Irrespective of how long you've been jumping, piloting today's high-speed canopies is not for the faint of heart. With thousands of landings on old zero performance canopies such as round 1.1s, PCs, Piglets, and Strato Stars, many of our founders are frankly fearful of fast canopies. Moreover, as canopy development continues in the present direction toward ever faster, smaller models, skydivers new and old need to be continuously educated on landing technique.
As one who recently returned to skydiving after a lengthy layoff (13 years) I knew I needed to get better acquainted with today's high-speed wings. They were obviously different from what I had been used to. Faster ... make that "swoopier" ... and although they looked to me to be more fun, there were too many people getting hurt under them. Wanting to avoid that, I set out to discover what I needed to know that I didn't about piloting these new canopies.
To provide some perspective, before learning these tips I'd rather have had to shoot down-wind accuracy on a round than land a small Z-Po 9-cell on a hot still day. Surprised? Remember that a landing in 110 F temperatures, say at Perris' 1,450 MSL, is like landing at 5-6,000 feet. One of the first persons I got turned onto was John LeBlanc, design engineer for Performance Designs. He explained that my old-fashioned notions about the handling characteristics of ram air wings have little relationship to designs now on the market. New high performance Z-pos are lighter and more durable, but they also demand much more attention to landing. Because what you don't know can hurt you, John tried to explain why I couldn't land a zero porosity canopy the same way as my old ram air.
Here is my understanding of how to land today's canopies. While some of these ideas, tips, and techniques are from John LeBlanc please remember that they are all filtered by an old time skydiver: all mistakes are my own. This is advice from a canopy expert interpreted by a relic:
Stepping up to the ground?
On a nice sunny day, John and I watched some landings at the DZ. He used his hands and feet to show me how, having picked my landing area, it should be done. 'You simply level out,' he told me. 'Convert your forward and down approach into forward speed. Eliminate any down for now, but stay inches off the ground.'
Inches? with a high forward speed? That seems scary; why not feet?
Says John: "The idea that neophytes should be several feet off the ground is okay for flying super big student gear, but it's not what the goal is, and is definitely not okay on the smaller stuff! Several feet up feels worse and worse as you go smaller, whether you're a neophyte or a self-acclaimed expert. As a result , we (Performance Designs) consider it unwise to go smaller (in canopy size) until you can consistently level out with feet at ground level under your existing canopy. Going smaller won't make it any easier, but rather it becomes more difficult!"
John compares good landing technique to getting off an escalator. "The down escalator is like the ideal descending approach, level off and landing." Escalators do offer a good canopy landing analogy. Both modes of transport demand coordinated, mindful movements at journey's end. Try visualizing a landing approach as John describes how your landing will resemble stepping off a descending escalator: "Now, think of an escalator. When it levels out, your feet are just below ground level by an inch or two. You can gently transfer your weight from the step (the harness) to the ground because you are at that level. The forward speed is no problem, because you're at ground level. You're stepping up onto the ground, rather than down to it."
"If the escalator dumped you off even as little as a foot high, the first few steps would be tough! This is because your forward speed is still there, as it will be on any no-wind landing. (If you level out too high) you crunch down with a (higher) rate of descent. This is why leveling off several feet up for neophytes is not a good idea. They have to come down sooner or later, and when they do, it will be with a (greater) rate of descent at the time of contact. With a little canopy, that will be a bad landing because it will hurt!" I mull this over.
There you are, storming across the turn, just above the ground. While you still have forward speed, your feet just brush the weed tops. As your speed decreases, you provide a tad more flare so as to maintain your feel of the grass. Then, just step up. Step up? Wait a minute, I protest. Easy enough for you to say that stepping out of my harness should be as simple as getting off an escalator, but if it's so easy why do so many people crash and burn? Obviously this analogy only applies to a smooth, known landing surface. Life and landing, I remind John, are both dangerous.
Yes, he agrees, "You are wise in emphasizing that brushing the feet applies to a known, smooth landing surface." and adds: but notes that "the altitude of your body should be the same, even if you're lifting your feet to stay clear of a poor surface until touch down time."
More importantly, John continues, "As wing loadings go over 1.1 lbs per sq. ft., this technique is a required for acceptable no-wind landings."
In my words, if you have a 150 square foot canopy and weigh 170 pounds, and your suspended weight per square foot of canopy exceeds a ratio of 1:1, then you gotta swoop the ground to avoid eating it. Then, a good landing will allow you to cautiously stand up out of your harness, starting from where the parachute is holding you up to where your feet are supporting you. The major tactile feedback is that your weight is transferred from your leg straps to your shoe soles.
Low wind landings and high speed dirt
What about the special challenges of no-wind landing conditions? "You will still stand up out of your harness," says John, "but you'll do so at a fast walk to a run, depending on canopy and wing loading. " The more wing load, the faster you'll have to run.
We watch several more landings in which many of the canopy pilots flare too high or too early. One thing hasn't changed about landing, I tell John. Landing softly requires precise timing. How do you time your flare?
He explains that if you flare too high, you'll land from higher up with an increased rate of descent, "if its done too soon, it results in a big gain in altitude, which means that you are too high (to land softly) again! " When you flare too high and then crash in on a little canopy, you'll likely get in a few front loops. Of course, if you flare too low or not at all, no matter what size canopy you're under you'll eat much dirt and still do several front loops.
People will laugh. Late flares are not considered good form; they tend to dirty your jumpsuit and gear. It's a good idea to avoid them, so you'll eat less dirt less often. As John adds that a good way to learn how, "is to figure it out on a bigger, more docile canopy. (less dirt eaten.)"
A backyard swing model
Remember the fun you had as a kid swinging in a backyard swing? You could go real high or not. You could even try to jump out at the top of the arc or lower. Or, if you had a littler kid in your lap, you'd just let the swing slow down to nearly stop and then just step out of the seat onto your feet. You do it so smoothly that there is no fear and no pain. It is satisfying. The little kid is happy but not scared. "The swing can be moving slow or fast, but if you get off at the right time, it's easy in either case." [to step out of the seat and onto your feet. No sweat, no fear. Like on a slow-moving swing, it's easier to time your touchdown under a bigger canopy], "The slow swing (big canopy) is easier to time, and the steps are slow. "
A fast moving backyard swing is something like a landing small fast canopy notes John, "The fast swing, (like a small canopy), is harder to time and the steps are quicker. But (even fast steps) don't hurt if you step (up) onto the ground at the bottom, when the rate of descent is exactly zero." Just imagine you are stepping out of that swing seat and onto your feet. If done smoothly it's fun, even satisfying. You've just had a good landing and you know it. But "Now try goofing on the timing ... get off on the upswing; things get real rough if you're moving fast! That is just like finishing your flare too high."
The transition from sitting in the harness to standing on the ground is subtle enough for another analogy. Thinking for a moment, he used a child's walking chair: and said something like 'I'm talking about those contraptions they put toddlers into. It's a seat with four wheels, and the kid's feet just barely touch the ground. They can paddle around and get into all sorts of trouble. Or they can quit paddling and just stand up. The difference is so smooth that they hardly notice whether it is their feet or the seat holding them up. That's what a good landing is like.' Yes, John said, "The walking chair analogy. Nice."
Putting this to practice, I find the idea of a two-stage flare is helpful for transitioning to the horizontal. First, flare with only about 6-12 inches of toggle. This converts the ground-rush into a swoop just above the ground. At the end of the swoop, when the canopy won't stay up any longer, depress (bury) the toggles for the second part of the flare.
After thinking about it, John added these remarks: "OK, I like the idea of a two-stage flare except for the part about burying the toggles at the end. This will make many canopies stall, and others might just quickly mush onto the ground. If your feet are at ground level, then this doesn't make much difference. You step up onto the ground just the same. But, if you haven't realized that you're a little higher than the ideal, you'll get a rude awakening when you bury the toggles. [Burying the toggles then] you drop down onto the ground with a thud."
He also strongly endorses flare-practice, before finial approach, while still high up, "I like... practicing the flare a lot. I do it on EVERY jump. its fun!" Practicing upstairs helps because you can hear and feel what your canopy is doing without the distraction of high speed dirt coming at you.
Keep "hands-on" canopy control
Canopy control inputs should be smooth and fluid, not abrupt and mechanical. Whatever landing you do make, says John, "you must still keep your hands controlling the canopy, even if you have the urge to swing your hands as you step (or run). If you are unknowingly moving the toggles, the canopy will do some unwanted maneuvers! People also use their hands for balance cause some pretty wild gyrations, too!"
However, "If you continue to fly the parachute properly when you are taking your first steps, [then] the parachute will continue to help support you during those initial steps. Again, this technique is not critical on a big canopy, but becomes more and more important as the wing loading increases."
So, remember, parachute canopies only do what you tell them to do. They are so responsive that heretofore unnoticed hand movements will give you yaw and cause you to veer off. In other words, they're responsive enough for perfect landings every time. Or they can turn a twitch into a turn. Keep your hands in sight so you always know what they're doing.
Smaller is not always smarter
While today's new smaller Z-Po parachute canopies are faster, most do appear to have wider safety margins than did the squares of yesterday. However, I'm convinced that going to a smaller canopy shouldn't be an automatic goal. For some of us, consistently painless landings require lower wing loadings via bigger canopies.
As PD's John LeBlanc puts it: "Square foot for square foot, today's canopies are generally more forgiving than those squares from years ago. But as you downsize from one size modern ram air to a smaller canopy of the same type, you give up some of that forgiveness.
"So, make sure you've really got things well under control before you even consider going smaller. On the larger canopy, little technique problems will not affect the softness of the landing noticeably, but the same poor technique will cause problems on the next size smaller canopy."
Pat Works, SCS-1
Legal Disclaimer: Serous injury or death can result from applying written techniques to a high speed sport. Although the quotes are from John LeBlanc, Neither he nor Performance Designs endorse, condone, apporve, or reccomend anything herein. Parachutes are dangerous: you could kill yourself using 'em.
Copyright 1994 by Pat Works
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