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safety : Canopy Control : Canopy Formation Part II

Canopy Formation Part II


Part 1 may be read here

Packing the Canopy

    You will want to pack your canopy for a CF jump in a way which will ensure that:
  • it opens fast and reliably
  • it opens on heading
  • all canopies involved open with identical timing

A good way to achieve this is to pack the main similar to a reserve canopy, as the requirements for a reserve opening are about the same. Indeed, many CF teams do so. Since there are different methods of reserve packing, it is recommended that all jumpers involved in a team or group should use the same packing method for safety reasons. Doing so reduces the probability of collisions and unintended different opening levels to make sure that each team member has an optimal set up for his way to the formation.

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Type of Exit and Exit Order

A good exit speed is 70 to 80 knots with little prop blast. Newcomers to CF will enjoy greater success if the jumpers exit one after another in the same way students perform “hop and pops” and remain stable. It is essential to remain in a symmetrical body position until the canopy is completely inflated to assure that the canopy opens on heading and continues flying straight until you want to fly your pattern towards the docking position. With experience comes a tighter exit timing, and this practice becomes even more important.

If your canopy does not open on heading you can easily end up in a dangerous collision or at least in a bad position during the approach to the formation. Also, other jumpers can be disturbed as they try to avoid the errant canopy.

In general you will exit in the order of your position in the formation. Competition teams might use different techniques to speed up the build of their first formation.


Teams with more experience will eventually develop an exit with two or three jumpers standing in the door, jumping with only very little delay, and pulling in sequence to create a perfect set up for the build of their first point. In this type of exit, the last jumper leaving the plane (front person in the door) deploys first. The next jumper deploys when he can see the beginning deployment of the jumper above. This leads to a set up with the lower canopy slightly in front, which creates a perfect set up for a final approach.

Set-Up for Building the Formation

In most cases it makes sense if the person flying the Base sets up on heading, flying with a little brakes and slightly lower than the jumpers that will dock next. That gives the next jumpers the potential to fly to their docking position because altitude is our fuel.

A good position for the final approach of a single canopy is slightly higher and to the side (perhaps slightly behind) of the canopy to dock, onflying parallel with it.

The optimum setup of course depends on the flight characteristics of the formation to dock on.

For docking on a fast sinking formation, it’s probable that the setup will be lower than for docking on a floaty formation. The necessary experience to estimate the perfect set up will only come with the jumper and quality of your jumps

Body Position

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To keep your canopy flying straight with even controls, body position must be symmetrical. Shoulders should be square and arms in a “box position” with legs slightly spread and bent as shown in the sketch of a stack. If you lift one leg from that position while stretching the other one your canopy will start to turn towards the stretched leg. If done with intention, this can be a useful tool. For example, a stair step formation might benefit from stretched-leg control. Bent legs also provide the potential to compensate for tension in a formation and to dampen oscillations.

Reducing Altitude

When getting into the setup position for your final approach to the formation you may find yourself higher than desired (if your are too low or far behind you won’t be able to get into the formation).

There are different ways to lose extra altitude without using much space. It always makes sense to stay in a small area because long distance movements take much more time. Additionally you may interfere with the waiting position of another jumper.

Furthermore, you might have difficulties estimating your exact position. Below, you’ll find methods of losing altitude.

Cross Controls

If it is important to use very little space, you can easily lose altitude by using cross controls. That means you’ll pull down one front riser, then compensate the move your canopy would now make by applying the toggle on the opposite side. Because the canopy is being distorted it sinks and will pick up speed to the distorted side. The toggle action evens out this momentum so that the canopy ends up sinking in place, assuming that the right balance is applied. Doing so you can get into the desired set up position for your final approach without disturbing another jumper in his set up position close to the formation.

Rear Riser Stall

A similar result can be achieved by performing a rear riser stall. To do so, you grab the connector links on your rear risers and pull them down carefully. This is not very hard to do. Because the main part of the lift is being created in the first third of the profile where the A- and B-lines are attached to the front risers, this is a fairly light pull..

At first, the canopy will begin glide flatter without losing much speed. This range can be useful if you find yourself far away from the drop zone on a down wind flight pattern and want to get as close to the DZ as possible. If l the risers are pulled down a little further, the canopy will smoothly begin to stall and sink very fast. This technique can help to lose a lot of altitude. However, it should be practiced with only two jumpers involved before being used in a big way jump. It is not recommended in a tight echelon as the canopy may come out of the stall bailing out to the side, and interfering with others in the lineup.

Rear Riser

If you are too low and need to gain altitude on the way to your waiting position, or if you’ve gotten behind the formation, you can use very light pressure on both rear risers to fly a fatter path without losing much forward speed. This has to be done very carefully because it you pull them down too much you will lose speed and only millimeters further, end up in the rear riser stall previously mentioned.

About the oldest technique to lose altitude is the “sashay.” The sashay begins with a radical toggle turn away from the formation and then a reverse movement as soon as the canopy has tilted to the side; this movement is stopped out with both toggles. It is not very efficient, utilizing a lot of area and you may lose track of your position relative to the formation. It takes a lot of practice to get good results with this radical maneuver.

Over the Top

Also from rotations comes the “rotation over the top“. The move begins with going to deep brakes quickly. As soon as the canopy rocks back grab both front risers and quickly pull them down without letting go of your toggles. It takes less force than you might expect because if done at the right moment, the front riser pull will coincide with the canopy having almost no lift and no tension on the lines. Next, you riser down little further than your final destination, release the risers, and swoop into your docking position by using the toggles.

Today some successful teams are using a combination of the two techniques mentioned above. However, these should be considered advanced skills, to be discussed in another article.

Techniques for Approaches

The most challenging part of a CF jump is the build of the initial two-way formation or the dock on a single canopy. Remember, a formation will usually not perform as well as a single parachute. Docking on a larger formation always gives you a little extra performance relative to the formation since you have a single canopy with all of its lift potential. Good technique(s) is/are required to dock with a single parachute of similar performance.

That means you’ll need to gain some momentum when attempting to dock on a canopy flying by itself. The only way to do so is by setting up higher and not too far behind the canopy you’ll be docking with.

The canopy to be docked upon should slightly hold  brakes to make things easier.

The docking jumper begins his approach setting from a position with his feet approximately at the level of the canopy he’s docking on; slightly behind or a little to the side. The approach is initiated by using front risers to pick up speed and controlling the direction of flight. Now pilot the canopy to a position slightly lower and slightly behind the final docking point. The final move is performed via toggles (reducing speed), swooping up to the desired level, and aiming the docking cell to the desired position (center cell for a stack or end cell for a stair step). It is essential not to have too much energy left when docking and also not to end up too low. If you end up too low the dock will fail. If you find yourself having too much left-over energy, you should abort the dock for safety reasons and use the potential energy to fly to a good position for a new setup and another attempt.

Building the Formations

In principle, there are only two or three ways of making approaches.

Building a Stack

To build a stack, the jumper who is docking sets up slightly behind and above the canopy he’s docking on while the jumper to be docked upon flies straight holding a little brakes. The lower canopy stays in brakes until the docking center cell has touched his back. If the dock is perfect and he has some experience, he can take foot grips hooking his feet behind the center lines. If not, he can release his toggles and grab the docking canopies nose get it into the right position and then take the foot grips. Having done so, the lower canopy pilot gets back on the toggles to control the formation. Never release the toggles before the docking canopy has actually touched you because if you do, your own canopy picks up speed and flies away from the canopy trying to dock.

In any case it is important that he releases both toggles evenly to prevent the formation from spiraling.

It is also very important that the docking pilot can see at least the lower legs of the jumper he’s docking on. Should the legs become shorter and shorter you need to add more brakes. It an absolute NO to pass under a jumper you intended to dock on. If you have the impression that this is about to happen you must abort the attempted approach by either stalling radically or turn away with one front riser pulled down. It can be extremely dangerous to fly underneath and in front of a formation because your burbles can cause canopies in the formation to collapse. Also you could lift up with the middle of your canopy under the jumper you wanted to dock on ending up in a wrap. That means if you perform any kind of dock on a formation you have to be in full control of your canopy at all times and able to abort if not. Otherwise you are not qualified to do CF jumps.

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Fig 2.2

If the docking canopy ends up higher than wanted, it’s not necessarily a problem. The docking jumper can park his canopy with his nose in the center against the lines of the top canopy and slide it down by moderately using his front risers until the top jumper is able to reach for his grips.

Approaches to lower positions in a stack or plane will need a lower set up than for high positions because the formation begins to sink more with its size - especially the “plane” formation.

Speed teams may still want to dock positions three and four from a higher position and perform a riser dock by aiming their slider to the jumpers feet instead of the center cell.

Building a Plane

A plane formation begins with a stack. Next, the top jumper climbs down the center A-lines and once the slider has been reached, he now hooks his feet behind the front risers of the lower jumper. The lower jumper helps by putting on some brakes to increase the lift of his canopy. If the top jumper needs to pull himself down on the A-lines, it must be done with uniformity to prevent the formation from oscillating sideways.

Building a Stairstep

The Stairstep is the second basic type of formation. The technique for building a stairstep dock is similar to the techniques explained previously but because the Stairstep is far less solid than a stack or plane, everything has to be done with lighter input and greater precision.

The set up for the final approach is slightly to the side of the formation. To make a clean straight and precise dock you’ll want to keep it relatively short with not too much potential. You may start with one canopy width to the side of your target canopy and your canopy slightly lower than the canopy to dock. The approach should be from the side rather than from behind so that the jumper to be docked upon has a good view of the line he wants to catch as well as remaining in the clean air to the side of the docking canopy. Also in this type of dock you should never get too low or lose sight of the target. The docking end cell should end up at the hip to the shoulder of the docked body. The docked jumper can now hook his outside foot behind the outside A-line of the docking canopy with his body staying outside the docking cell. If the grip taker should need to use a hand grip to guide the docking canopy to a good position for taking ther foot grip he has to be well aware to maintain his body position in the harness to prevent unwanted influence on the flight of his own canopy. The docking pilot puts on some outside front riser trim as soon as the top jumper has taken his grip to prevent his canopy from coming up on the opposite side. After having set his canopy by doing so he may release some of that trim or maybe even all of it. Sometimes it gives you enough trim to stretch the outside leg to keep the bottom canopy flying nicely. Sometimes no further trim is needed any more but still you should keep your hand on the outside front riser ready to apply trim again if needed.

The set up for stairstep docks in lower positions may be somewhat lower. None-the-less be aware that a stairstep formation flies fast and flat compared to other formation types. If your setup is too low your docking time may become very long.

The build of the stairstep, stack, or plane can of course also be done in reverse order with the lower canopy flying in little brakes and being the target and the top canopy flying  the approach. The technique is referred to as the Top-Dock and will be explained with techniques of sequential CF later on.

Flying in the Formation

As in free fall skydiving you have to keep on flying after you docked. In a stack for instance, especially in the bottom position, you need to make sure that your canopy does not get too light and floats up. All canopies should have slight tension on the center A-line to make the formation healthy.

In a plane it is important that all cells of all canopies are inflated. If not the jumper in question can reinflate his closed cells by putting on some brakes. Perhaps he will also have to maintain some toggle trim to keep his canopy’s nose open. Also a jumper next to a closed cell can help by pulling the nose open.

Good awareness is needed in formations with stairstep grips like stairsteps, diamonds or boxes. Especially jumpers in lower positions need to always keep their canopies from coming up or around. Possible techniques are: outside front riser trim asymmetrical leg position and inside toggle.

Signals within the Formation

To signal information to other jumpers in the formation there are two ways. You can either shout a command by addressing the jumper with his name or use certain signs. In bigger formations it is more convenient in most cases to use signals instead of vocal communication to avoid noise and confusion. The signs and commands to use must be known well to everybody. In case of vocal information you must never use negative commands. If for instance you shout “don’t cut away!” and the other jumper misunderstands he will cut away. In this case you should have said “hold on!” for example.

In large formations there are two very useful signals to the jumper below you: Twisting your foot sideways means the jumper whose canopy is on that foot needs to get lighter for example by putting on some brakes or easing the front riser pressure if possible.

Shaking the foot vertically means get heavy which means put on some front riser pressure or signal further down if the jumper(s) below is (are) light on you as well.

Piloting a Formation

Stack and plane formations always follow the top canopy and are controlled by the top jumper also called the pilot. The stair step needs more caution than the stack because it is connected less stable. Diamond formations act similar but in bigger formations the pilot might need some assistance by all the out side wing people to help keep the formation flying straight or to help turn the formation. Bigger diamonds are fairly inert. It takes some time to make a big diamond turn.

The most attention is needed in stair steps. In a turning stair step the bottom jumper always needs to compensate the change in the flight characteristic of the turning stair step versus the straight flying one. If the formation is turning away from him he needs to release some of his outside front riser trim and if the formation turns towards him he needs to increase the trim on his outside riser. Because the links in a stairstep formation are similar to pivot points these formations need to be turned very carefully.

Separating a Formation

Separating a formation needs at least as much attention as building one, especially for safety reasons. Also should it be done high enough. Bigger formations should be separated at 1.500m (5.000ft) and smaller ones at 900m (3.000ft).

Small formations can be split in reverse order of building letting go one jumper after another. The jumper whose turn it is to go shouts the names of the ones holding him and they drop him. Then he clears the proximity of the formation immediately to give room for the next jumper to leave it.

Larger formations in the shape of a diamond of up to 36 jumpers can be split by using a technique called STARBURST. The starburst is being started by the designated person calling “starburst! - starburst!” which is to be echoed through the formation. Then one person starts a count down calling “ok – ten, nine…..two, one, break!“ Everybody else joins the count loudly to make sure that everybody is able to hear it. On “one” everybody get his hands on the controls and on break lets go of the grips to fly out of the formation radially away from the center.

Peter A. Pfalzgraf
Rheingaustr. 24
12161 Berlin

By Peter A. Pfalzgraf on 2009-02-16 | Last Modified on 2013-04-18

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