools!