Choosing a Canopy

The choices you make when purchasing skydiving gear can literally mean the difference between life and death. The data on the causes of skydiving injuries and fatalities makes it pretty clear that nothing is more important when it comes to gear than the size and type of main canopy you choose to fly and the decisions you make while flying it.

When trying to make a canopy choice, new jumpers typically spend countless hours talking with more experienced skydivers and looking at information online, searching for the magic answer in a sea of mystery and data overload. Knowing just enough to be dangerous is often, well … dangerous. Fortunately, most experienced jumpers, instructors and Safety and Training Advisors (whose jobs are to provide help and guidance) care for new jumpers well. But it is easy to get confused when you’re a jumper with a freshly stamped A license in hand, looking for solid advice, and 10 people recommend 10 different canopy types and sizes! Adding to the confusion, some jumpers will simply give poor advice. It’s usually not intentional; they just don’t know any better.

One source you can turn to is the Skydiver’s Information Manual. Section 6-10 includes wing-loading recommendations and other guidelines that are especially helpful to newer jumpers. In general, once you are finished with student training, it is a good idea to be conservative and choose a larger, slower canopy that will serve you well for a lot of jumps and help you continue to improve your basic canopy skills. You should consider your A license as a license that allows you to continue learning. If you buy a canopy that is too small and fast for your skill level, it only creates additional risk for yourself and the jumpers in the air with you, and the only thing you are likely to learn is whether or not there is quality healthcare near your DZ.

As newer jumpers gain experience, many seem to grow restless and bored quickly, wanting to go faster under canopy because that is what the cool kids are doing. So, their gear swapping gets fast and furious. After just a handful of jumps on one canopy, they trade it for an even smaller canopy. This is where the majority of landing injuries begin to emerge. The stories are often very similar: A male jumper under age 40 with anywhere from 100 to 1,000 jumps who is jumping a new-to-him canopy at a wing loading of 1.4:1 or higher botches an attempt at a high-performance landing and hits the ground in a steep, diving turn. He has made a handful of jumps with the new, smaller canopy and, despite his lack of experience with the canopy, makes a poor decision to attempt a high-performance landing. For those who survive their bad landings, the injuries are usually a broken femur, pelvis or lower back or some combination of the three. The fatal accidents almost always involve injuries to the head and neck. There is little rhyme or reason regarding who survives with serious injuries and who is killed. The speed and energy generated by the turn play a large factor in the outcome, as well as the angle of the jumper as he strikes the ground.

For those of you who are growing restless and want to downsize, are you really ready for a smaller canopy? Chances are you still have a lot to learn under your current canopy and could stand to get some structured training from a canopy coach before downsizing.

Many very experienced skydivers have spent much of their jumping careers under conservatively loaded canopies. Others are happily upsizing to larger canopies after years of successfully flying small, cross-braced canopies. Longtime load organizer and former drop zone owner Chuck Akers is just one of the many jumpers who have recently decided to move to a larger canopy. He chose a canopy that not only flies more slowly than what he had been jumping, but also one that is more brightly colored so it’s easier for other jumpers in the air to see him. He explained why he decided to upsize: “I’ll just say I’m ready for my trip to the ground to be a bit more recreational. I truly love to fly fast, but doing so requires a lot of work, dedication to the discipline and constant vigilance to keep myself and my dear friends in the air with me safe. Every second under a hot-rod canopy is a lap around the track at full throttle. I hope anyone considering an increase to a high wing loading or a move to an ultra-performance canopy thinks about that before they pull the trigger.”

That wisdom comes from a longtime skydiver with more than two decades in the sport and 14 years of experience flying small, cross-braced canopies. In a sport that is often all about speed and going faster, slowing down can be a giant breath of fresh air. It can also help you live to be an older, wiser skydiver who can remain in the sport for a lifetime. Akers finished his thoughts with an offer: “Sunset high-pull, anyone? We can even leave our brakes set and watch the sun sink after an awesome day of jumping.”

Sounds good to me.

—Jim Crouch | D-16979
USPA Director of Safety & Training

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